Tuesday, August 12, 2014

R.I.P. Robin Williams, and my 10 favorite Robin Williams performances

There's an episode of Louie in which Louis C.K. and Robin Williams find themselves as the only mourners at a man's funeral. They spend the rest of the morning together, reminiscing about the departed and eventually confessing that he was something of a schmuck, which probably explains why his funeral was exclusively attended by two men who barely even knew him. After some bizarre plot developments typical of Louie's randomness—as it turns out, the deceased was beloved as a generous benefactor at a local strip club—C.K. and Williams amiably go their separate ways. Before they part, however, they promise each other that no matter what happens, whoever outlives the other will be sure to attend the dead man's funeral.

It's a funny, mordant joke, but it also highlights the (presumably intentional) illogic of the casting. Robin Williams, who died yesterday in an apparent suicide at the age of 63, was enormously well-liked and brought unbridled joy to countless moviegoers (and televiewers) of multiple generations. This was not a man who needed the assurance of a balding, overweight comedian to attend his funeral, lest no one else be present. This was a man whose line of mourners is certain to stretch well around the block.

I confess that until today, I hadn't given Williams much thought of late. He recently starred on CBS' The Crazy Ones, but I never tuned in for that, meaning that aside from his preposterous part as Dwight Eisenhower in Lee Daniels' The Butler, the last movie I saw him in was 2009's World's Greatest Dad, an indie curio that you've almost assuredly never heard of. But that Williams had minimized his once-prolific output in recent years does little to diminish the sadness that accompanies his death. He was an actor of extraordinary gifts, and while he will be remembered first and foremost as a comedian, he was also an agile dramatist who nimbly diluted his colorful energy into innumerable shades. Several of his performances are often considered to be departures from his typical work, but it is folly to retroactively bifurcate his roles into two buckets, comedic and dramatic. Instead, Williams allowed all sides of his multivariate screen persona to inform one another, creating fully realized characters who were almost always funny, even if they were also occasionally angry, dangerous, and sad.

I do not deny that Williams made a number of questionable career choices. (I managed to evade watching critically reviled films such as Old Dogs, Patch Adams, and Death to Smoochy, so I can't actually condemn Williams' work in those movies.) But if he perhaps accepted work too eagerly, such enthusiasm was emblematic of his generosity of spirit and his desire to share himself with his audience. Whether he was making us laugh or cry, all he really wanted to do was make us happy.

With this in mind, what follows is the Manifesto's hastily-assembled list of my favorite Robin Williams performances. As ever, such a list is necessarily imperfect, but the lunacy of the task is perhaps the perfect tribute to an actor who turned absurdity into an art form.

Unranked: John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989). Williams' Oscar-nominated turn as a rogue poetry teacher in Peter Weir's much-heralded schoolboy drama doesn't quite crack my list, but I figured I needed to include it, lest this post be greeted with cries of, "Hey, moron, you forgot Dead Poets Society!" It's a perfectly fine performance, one in which Williams suppresses his trademark zeal in exchange for muted passion and wry playfulness. But just as Keating isn't really the central character in Dead Poets Society, Williams' performance functions more as sturdy support than as a vehicle for catharsis. (It's debatable whether he would have received that Oscar nomination if he hadn't already developed such a reputation as a comic genius.) He's effective and convincing as an honorable man committed to teaching spoiled rich kids about more than just what's written in a ludicrous textbook, but he doesn't traverse any sort of arc during the film. Interestingly, for all of the scenes in which he dispenses unorthodox wisdom, his most impressive moment comes at the end, when he responds to a grand gesture of loyalty from his students with quiet, heartfelt gratitude. But for the most part, Williams' work is a model of thoughtfulness and restraint. That makes it a good performance—just not a great one.

