[12 August 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Born in Chicago, he splashed onto the scene, suddenly, like a successfully launched Apollo space capsule, his rat-a-tat reflexes and verbal gymnastics taking more than one mid-‘70s TV viewer aback. No one had ever seen someone like Robin Williams before, a Julliard-trained shaggy haired hippie holdover in a cherry red alien outfit who acted like he was indeed from another planet.
He was part Chaplin, part Pryor, an ad-libbing maniac who tossed every imaginable idea, accent, social taboo, and current event talking point into a blender, mixing them up in his mind to then blather on non-stop, weaving his own Rumpelstiltskin like web of mischievous comedic gold. After being introduced on the popular sitcom Happy Days, Williams received his own spin-off shot at stardom, the surreal laugher about an extraterrestrial and his platonic bond with an Earth girl entitled Mork and Mindy. A huge hit, it wasn’t long afterwards that film came calling for the then 29-year-old “overnight sensation.”
From then on, Williams rose in the ranks, becoming the funny man du jour for a good portion of the ‘80s and ‘90s. But he also balanced his frantic sense of humor with a deep understanding of drama and human hurting, eventually earning acclaim and awards for same. For every The Survivors, there was a Dead Poets Society. For every flight of fancy like Toys or Hook, there was a dark, more devastating What Dreams May Come, or Bicentennial Man.
By the new millennium, he became one of those “anything for a paycheck” punch lines, a reputation that still dogs stars like Nicolas Cage and Robert De Niro, but even at his worst, Robin Williams was enigmatic. And at his best, like the ten performances we have highlighted here, he proved that, sometimes, there’s a huge hollow place inside the otherwise fun loving clown. While his untimely death will resonate in the now, it’s these films, and many others, that will guarantee his star stature for decades to come.
After proving his comedy chops in several standout films, Williams wanted to showcase a different side of his talents. So he took on the unglamorous role of Dr. Malcolm Sayer (a stand-in for the real life psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Sacks), a researcher trying to uncover why a group of catatonic patients have been unreachable for so long. Robert De Niro plays his “star” standout, a man who responds well to an experimental drug treatment, only to see his new life fade away once it wears off. Using his hound dog demeanor and onscreen likeability, Williams wins us over without a single snicker or snide comment.
Williams won an Oscar for his portrayal of a therapist asked to help a reclusive/reluctant genius played by Matt Damon. Together, they uncover personal secrets as well as spar over the meaning of life and death. Williams is especially effective in the scenes where he discusses his love for his late wife, from the moment they met (and missed the 1975 World Series) to her sad, tragic end. There is also a mutual past filled with loneliness and physical abuse. Together, the duo unlock each other’s loss, bringing the movie to an emotional epiphany that earned it all manner of Academy Awards love.
Working in fellow stand-up Bobcat Goldthwait’s bitter black comedy about fame and finally facing the music, our star plays a distant dad who longs to be a famous writer. When his last book fails, he vows to give up. As (bad) luck would have it, his angry and defiant teenage son dies of autoerotic asphyxiation and, seeing an opportunity, our wannabe scribe starts putting words in his dead boy’s… pen? He fakes a suicide note, and when that becomes an adolescent “hit” he forges a journal. Soon, he’s the celebrated author he always wanted to be. A final moment of confession, set to Queen’s “Under Pressure,” is stunning.
The late great Paul Mazursky cast Williams in this resplendent, Reagan-era celebration of Manhattan’s melting pot and the personal side of the still frigid if slightly thawing Cold War. Playing a touring Russian musician who defects to the US during a trip to Bloomingdales, what follows is a magnificent deconstruction of the immigrant experience circa the mid-‘80s, life in the big, heartless city, as well as a love letter to our country’s freedom and liberty. While today, the movie plays like an overly optimistic propaganda piece, Williams works is illuminating. Under a heavy beard and equally thick accent, he becomes this stranger in a strange land.
One of the big criticisms about Williams over the years is that filmmakers could never find an onscreen outlet for his onstage comedic shtick. More stream of consciousness than outright stand-up, such free flowing ad-libbed funny business just didn’t seem to work on camera - until this Barry Levinson hit. Loosely based on the experiences of Vietnam-era AFRS radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, Williams excels as a motor-mouthed on-air announcer whose unconventional banter drives his superiors to a bit more than distraction. Thanks to the format and the premise, our lead got to “let loose,” turning a simple fictional overview into a stellar tour de force.
While actors and actresses both serious and silly have frequently done animated film voice over work, no one took it to the level that Williams did here. Playing a shape-shifting genie hoping to help the title hero win the day (and he, his freedom), the nonstop wit that the comedian displayed as a stand-up came across here is beautiful pen and ink insanity. Williams work here was also important outside the film. Feeling slighted by Disney, he demanded more money and recognition. After initially replacing him for a direct to video sequel, the two made up, Williams earning more consideration for all voice-over talent.
For those who believed that his ebullient personality would never allow him to play creepy or evil (as in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of Insomnia), this Mark Romanek film is proof of how wrong that evaluation was. Here, Williams is a photo technician at a Wal-Mart like retail outlet. Obsessing over the pictures of families that he processes on a daily basis, our hero soon becomes dangerously fascinating by a young couple and their child. Worshiping their happiness and social status, he is determined to “become part of them.” When rebuffed, his longing takes on a more sinister bent. This is perhaps one of Williams’ most under-recognized roles.
While still an on-the-rise stand-up, and fledgling TV star (Mork and Mindy was in its final season), director George Roy Hill picked Williams to play the title role of T.S. Garp in this freewheeling adaptation of John Irving’s famed novel. More or less an everyman surrounded by eccentrics, ideologues, and the day-to-day drudgery of family, the soon to be superstar was perfect in the part. As a matter of fact, when you go back to his earlier work and watch Williams “act,” you can see his internal process of controlled chaos sitting silently behind his eyes, giving each scene a hidden dimension of depth.
With a terrific Jeff Bridges as his co-star and the dazzling work of Terry Gilliam behind the lens, this masterpiece of a movie is frequently lost among the more showboating pieces in the comic’s extensive catalog. Playing a homeless man who has a connection to a shock jock radio DJ, Williams walks the fine line between Method and melancholy, coming up with a tender and touching portrayal of anger and dealing with loss. From his “date” with a confused Amanda Plummer to his butt-naked romps in Central Park, Williams works hard to make this man - and his shattered psyche - believable, and he does so, magnificently.
Without a doubt, this is the best work Williams ever did. It was also his first film (unless you want to count the sex comedy Can I Do It ‘Til I Need Glasses?). Robert Altman was a weird choice to direct an adaptation of the kiddie comic classic, but he made a masterful decision when he hired the acting novice. Lost in an emblematic make-up job and doing his best to mimic the character’s voice and mannerisms, Williams not only got to deliver Popeye’s signature malapropisms, but he was allowed to sing and dance as well. While many dismissed this film when it was first released, it has now becoming a respective, and representative, tribute to a truly gifted performer.