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R.I.P. Robin Williams

August 12, 2014

In the introduction to an interview he did with Pete Townshend for Musician magazine, Bill Flanagan called him “the rarest of men – he gives in to his impulses and analyzes what he’s doing the whole time”. That certainly describes Robin Williams, who died yesterday at 63. It’s part of what gave his stand-up, at its best – and at its best, Williams was one of the greats, just below Pryor and Carlin -its charge; wherever his free-association came from (his addictions, his agile mind, the madness of his life, or a combination of all of those), it was dizzying to watch, and at the same time, you wondered just how he processed all of it. In fact, he did as well; one of his great early routines was taking you inside the brain process of the typical stand-up comedian, and he did a brilliant riff about comedy on Inside the Actors’ Studio, among other places. The capacity for giving in to his impulses while analyzing why he did so is also what seemed to make him candid in interviews when he talked about battling his demons (his addictions, his failed marriages), and it managed to tie together both his cerebral (he’d often reference Einstein, Gandhi and Shakespeare, among others, and lest we forget, he attended Julliard) and scatological impulses (he also did a whole routine on Lorena Bobbitt when she was in the news) both in his act and during his interviews. Stand-up appearances, and talk shows, was where he could both give in to his impulses and analyze them, and make doing both funny. Movies are a different medium, of course, and there were certain impulses he gave into some of the movies he made that didn’t bring out his best side (I’m afraid I’ve never been a fan of Popeye or Mrs. Doubtfire, for example). But when he was at his best, he was able to show how he was more versatile than you might think. Here are my favorite Williams performances on film:

(1) The World According to Garp: John Irving is a novelist whom I’ve never quite been able to warm up to, as I’ve often found him self-consciously quirky (except for The Cider House Rules). When George Roy Hill and Steve Tesich adapted the film in 1982, however, they played it straight (just as Hill did a decade earlier with another adaptation of a strange novel thought unfilmable, Slaughterhouse Five), and it works. The movie was also the first demonstration Williams was perfectly capable of submerging himself into the part instead of tailoring it to suit his persona. Though he admitted in an interview with Rolling Stone that he might have done the role even better at the time he gave the interview (1988) because he knew more then about being a parent than he did while making the movie, he still shows someone totally devoted to his kids (the scenes where he just wants to watch them work very well). He’s also convincing as a writer and as someone who loves his activist mother (Glenn Close) even as he’s exasperated by her sometimes. Williams isn’t the only one who shines in this movie – Close, Mary Beth Hurt (as Williams’ wife), and John Lithgow (as a transsexual former football player) are all terrific as well – but he’s the one who holds it all together, and make Irving’s quirkiness endearing instead of being annoying.

(2) Moscow on the Hudson: Many directors who broke out in the late 60’s-early 70’s had trouble during the blockbuster era of the 80’s. One of the few who seemed to flourish, after a slow start, was Paul Mazursky, who made a string of comedies (even Enemies: A Love Story finds comedy in its dark subject matter) that were both funny and genuinely intelligent (Moon Over Parador was the weakest of them, but it had its moments). His streak began with Moscow on the Hudson, which saw Williams play a Russian saxophonist who, while visiting in New York City with the Moscow circus (whom he plays for) decides, on an impulse, to defect in Bloomingdale’s. The rest of the movie deals with the consequences of that decision. The central joke of Mazursky’s film is that everyone is trying to assimilate in their own way, from Fernando Rey (as the immigration lawyer who helps him, to Cleavant Derricks (as the Bloomingdale’s security guard from Alabama who takes Williams in), and to Maria Conchita Alonso (as the perfume sales clerk whom Williams falls in love with), and while Mazursky is generous with all of the characters (even the KGB agents who warn the members of the Moscow circus against defecting are overwhelmed by New York City), he never lets the film dive into sentimentality. And Williams manages to be both convincing as a Russian (he speaks the language through the first part of the film) and as a saxophone player, while also being funny and staying in character; so we get, for example, how it’s endearing when he hides under Alonso’s dress (when he first decides to defect and is trying to get away from the KGB), but when he does it later in the movie (when he’s trying to win her back after they’ve argued), it isn’t.

