Robin Williams Tribute
By Sean Daly
Robin Williams merits the highest praise one can bestow upon any artist—he was courageous. In an industry where so many performers mail it in or conform to expectations, Williams was never content to be mediocre or even just good. Such ambition sometimes produced spectacular results, sometimes not so much, but a lack of effort or passion never doomed a Robin Williams performance, as he always strived for greatness. While he wasn’t a complete original in that sense, he was damn close to it.
His career was also close to completely original. Indeed, it’s challenging to compare Robin Williams to any other mainstream performer of the past 50 years. There are some parallels, at least in a comedic sense, between the manic energy he often displayed and that of other comic actors such as Jim Carrey, Chris Farley, and his good friend John Belushi but Williams easily eclipsed them all in terms of his dramatic work. Oddly enough, I’ve always likened the career of Robin Williams more to that of Tom Hanks than anyone else. It makes more sense than it seems at first glance.
Both Williams and Hanks first came into the public eye about 35 years ago on iconic-but-dated ABC sitcoms (Williams with Mork and Mindy; Hanks with Bosom Buddies). Both quickly parlayed their modest television success into starring roles in films that played a lot during the cable explosion of the mid-1980’s (Williams in Club Paradise and The Best of Times; Hanks in Bachelor Party and The Money Pit) that, in reality, weren’t very good but branded them as film stars nonetheless. Both finally found a project in 1987 worthy of their immense talents (Williams with Good Morning Vietnam; Hanks with Big). Both then rocketed to numerous other acclaimed performances and box office smashes—as well as enduring several flops. Both despite being known initially for comedy generally excelled more in dramatic roles. And both, despite their wildly contrasting personas and lifestyles, oozed decency, though Williams was always able to distort his innate goodness to fit a villainous character better than Hanks ever dared to.
Yet while the legend of Hanks results in pedestrian fare like Captain Phillips garnering mass critical acclaim and hundreds of millions in worldwide box office gross, Williams’ film career sagged to the point of being demoted back to Sitcom-land with 2013’s The Crazy Ones, a show canceled after just one season. The career gap between the two actors became depressing, particularly since Williams was arguably the superior talent, but, with superior talent often comes insurmountable personal obstacles, as constantly striving for greatness will take its toll on anyone. But I’ll stop with dime store psychology and skip any discourse on addiction, depression, or suicide. I’d rather just pay tribute to a singular actor by listing what I feel are his best five film roles.
Honorable Mention: Insomnia (2002); The Birdcage (1996); Mrs. Doubtfire (1997); The Fisher King (1991); The World According to Garp (1982)
5.) Awakenings (1990)
Williams played Dr. Malcom Sayer, a socially awkward neurologist at a Bronx psychiatric hospital whose experimental use of a drug leads to one of his patients, Leonard (played by Robert DeNiro), emerging from years of catatonia. Similar to his role in The Birdcage, Williams is essentially the straight man here, reacting to DeNiro’s flashier performance in a way that grounds the viewer and makes them invest in the story. While Dr. Sayer’s noble professional efforts ultimately prove to fail with Leonard, the confidence he gains from nearly succeeding brings him out of the shell that mirrors the awakening of his patients. DeNiro predictably received more critical raves coming out of Awakenings but without Williams to anchor the film, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it did.
4.) One Hour Photo (2002)
Here’s the one entry on the list you maybe haven’t seen but go out of your way to do so. Williams plays Sy Parrish, an unstable photo processor who takes his job more than a little too seriously, especially when it comes to a young married couple with a son who are frequent
customers. Sy places the family on such a pedestal that he deludes himself into thinking he’s part of it, only for everything to crash down when he sees a provocative picture of the husband with another woman. Similar to his role in Insomnia, Williams brings no humor or
charm whatsoever to his performance, making it all the more chilling when he snaps. It’s a spot-on portrayal of a desperately lonely, ultimately psychotic man who we probably see every day and think nothing of…but may, in turn, be thinking a lot about us. Does that
creep you out? See this movie—and Williams’ brave performance—and you’ll really be creeped out.
3.) Good Morning Vietnam (1987)
Good Morning Vietnam represented the breakthrough for Williams in that all of his mania was finally harnessed for the good of a film. The movie is based on the true of story of Adrian Cronauer, an ad-libbing, motor mouth disc jockey who gains great popularity broadcasting to the troops in Vietnam. A lot of Williams’ improvised comedy bits in the movie don’t necessarily hold up outside of a movie theater filled with laughter but he crushes the role despite this, slowing down long enough to also provide the humanity needed to give the viewer a full picture of the hell of war. Give credit to director Barry Levinson for being the first filmmaker to help Williams shine.
2.) Dead Poet’s Society (1989)
One of the three Williams films to be considered classic in the minds of most (along with Mrs. Doubtfire and the still to-be-announced number one entry), Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society reels in its star way more than Good Morning Vietnam did but gives Williams enough room to also charm his students with improvised humor. With his outward energy pulled back a touch, Williams effectively internalizes his passion to display more magnetism in Dead Poet’s Society than in any of his other roles. He actually appears in well under half of the movie’s scenes but his work was strong enough to be what you take away and keep in your memory above all else, even 25 years after the film was released.
1.) Good Will Hunting (1997)
Williams plays Sean Maguire, a from-the-projects psychologist made good who counsels Will Hunting, “a boy genius from Southie” in Maguire’s words. Williams, whose Julliard background occasionally left him prone to sounding like he’s reading Shakespeare lines, is
perfectly convincing here, able to outwit his gifted, street smart patient in a way that felt legit. Scenes between shrink and patient are more often than not melodramatic in film but Williams and Matt Damon manage to make them standouts. Part of this was due to the sharp dialogue in the script, something the notoriously improvisational Williams was wise enough to leave alone. The result was the most
enduring performance in a career that will endure long after his tragic demise. May you find the peace in the next life you weren’t able to find in this one, Robin Williams.