Robin-Williams

It is with a heavy heart that I sit here, scrolling through quotes and filmographies – memories really – of a man whose name is synonymous with laughter; though there is no laughter here.  There has been much said about Robin Williams since the news of his death stole the breath from the bosom of the world.  Not unlike Billy Crystal suggested in his recent Emmy tribute – the lights of the world have dimmed with his loss.

I was fortunate enough to have been born on the tail end of the 70s, so I was present – witnessing really – Robin Williams’ incredible career almost from its inception.  I always ranked him, along with Eddie Murphy, as the funniest comedian of the 80s and 90s.  But Robin was so much more than a comedic actor (which is not to suggest that Eddie isn’t), he was truly a thespian, whose anthology ranged from eclectic improvisational impressions to Shakespeare from memory to subtle, subdued innocence and awkwardness.  Robin Williams was funny – oh so very funny – but he was also one of the most talented and versatile actors of his generation.

In tribute to him, and to pay homage to the incredible breadth of his filmography, I present a retrospective of the top 10 films of his career.

Writer’s note:  At the time of writing this, I had yet to see The World According to Garp.  If after seeing it I feel that it changes any of the top 10 films, I will add an editorial.

 

Robin-Williams-Popeye

Popeye (1980)

In his first venture into feature films, Williams starred in the Robert Altman musical Popeye.  Released by Disney and marketed as a children’s film, Popeye remained true to Altman style:  characters mumbled through dialog, the colors are saturated, and the anti-chorus of songs are anything but “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”  This presents more like a European art house play then a Technicolor melody of color, characters and overt emotions.  You can see Robin Williams’ early talents of character acting – personified in his one-eyed squint and ability for “misck-pronun-sc-iation.”  Also, Williams showcased his beautiful singing voice and dance ability.  Like most Julliard trained actors, he was a triple threat.

 

Robin-Williams-Good-Morning-Vietnam

Good Morning Vietnam (1987) – Nominated Oscar, Won Golden Globe

During the hey-day of post-Vietnam Vietnam films (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket), Williams chose to address the war through the eyes of Adrian Cronauer – a fast-talking, quick-witted, radio DJ bringing joy and peace in the form of Rock & Roll to the soldiers fighting a controversial war.  Williams portrayed the real-life DJ with super-charged energy – landing some of the most memorable comedic quotes in film history – and then weaving very naturally into controlled, emotional empathy.  This is the first film  in which Williams illustrated his versatility, and his efforts didn’t go unnoticed; it garnered him a nod from the Oscars, and a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.

 

Robin-Williams-Dead-Poets-Society2

Dead Poets Society (1989)Nominated Oscar

Up until this point, Williams was still viewed as a strictly comedic actor with the ability to veer toward the dramatic.  Comedy was lowbrow, and only serious actors could handle the dynamics of a dramatic feature film.  And once again, Williams exhibited his ability to act by divorcing the spastic schizophrenia he was traditionally associated with and developing John Keating, a sensitive, educated, worldly professor in Dead Poets Society.  It was a crowning achievement in Williams’ career and earned him a second Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  It is widely suggested that he was snubbed by the Academy in favor of the erudite Jeremy Irons, who took home the win that year.  That being said, it was a stand-on-your-desk triumph of a performance that will forever be memorialized in the hearts of filmgoers for generations.

 

Robin-Williams-Fisher-King

The Fisher King (1991)Nominated Oscar

Williams’ career trend was to expand on his versatility and subject matter, pushing himself to the limits of his ability and adding a somewhat exhaustive list of personalities to his resume.  Only in the world of Terry Gilliam would he come to find a true challenge – the romantic lead.  In this modern-day fairy tale of a heartless and decaying New York City, Gilliam creates this fantastical world where Williams (seemingly effortlessly) weaves a brilliant performance that is poetic, and gentle, and outrageously vulnerable.  This film very clearly paved the way for him to later take on the visually epic love story What Dreams May Come, because love is a dream of whimsy and wonder, and so he made us believe in the Holy Grail that is true love – no matter how mad it seemed.

 

Robin-Williams-Birdcage

The Birdcage (1996)

Though some might question the validity of this film as an important staple in his filmography, one must not overlook the political climate of 1996.  Gay roles were few and far between, and not many straight actors (or gay ones for that matter) were signing up to bring this subject to the forefront of the American consciousness.  In a rare turn of events, Williams (a longtime San Francisco resident and avid supporter of the LGBTI community) appeared as Armand, a gay man in a long-term committed relationship, who has a fabulous house, runs a Cabaret show and is father to a grown son.  Long before there was Modern Family, The Birdcage showed a truly modern slice of gay life – one where no one dies of AIDS, or gets raped, or commits suicide out of shame.  It was poignant, endearing, and down right hilarious.

 

Robin-Williams-Awakenings

Awakenings (1990)

In Awakenings, Williams once again embarks on dramatics, but in an uncharacteristically introverted, even shy form. In stark contrast to Adrian Cronauer’s bravado in Good Morning Vietnam, and more nuanced then John Keating’s quiet but confident sophistication in Dead Poets, Dr. Malcolm Sayer is almost an unrecognizable Robin Williams.  He stumbles through his awkwardness – a brilliant mess, married to his work and nearly incapable of finding the humor in anything.  In lieu of relying on his multi-faceted personalities and impressions, Williams uses subtle idiosyncrasies to personify a committed Doctor, who learns to live again through the eyes of those who are chained to wheelchairs and beds.  Robert DeNiro is often credited and applauded for his performance in this, but it’s my belief that Williams brought so much to this performance and it’s one of the most overlooked in his career.