(3) Good Morning Vietnam: This was the first film Williams did that attempted to filter his stand-up sensibility into a film role. Barry Levinson’s movie, a fictionalized version of the experiences of real-life DJ Adrian Cronauer’s stint with the Armed Forces Radio Network in Vietnam, doesn’t wear as well as it did when I first saw it in the theater (for a movie set in Vietnam during the war, it shows only a cursory interest in the Vietnamese, and the three prominent Vietnamese characters are all stereotypes), but Williams’ on-air routines are as funny today as they were over 25 years ago (especially when he’s imitating Ethel Merman jamming Russian radar, as well as their response). And again, he also shows his capability for drama, as in the scene after he witnesses the aftermath of a bomb going off at a restaurant and is ordered by his superior officer (J.T. Walsh) not to report it; the way his voice cracks as he’s trying to be funny and failing still gets me every time. And though Williams can sometimes steamroller over other performers, he works very well with Forest Whitaker as the officer who works most closely with Cronauer (and who fights to get him back on the air after the brass, led by Walsh, suspend him following the bomb incident).

(4) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: Williams wasn’t the first choice to play the King of the Moon character encountered by Baron Munchausen (John Neville) and Sally (Sarah Polley), the little girl who escapes with him from a battle in her town. Sean Connery, who had worked with director Terry Gilliam on Time Bandits, was the first choice, but when he pulled out, Williams, who was a big fan of Monty Python, signed on. As Levinson did on Good Morning Vietnam, Gilliam gave Williams (billed as Ray D. Tutto – “but you can call me Ray”) free reign to improvise his part, and the result was a perfect showcase of the split between his cerebral and scatological impulses while also being true to the character. After all, the King is someone whose head can literally separate from his body, and while his head talks about higher things (“I think, therefore you is”) – or wanting to, anyway (“I have tides to regulate and comets to direct! I have no time for flatulence and orgasms!”) – the body simply wants pleasure of all kinds, from eating to tickling his wife’s (Valentina Cortese) feet (and no, that’s not a double entendre). While watching the King’s head go off on one of his tangents, Sally says, “He’s gone funny”, and for me, she’s right, in both senses of the word. In later years, Williams would occasionally make cameos in both films (as a mime instructor in Bobcat Goldthwait’s Shakes the Clown) and on TV (with Billy Crystal on an episode of Friends), this five-minute (or so) appearance remains, for me, his best appearance in that regard.

(5) Dead Poets Society: I am also not as big a fan of this movie as others are (I don’t think it earns its sentimentality), but I will say Williams is terrific here. While he does a few comic bits (as when he’s imitating Marlon Brando and John Wayne doing Shakespeare), he mostly stays in character in playing a teacher who inspires his poetry students at a 1950’s New England prep school. You believe Williams knows his subject, especially when he gives this speech:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering; these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance love; these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me, O life, of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless…of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer; that you are here, that life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

And again, the film shows how a strong director (Peter Weir) is able to not only rein him in (Williams gets top billing, and was nominated for Best Actor, but is arguably playing a supporting role), but also gets him to interact well with the young actors playing his students, particularly Ethan Hawke as a student trying to live up to the legacy of his older brother and Robert Sean Leonard as a student with a difficult relationship with his father. However I may object to the turns the film’s script takes, I have no quarrel with Williams’ performance here.

(6) Awakenings: The same year as this film, Williams also starred in the underrated comedy Cadillac Man, playing a car salesman who tries to calm down Tim Robbins after the latter takes the dealership Williams works at hostage. Awakenings, based on the book by Oliver Sacks, is the one that received more attention, and while director Penny Marshall doesn’t always rise above sentimentality, I do think it deserved the praise and box office it received. As Leonard, a patient who’s been catatonic for several years until a drug treatment revives him for a time, Robert De Niro received an Oscar nomination, and he’s fine until his character relapses (at which point he seems to rely on tics), but I think Williams was actually better. Malcolm Sayer (the doctor Williams played; he agreed to change the name so he’d avoid the problems that came up with the liberties taken in playing Cronauer) is a familiar type – the scientist who’s brilliant at his work but has a hard time with human interaction – but Williams makes it work. Whether trying to convince his superior (John Heard) the treatment he’s proposing works, or his awkwardness with Julie Kavner (as a nurse who has a crush on him), Williams never steps outside the character, or condescends to it. And again, he’s generous with his co-stars;  as I said, I think De Niro’s performance goes awry when the side effects of the drug take effect on Leonard, Williams stays patient, calm and sad.

