It was with great sadness that the world received the news that Robin Williams had been found dead, suspected of taking his own life. It is always a tragedy when someone commits suicide, but when it is someone who has brought so much joy and laughter and fun into the world, it is particularly sad.
As a comedic performer, Robin Williams was a force of nature. With his mouth going at a hundred miles an hour and still seemingly struggling to keep up with his mind, he was an explosion of physical and verbal energy. As his career progressed from stand-up comedian to sit-com star to screen actor, he began to show that in addition to his comedic talents he could really bring something to dramatic roles. When Williams reined in that energy and slowed himself down he had a powerful but calming screen presence. He would be nominated for three Best Actor Academy Awards, as well as winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
So in recognition of one of the great talents of my lifetime, I offer six of the best performances from Robin Williams.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Barry Levinson’s Good Morning,Vietnam was the film which first showed the world Robin Williams’ potential as an actor. As Adrian Cranauer, a disc-jockey for Armed Forces Radio, Williams is in comfortable territory playing a comedian and gets the opportunity to improvise around a script, kick that motor-mouth into gear and do what only he can do. But as hilarious as Williams is, the movie is not a comedy, and his character is placed in positions and situations which demand emotional depth from his performance. Good Morning, Vietnam is the perfect blending of Williams’ comedic and dramatic abilities and appropriately earned him his first Oscar nomination.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
In Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society Williams played John Keating, the teacher we all wish we could have had. Keating inspires in his students a passion not only for learning but for life, with his instruction to his students: “seize the day, make your lives extraordinary.” Williams effectively plays a young idealistic intellectual, marrying restraint with moments in which he still gets to riff – Keating’s impression of John Wayne doing Macbeth seems to be straight out of the Robin Williams saddlebag. While elements of the film are a bit thinly drawn, and this is Williams in full-blown sentimental mode, it is near impossible not get goosebumps as the students one by one stand up on their desks to declare their allegiance to their teacher: “O Captain, my Captain.”
Not quite as high profile as some of Williams other films, Awakenings was a real change of direction for him as an actor. He plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, an inexperienced, soft-spoken psychiatrist who finds himself working in a Bronx psychiatric hospital where a new drug is reviving patients who have been in a catatonic state for many years. What is interesting about this performance, is that for possibly the first time in his career, Williams did not play the dominant personality on the screen. As a patient revived after thirty years trapped in his own body, Robert De Niro has the more showy role. Williams’s role does not allow him to fall back on any of his usual shtick, but he rises to the occasion, holding his own opposite one of the all-time greats of screen acting.
The Genie in Disney’s Aladdin is the pure physical embodiment of Robin Williams’ imagination. At the moment he is released from the lamp, we finally get to see a character with the freedom of form to keep up with Williams’ mind. The Genie owns the movie, completely overshadowing all other characters, and it is hard to imagine that Aladdin would hold its place in the pantheon of great Disney animated features without Williams. Aladdin was also a game changer for movie animation. Where animation had previously been the realm of the professional voice actor, the overwhelming response to Williams’ Genie showed studios, for better or worse, the potential of big name stars in animated movies. Without this performance there is no Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as Woody and Buzz, no Eddie Murphy as Donkey, no Jack Black as Po.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Young screenwriters Matt Damon and Ben Affleck referred to the role of Sean Maguire in their screenplay of Good Will Hunting as the “Harvey Keitel part.” Like Keitel’s role in Reservoir Dogs, this was the role for an established star who could bring instant credibility to this small independent film. When Robin Williams committed to the role, all of a sudden it became much easier to get the film made. While Williams’ involvement was great for Damon and Affleck, it was pretty good for him too, finally earning him an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor. Playing a counselor to a brilliant but troubled young man, Williams took the fatherly persona he had employed in Dead Poets Society and gave it a harder edge. Sean Maguire was a man who had experienced loss, tragedy and hardship and Williams captured all of that beautifully.
One-Hour Photo (2002)
This is a slightly left-field call given its inclusion at the expense of an Oscar nominated performance in The Fisher King, but it warrants a mention because it shows another element of Williams’ versatility. In 2002 Williams made two films in which he played the villain; Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and Mark Romanek’s One-Hour Photo. Insomnia was the better film, but One-Hour Photo was the better Williams’ performance. Williams had done restrained before, he had done quiet before, but he had never done bland before. In becoming Seymour Parish, Williams entirely strips away the persona we associate with him to become so bland and beige that he is almost faceless, and in turn becomes incredibly unnerving, creepy and ultimately sinister.
By Duncan McLean