 

Robin-Williams-Aladdin

Aladdin (1992)Won Golden Globe for voicing Aladdin

Throughout the golden resurgence of Disney films in the late 80s and early 90s, female driven stories dominated the catalog. Most of the Disney characters were anthropomorphized males (Dumbo, Bambi, Mickey Mouse) or Princesses.  With the tiny rub of a lamp, all of that changed.  And suddenly, in a cloud of Technicolor smoke and Disney animator mirrors, “Genie” was born. Williams’ comedy acts were always traditionally R-rated adult comedy.   His “comic relief” required the uncensored freedoms of cable networks like HBO or feature films; so it came as quite a surprise to most that he was cast as the omniscient, all-powerful, laugh-a-minute, all singing, all dancing Genie in a bottle.  Needless to say, Aladdin was the first Disney film to ever have an actual human man (Peter could fly) as the main character, and it is widely suggested that it was Robin Williams’ brilliant performance that made this a relatable film to girls, boys, moms and dads alike.  Just like in Popeye, we were blessed with two threats (his comedy and singing voice) that lethal combination made Aladdin one of the highest-grossing Disney classics of all-time.

 

Robin-Williams-Insomnia

Insomnia (2002)

What do you get when you cross a young Christopher Nolan, with a bitter and tired Al Pacino, and a surprisingly evil and dangerous Robin Williams?  You get one hell of a suspense thriller and the biggest career leap ever attempted.  In the early 2000s, Williams took a departure from playing nothing but good guys and explored what he called his “dark period.” It started with One Hour Photo, followed by the dark comedy Death to Smoochy, but the masterpiece of his dark period was Insomnia.  Walter Finch is the worst kind of bad guy because you think what you’re getting is a John Keating-type guy, when really, all that refined language becomes a mask to hide behind, and all of that arrogance becomes motive.  Don’t let the bright light of the Alaskan sky fool you, this film is as dark as it gets, and Williams is an electrifying bad guy.

 

Robin-Williams-Good-Will-Hunting

Good Will Hunting (1997)Won Best Supporting Actor

There are too many things that make this performance stand out as incredible.  In a lot of ways, Sean Maguire is a culmination of all of the characters Williams has ever played – the sensitivity of Dr. Sayer, the gumption of Professor Keating, the rough edges of Adrian Cronauer, and the doe-eyed lover of Parry in The Fisher King.  The key to his success in this film was that he didn’t have to carry it entirely. Williams won the Oscar for supporting an otherwise generic Matt Damon/Ben Affleck pic and elevating it to a film that gave audiences something to connect with.  He was the game changer for not only the film, but the screenplay as well, convincing audiences that cliché’ phrases like “chief” were totally acceptable terms of phrase for an MIT educated guy.  We bought it, because Robin Williams delivered it, and his Oscar gold was well deserved.

 

Robin-Williams-Mrs-Doubtfire

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

In 1993, I was 13 years old and my parents were getting a divorce.  It was an extremely difficult time in my young life, but one thing really helped me make sense of it – watching Mrs. Doubtfire over and over and over again.  In this film Robin plays Daniel, a hilarious, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants comedian/actor who struggles to keep it together for the kids.  It was evident that this was a very personal film for Williams, as the material was very closely related to his personal life.  It takes place in San Francisco – his real-life home for many years – he plays a hyper, larger-than-life impressionist and actor – and he has 3 children, all around the ages of his real kids.  Films like Kramer vs. Kramer and Irreconcilable Differences tackle the same subject matter as Mrs. Doubtfire – the painful realities of families breaking apart – but the fresh take that this film had was invigorated by the devotion Williams brought to the role.  It was those crystal blue eyes – synonymous with warmth and laughter – piercing through an old wise face that promised you that no matter how bad, uncomfortable, challenging and painful divorces might be – you will laugh again, you will be okay, and that although the definition of family is ever-changing, it – at its foundation – starts with love.  This film is very important to me personally, as I think it is for a lot of children of divorce.  It’s hard not to cry through it – whether it be during the final monologue or during the dinner scenes where he attempts to retrieve a set of dentures from a wine glass while playing off of his famous quote from Dead Poets – “Carpe Dentum, Seize the teeth!”  It’s a clinic on the perfect combination of verbal and physical comedy, and of all of his iconic films I believe that Mrs. Doubtfire stands out as his masterpiece.

 

Honorable Mentions:  Not in the all-time top 10, but absolutely worth watching

What Dreams May Come: This is my wife’s favorite film of all time, and I am on punishment for not including it in the top 10.

Nine Months:  One of the best comedic supporting roles anyone has ever done

Death to Smoochy: Wickedly hilarious

Father of the Year:  Dark, troubling, but really honest and funny

RV:  Serious gross out humor with lots of chuckles

Being Human:  not a good as his other dramatic roles in my opinion, but worth a watch

Patch Adams:  A little fluffy with a heavy-handed score, but also worth the watch

[Editor’s Note: Hook: Bangarang forever]

I welcome you to use this retrospective to pay homage to an incredibly generous and gifted actor who has given us so much to remember him by.  And to those of you that knew Robin personally, I offer my deepest condolences, and can promise that his memory will forever live on in the hearts of all of us. We laughed with him, we cried with him, and he taught us all that “what some folks call impossible, is just stuff they haven’t seen before.”