(7) Dead Again: When he was on Arsenio Hall’s talk show in the early-to-mid 90’s, Williams was asked about the possibility of playing a villain in a movie (this was around the time he was bandied about as a possible candidate for the Riddler in the next Batman movie, before Jim Carrey got the role), and he replied he had already played a bad guy, in a way, with his character in Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again. I have to confess, when he told that to Hall, I was a bit surprised. But when I watched the movie again not long after that, it made sense. When you first meet his character, “Cozy” Carlisle, a disgraced former psychiatrist turned supermarket clerk, he’s definitely abrasive (when Mike Church (Branagh) comes to tell him Myron Spargo has died, Carlisle snaps, “Who the fuck is Myron Spargo?”), as well as bitter and resentful (he’s still angry about being investigated by the state because he slept with a couple of his patients). But you also see his sharp mind (he’s able to pick up right away Church is trying to quit smoking) and even compassion (he says wistfully he used to not charge half his patients because he loved being a doctor that much). So it’s believable when Church is pressed into helping Grace (Emma Thompson), a woman who’s (temporarily) lost her voice and her memory, and Church is skeptical when a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) reveals the only memories Grace has are of Roman and Margaret Strauss – a couple (also played by Branagh and Thompson, respectively) who had been married in the late 40’s until he was convicted of murdering her, and executed for the crime – that he’d go to Carlisle for a second opinion. Williams, of course, makes Carlisle’s intelligence and compassion believable (he takes Grace’s problem seriously, even as he’s dismissive of Church’s skepticism), and he gets to explain the storyline that made many uncomfortable (“There’s a lot more people on this planet who believe in past lives than don’t”). But in the last of his three scenes (all with Church), after he finds out the big secret of the film (which I won’t reveal), Carlisle turns totally chilling as he gives Church a piece of advice, and Williams makes it believable.

(8) The Fisher King: There are certain films Philip Seymour Hoffman has made that I’m not quite ready to watch again just yet, and I have a feeling The Fisher King, which reunited him with Gilliam, will be that way with me for Williams’ films. He plays Parry, a deranged homeless man who has been this way ever since his wife was killed when a deranged man shot up the restaurant they were in, and who ends up, improbably, bonding with Jack (Jeff Bridges), the former shock radio DJ who’s life has gone downhill ever since a show he did inspired that deranged man. In later years, when Williams got near this type of role, he indulged his unfortunate tendency to get mawkish, but Gilliam keeps that tendency and check, and Williams gets at the pain in Parry’s existence that’s underneath his front. Williams also has to carry the metaphor of the plot, as Parry is on an insane quest to get the Holy Grail (the title of the film alludes to the legend, as does Parry’s name), and he carries it with aplomb. He also makes believable Parry’s crush on Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a painfully shy accountant he watches every day in Grand Central. And again, it shows his generosity; the scene where Parry and Lydia go out on a double date with Jack and his long-suffering girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), and Lydia keeps making things awkward because of her table manners, the way Parry copies her actions without making fun of her is both funny and touching.

(9) Aladdin: Williams, of course, had long been a fan of animation (he presented Honorary Oscars to both Walter Lantz – the creator of Woody Woodpecker – and Chuck Jones), and he had done some voice-over work before (most memorably in FernGully: The Last Rainforest as a bat who’s escaped from an animal testing lab). But it was Aladdin, even more than Good Morning Vietnam, that allowed him to use his stand-up gifts on film.  Until the Genie character shows up, I found this Disney reworking of the Arabian Knights tales kind of bland (admittedly, I’m not the fan of Disney many of my friends are). But when Williams shows up as the Genie, the movie takes off. I can understand the criticism that the references Williams makes as the genie (he imitates, among others, Hall, William F. Buckley, Carol Channing, Jack Nicholson and Ed Sullivan) basically stop the movie and don’t make sense (whereas in FernGully, they do), but whereas that would bother me in a live-action film, it didn’t here. I think it’s because not only is Williams really funny thoughout (especially when he’s listing his “rules”), but because he does take the story seriously and remembers the character even when he’s off on one of his riffs.

