Dead Poets Society (1989): Peter Weir’s Oscar-Winning Ode to Charismatic Teachers, Starring Robin Williams and Ethan Hawke

 Buena Vista (Touchstone Pictures Production in association with Silver Screen Partners IV)

Though contrived and sentimental, “Dead Poets Society” touched the hearts of many young viewers, considering the critical and commercial success of the film, a period paean, a valentine to intellectually inclined teachers and their students.

Robin Williams plays John Keating, a charismatic, ultra-dedicated English teacher at a staid Vermont prep school circa 1959, whose infectious love of poetry, and insistence that each boy gets individual treatment and develops his unique skills, inspires his impressionable students.

Going against the grain, the place’s rigid rules and stern education methods as defined by headmaster Nolan (Norman Lloyd), Keating ignores conventionality and opens a whole new literary and cultural world to his students, one with the potentiality of changing their outlook and even their lives.

Under the disciplined direction of Peter Weir, Williams gives a restrained performance (at least by his own standards), and the film boasts many young actors, such as Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, who would assume greater role in the American cinema of the 1990s.

The film is not particularly deep, and it depicts teaching as a one-sided interaction, which is erroneous for we never get a sense of what teaching gives back to Keating—or what kind of man he is outside school.

Like most Hollywood films, “Dead Poets Society” sides with its rebellious teacher and students and describes their parents in a rather negative and one-dimensional way.

This anomalous picture was extremely well-marketed by the studio as a prestige item, which might explain its status within the industry. The movie received four Oscar nominations, winning the Original Screenplay Award over tough competition from the scenarios of such indie hits as Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and Soderbergh’s Sundance smash, “sex, lies and videotape,” both of which were more audacious and controversial.

Indeed, as scripted by Tom Schulman, “Dead Poets Society” is enjoyable, middlebrow fare, the kind of which always appeals to the old, conservative Academy members.  That it embraces the “right” values (passion, love for poetry, idealism) and glorifies teachers was also a plus, sending the right message at a time when education in the U.S. has severely declined.

The critic David Denby dismissed the film as an exploitation of teenage self-pity under a guise of being a celebration of creativity, and there is support for his charge.   See for yourself an emotional work that sharply divided film critics.


John Keating (Robin Williams)

Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard)

Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke)

Knox Overstreet (Josh Street)

Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen)

Richard  Cameron (Dylan Kussman)

Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero)

Gerard Pitts (James Patterson)

Mr. Nolan (Norman Lloyd)

Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith)

Oscar Nominations: 4

Picture, produced by Steven Haft, Paul Junger Witt, and Tony Thomas

Screenplay (Original): Tom Schulman

Director: Peter Weir

Actor: Robin Williams

Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context:

The most nominated film in 1989, “Driving Miss Daisy” received four Oscars out of its nine nominations, including Picture, Screenplay, and Actress.  The biggest scandal was that the film’s director, Bruce Beresford, failed to receive recognition from his peers in the Directors Branch.  The other Best Picture nominees represented a mixed bag in genre and quality: Oliver Stone’s Vietnam drama “Born on the Fourth of July” with 8 nominations, “My Left Foot” with 5, “Dead Poets Society” with 4, and “Field of Dreams” with 3.

Daniel Day-Lewis deservedly won the Best Actor Oscar for “My Left Foot,” and Oliver Stone won Best Director for the Vietnam War drama, “Born on the Fourth of July.”