Laughter & Tears: The cinema of Robin Williams
Another great one has left us. For more than three decades, Robin Williams graced the film and TV screen with an assortment of unforgettable characters, voices, and presences that will remain etched in our collective consciousness forever. He has passed away at the age of 63 of an apparent suicide. He joins Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a titan of his craft who has left us too soon, his passing shrouded in the angst and sorrow of a life that found itself trapped by depression and uncertainty. Thousands of obituaries will celebrate the great chronicle of his life as it was in public and private. But for those of us, his fans and regular viewers, who didn't know him in person, what will remain left to us by Williams is his legacy on film. His roles were many, and even in his weaker movies, that manic brilliance shone, that hurt tenderness in the eyes sometimes overtaken by his carrying voice.
And while Williams will best be remembered for his humor and brilliant impersonations, there was a real dramatic power in him that manifested itself in dark, haunting films.
A small selection of titles captures the breadth of the man's work. There are of course the comedies. One of Williams's most underrated comedic roles is his flesh and blood embodiment of the cartoon character Popeye in Robert Altman's 1980 "Popeye." Long before today's CGI extravaganzas, "Popeye" brought a cartoon world to life through sets and costumes, and especially through Williams's dynamic performance of the rowdy sailor man. It's a charming performance with a real sweetness at heart. 1987's "Good Morning Vietnam" featured Williams as an irreverent army radio DJ unafraid to ruffle the feathers of his superiors. In a time when audiences experienced the visceral reality of of the Vietnam War in films such as Oliver Stone's "Platoon," "Good Morning Vietnam" said important things through Williams's brilliant, energetic humor.
In the 1990s he blazed the screen in "Mrs. Doubtfire," a comedy dismissed by many critics when it first premiered in 1993 but which grabbed audiences immediately. It's a story of a divorcee (Williams) impersonating a housekeeper in order to be near his children, the role offered Wiliams the chance to play both hilarious impersonator and devoted father willing to do anything to be near his children. The makeup work is still impressive and Williams's capacity for chameleon acting makes it even more grand.
There was of course 1992's "Aladdin," the Disney animated film where Williams voiced the Genie who emerges from a lamp to help the poor street kid Aladdin win the affections of the local Princess Jasmine. It remains an iconic Williams role because the endless horizon of animation let him go wild. He switches from one character to another as the Genie takes on different personas. In one scene he goes from Jack Nicholson to William Buckley. It was virtuoso work.
There were of course the misses like "Jack," the strange 1996 Francis Ford Coppola film where Williams plays a character born with a deficiency which makes him grow rapidly older, so by the time he is in elementary school his physique is that of a 40-year-old. But even here Williams brought real life to the material. Even in its weaknesses, the powerful talent of Williams vibrated. There was also Steven Spielberg's "Hook," the 1991 adventure film derided by critics but loved by audiences where Williams plays a grown up Peter Pan returning to Neverland to save his children. A visually ravishing film despite a sometimes ludicrous script, Williams still managed to create a character who is an adult with a child hiding emotionally inside, screaming to come out.
And then there was Williams the actor of deep pathos and evocative power.
In 1989's "Dead Poets Society" Williams displayed his capacity to evoke intellectual characters in this engaging film about a professor opening the minds of young, aristocratic students through poetry. But in "Awakenings" Williams showed a real depth and tenderness as a doctor trying to help victims of an early 20th century disease that leaves them immobile. Robert DeNiro plays his main patient and the two create a two of real emotional strength. It is a tragic, but inspiring tale of friendship in an environment of illness and adversity.
In 1997 Williams won an Oscar for playing a therapist attempting to help a math prodigy played by Matt Damon in Gus Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting." There is a powerful maturity and wisdom in his acting here. He plays the role like a man who has walked many roads and dismisses the temptations and taunts of those in the ivory tower who want to use the prodigy for their own ends.
While Williams would go on to do more animated and comedy work in this period, he would still produce dramatic roles that were sharp and piercing. One great example is "One Hour Photo," the feature film directorial debut of music video director Mark Romanek. In the film Williams plays the lonely, disturbed clerk of a photo processing booth at a local supermarket. He becomes obsessed with a family that regularly brings their photos in for development. Williams plays the role with a focused intensity and quiet violence, he is like a silent human time bomb. The way he delivers his lines has such hurt and longing that it is heartbreaking.
Christopher Nolan, long before his "Batman" fame, would cast Williams as a murderous author in "Insomnia," also starring Al Pacino. Here too Williams plays a disturbed personality, but instead of a heartbreaking loner, he plays here a pathetic sociopath. So complete an actor was Williams that in both films he is never less than spellbinding.
There were many other film and television roles, and one could fill an entire dissertation on them. There is no doubt that Williams left a legacy on film for future generations to cherish and enjoy, to laugh with and be moved by. Despite the sorrow of his passing, and the nature of such passing, he has left us treasures that are timeless and that reach deep into our hearts, for that we thank him.