(10) Insomnia: Williams’ output for the rest of the 90’s showed him indulging his worst impulses, with a few exceptions; his turn as the anarchist in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent was the best thing about that problematic film (though he was only in a couple of scenes), while I’m not a fan of The Birdcage, he played it subdued (except for his dance demonstration) and, to me, was the funniest part of the film, and while I only like, rather than love, Williams’ Oscar-winning turn as the psychiatry professor who helps troubled math prodigy Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting (he had done that type of part better in other films), he did draw on his own battles with alcoholism without getting too sentimental, and two great scenes – where he tells Damon’s character he knows nothing about life or love or pain, and when he and Damon talk about Carlton Fisk’s memorable home run in the 1975 World Series (unlike Damon, Williams in real life was not a baseball fan) – showcased his talent (his cameo in Branagh’s version of Hamlet, and his voice cameo Steven Spielberg’s A.I. were decent but undistinguished). In 2002, Williams decided to change direction in his career and play three roles that were unsympathetic and twisted. In Danny De Vito’s uneven but often hilarious Death to Smoochy, he went over-the-top but lent real anger to the role of a disgraced former children’s show host. And until Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo goes awry by trying to explain his character in a simplistic way, he’s genuinely creepy as a seemingly kind and efficient drugstore photo clerk who develops an unhealthy fixation on a family (played by Michael Vartan, Connie Nielsen and Dylan Smith). But it was his turn in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, a remake of a 1997 Swedish film, that best showcased his talent. As with Awakenings, he went toe to toe with another acting legend, this time Al Pacino. Williams is a novelist suspected of knowing something about a local teen girl, and who witnesses Pacino (as a shady cop called in to help with the investigation) accidentally kill his partner (Martin Donovan) and therefore blackmails him about it. Williams plays the character completely normal, resisting the urge to go over the top or be a “villain”, even in the scene where he confesses over the telephone to Pacino how he killed the girl; he admits the panic, and even says it feels good to confess before asking about what Pacino did. The darkness of Pacino’s character in the original film was muted somewhat in the remake, but it’s thanks to Williams the remake doesn’t cop out on how dark the story gets.

As I alluded to before with his appearance on Friends, Williams, who broke out on TV with Mork & Mindy, made appearances on TV from time to time as well, coming off best on an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street (done as a favor to Barry Levinson to help the struggling show in the ratings), playing a tourist who’s life goes downhill when his wife is murdered during a mugging gone wrong. Today, the episode stands as an example of how David Simon (who co-wrote the episode and wrote the book – “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” – the show was based on) not only gets the drudgery of police work right, but also shows compassion for all sides, but Williams also takes things down a notch playing the angry and grief-stricken husband. During the 1999 Oscar telecast, he gave an inspired performance of “Blame Canada”, the Oscar-nominated song from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. And while I’m not a fan of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, he’s memorably creepy as a man who gets people to defy authority, even if the episode ultimately becomes ridiculous (I’m not sure I can bring myself to watch the episode of Louie that he appeared in, as it’s about a funeral). I don’t pretend to know why Williams’ choices, at least for me, weren’t as good after Insomnia (except for the SUV appearance), and I certainly won’t speculate on the demons he dealt with (he fell off the wagon and suffered a heart attack in the past decade) that may have led to his death. I can only say that in the stand-up appearances and talk show appearances I saw him  do, he made me laugh an awful lot, and while his film and TV career had its ups and downs, the performances and films I mention above are enough of a legacy that I’m very sorry he’s gone.

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From → Movies

4 Comments
  1. doriantb permalink

    Sean, you did a moving, richly fascinating salute to Robin Williams! I was especially pleased that you included one of my favorites on Facebook page, DEAD AGAIN and ALADDIN, but you really covered his career superbly. It’s sad that his demons got the best of him (wonder if he’s having a chat with Williams and Philip Seymore Hoffman?), but I hope at least that nobody will forget Williams’ talent. Superb post, my friend.

  2. A.I. is one of my favs; I forgot he was in it. Damn, this is such a blow.

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