Good Will Hunting's Sean Maguire: My Hero

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Of all of the actors I was introduced to as a child, one sticks out in my mind above all of the others as having had the greatest impact on me: Robin Williams. Aladdin, Jumanji, and Mrs. Doubtfire were all staples in my childhood viewing rotation, and every time I watched them I was impressed by his tremendous talent and the sense of warmth he exuded in each one of his roles. I have a distinct memory from when I was around 8 or 9 of watching the previews on one of my VHS tapes, one of which was for Patch Adams. The trailer ended with a shot of Robin Williams walking away, with credits playing over the screen. In that moment, I was hit with the thought that as a reasonably healthy young person, I was inevitably going to outlive Robin Williams. This thought brought me great sadness, and in that moment I wished for a long and happy life for this great actor, because I did not want to live in a world without him in it.
In August of 2014, the tragic day arrived when I found out that Robin Williams was no longer with us. I was heartbroken, as I had known I would be, but when the tears passed, I had a mission: I set out to watch all of the great movies he had appeared in that I had never seen. Since I was a child, Robin Williams was my hero, even something of a father figure to me; and yet, it was only after his death that I discovered the movie where he played a character who fully encapsulated these qualities that I had always recognized in his persona even when he played lovable goofballs like Genie or children stuck in adult bodies like Alan Parrish. That character is Sean Maguire in Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, the role that won Williams his only Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor, after being nominated 3 times previously for Best Actor.

As Sean Maguire, Robin Williams plays a talented therapist enlisted to help reluctant math genius Will Hunting face his personal demons. More than anything, every time I watch Good Will Hunting I am struck by Sean's kindness. There are so many kindly cinematic therapists out there, and Sean Maguire could have been just another entry in that series of cliches, but Williams brings to him something much more meaningful. He takes a special interest in Will Hunting because he knows where Will is coming from: they originate from the same neighborhood and have experienced many of the same struggles. Sean's kindness is not that of an outsider looking in, but of someone who truly understands his patient and, as a result, knows he can help him.

In Sean and Will's first scene together, we see Will try the same tricks on Sean that he has tried on everyone else in his life: he tries to stump him with his intelligence, ward off his questions with impressive feats of intellect. But unlike everyone else, Sean does not take the bait, and instead dodges Will's comments with questions of his own. For example, when Will insults the books lining Sean's shelves, Sean asks if Will has read any of them; he does not take the sarcasm seriously and as a result, is able to catch Will off-guard in a way no other character has. But Will keeps on trying, and finally finds Sean's point of vulnerability: his late wife Nancy. Having found this weak spot, Will presses the issue, and Sean responds by pinning Will to the wall, threatening him if he continues to disrespect Nancy. He does not hurt Will, and this is the only time in the film that Sean reacts with violence. In this moment, he makes clear to Will that he has boundaries, and that Will must respect them.

It is the second scene between these two characters, the iconic park bench scene, where Robin Williams puts in perhaps the finest piece of acting in his career, while simultaneously delivering the monologue that cements Good Will Hunting as one of the most inspiring movies I have ever seen. Throughout the film, Sean is contrasted with Stellan Skarsgard's Gerald, a professor in mathematics who only sees Will as a genius, not as the troubled kid he really is. In his final scene with Will, we come to understand that he puts all of this pressure on Will because he is jealous: Will is much smarter than he can ever hope to be, and he cannot stand it. In his final piece of dialogue, he tells Will, "Most days I wish I never met you. Because then I could sleep at night. I wouldn't have to walk around with the knowledge that someone like you was out there. And I wouldn't have to watch you throw it all away." Much earlier in the film, in this park bench scene, Sean also admits that Will has been keeping him awake at night, but his thought process is completely different:
Thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting. Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me... fell into a deep peaceful sleep, and haven't thought about you since. Do you know what occurred to me? You're just a kid, you don't have the faintest idea what you're talkin' about. You've never been out of Boston. So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you'd probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can't tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You're a tough kid. And I'd ask you about war, you'd probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, "once more unto the breach dear friends." But you've never been near one. You've never held your best friend's head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I'd ask you about love, you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn't know what it's like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn't know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms "visiting hours" don't apply to you. You don't know about real loss, 'cause it only occurs when you've loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you've ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you... I don't see an intelligent, confident man... I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you're a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart. You're an orphan right? You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally... I don't give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can't learn anything from you, I can't read in some fuckin' book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I'm fascinated. I'm in. But you don't want to do that do you sport? You're terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.
Sean admires Will's intellect, respects it. But he also recognizes that Will is still a kid, a kid who has never actually experienced any of the things he talks about--all of his understanding of the world comes from books. As someone who has actually experienced art and life and love, Sean does not have to feel intimidated by or jealous of Will. He can cast aside such pettiness and simply be a friend to Will, in this giving Will the opportunity to let go of the false intellectual front he puts up and simply be himself. Each time I re-watch Good Will Hunting, I learn something new from the character of Sean Maguire, and on this viewing that was what stood out to me: Sean's overwhelming kindness in this monologue, as even amidst giving Will a lecture of sorts, he does not forget to reach out to his patient, expressing his excitement to get to know him if Will can only drop his act and allow himself to be vulnerable. When he finally does, in that climactic "It's not your fault" scene that I am sure everyone is familiar with even if they have not seen the film, it is a truly beautiful and heart-wrenching moment that brings unexpected healing for both characters.

Sean's final line in the film was, fittingly, ad-libbed by Williams: "Son of a bitch, he stole my line." The script called for silence and a happy smile on Williams' face, but even in a near-perfect script like this one, Williams knew where to make changes that made sense for his character. That was the kind of actor he was: he understood his characters and always knew how to make them feel real for the audience. But of all of them, Sean Maguire may just be the most perfectly realized, and I will treasure him--and the valuable wisdom he imparts throughout the film--for as long as I love movies. Thank you, Robin Williams and Sean Maguire. You are my heroes, and are truly the heart and soul of Good Will Hunting.

This post is part of the Inspirational Heroes Blogathon being hosted by The Midnight Drive-In and Hamelette's Soliloquy. Be sure to check out all of the other wonderful posts about cinema's greatest heroes!


  1. Holy crap! Except for the part about being an orphan, that quote could have been directed to me. And to think I have never gotten around to watching this. I guess I'll be watching it very soon now. Nice review.

    1. Sorry for the late reply! Yes, it really is a wonderful quote and I relate a lot to it as well. It's the kind of quote that reveals new insights each time you encounter it. I definitely recommend watching the film, it seems to have fallen a bit under the radar recently but it really is fantastic. This latest viewing has definitely cemented it as one of my all-time favorites.

  2. Oh my goodness. What a beautiful, thoughtful post! I've only seen Good Will Hunting once, but Robin Williams was far and away the best thing about it -- he made the screen glow with the kindness and sincerity he exuded.

    Have you ever seen Ordinary People? It also revolves around a troubled kid and his therapist, only played by Timothy Hutton and Judd Hirsch instead. I really like it too.

    Finally, have you seen Dead Again yet, in your quest to see all of Robin Williams' movies? Just curious! I really like it, and he does well as an intelligent, annoyed ex-psychiatrist.

    1. Thank you so much! Yes, I agree that Robin Williams is the best part of the film, he puts in such a heartfelt performance.

      I have not seen the two films you mention, so thank you for the recommendations! They sound right up my alley so I'll definitely be putting those at the top of my watchlist. It's interesting that so many of Robin Williams' drama films had him playing various types of doctors, with Patch Adams and Awakenings being some other ones. He definitely does a great job with these kinds of roles.


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