10. Daniel Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). Comfortably Williams' most successful movie commercially (technically, Night at the Museum ranks higher, but he wasn't the lead, and this one also topples it if you adjust for inflation), Mrs. Doubtfire also houses perhaps Williams' easiest performance. That isn't a criticism; it takes a comedian of considerable talent to make it appear that playing a housemaid in drag is his birthright. There isn't a whole lot of subtext at work here—the film is not a knowing commentary on gender roles in society—but there is impressive commitment to the character. It's obviously a performance within performance, and Williams takes evident glee in shocking bystanders with Mrs. Doubtfire's virile physicality and no-nonsense nature. The movie also affords him a number of classic Robin Williams moments, whether it's faking a number of disastrous telephonic pitches for the job he's rigged himself to win, or simply improvising by himself with a bunch of toy dinosaurs. Box-office gross aside, Mrs. Doubtfire is not a great movie, but it does function as perhaps the most literal illustration (or maybe second-most—see #2 below) of Williams' innate talent for slipping seamlessly into different roles without so much as a hitch.

9. Walter Finch in Insomnia (2002). Despite his sterling reputation as a comedian, Williams dabbled in "serious" roles throughout his career, but he never played an outright villain until this weird, unsettling turn as a confessed murderer in Christopher Nolan's stylish remake of a '90s Swedish thriller. If nothing else, his performance here defies the hamminess that typically ensnares first-time baddies. On the contrary, Walter Finch is practically gregarious, openly seeking to bond with the troubled, sleep-deprived detective who's hunting him (Al Pacino). Williams' refusal to play Finch according to any particular type makes him a particularly dangerous and unpredictable adversary, one prone to both spasms of rage and moments of even more terrifying geniality. (At one point, Finch casually asks Pacino's character to feed his dogs while he's searching his apartment. It's an utterly wholesome request whose lack of irony makes Finch all the more inscrutable.) It's a fundamentally incomplete performance—we never really gain a greater understanding of who Finch is or why he did what he did—but Williams smartly plays up that negative space, creating more of a void than a character. It's strange, disquieting acting from a man so skilled in putting people at their ease.

8. Dr. Malcolm Sayer in Awakenings (1990). I'm convinced that if Williams couldn't have been an actor, he would have been a doctor. He embodied the medical profession numerous times onscreen, including in the role that won him his Oscar. But in Awakenings, he plays a physician with a personality trait anathema to most cinematic doctors: He's nice. Awakenings follows Dr. Sayer's battles with the bureaucratic establishment in his efforts to use an experimental drug to treat a victim of encephalitis (Robert De Niro), and it makes some cutting points about the red tape in the medical industry. But mostly, it's about one good man trying to help another man. Williams never oversells Dr. Sayer's commitment to his patient—in one crucial scene, he agrees with the aforementioned establishment's cautionary protocols—but he does create a decent, frustratingly hopeful figure who desperately wishes to make others' lives better. His acting is hardly magic—he mostly utilizes a quiet tone of voice and pained, deliberate body language—but it's a classic example of how consistent restraint can generate considerable power. Dr. Sayer spends most of the movie suffering one loss after another, but in its final scene, he scores a victory; it's a mild one, but from the glow on Williams' face, it's heroic.

7. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting (1997). Remember what I was saying about doctors? To his credit, Williams' divisive Oscar-winning turn here is a completely different animal from his work in Awakenings. In fact, Sean Maguire's knowing insights into human behavior better recall the learned omniscience of John Keating, but where that poetry professor was passionate and optimistic, this psychiatrist is dry and defeated. Williams arguably slams on the brakes a bit too hard in Good Will Hunting, as there are moments where more robust energy would have enlivened the film. But for the most part, his reserved, dour demeanor operates in perfect harmony with Matt Damon's flashy breakout turn as the title character. It's a calculated, lived-in performance, one that effortlessly evokes the acrid, burned-out air of a man who's suffered greatly and who now just struggles to get through the day. But there are other, happier shades to Williams' acting as well, including genuine enthusiasm for academia, and of course the gradual development of fatherly compassion toward his broken-down charge. All told, it's a deceptively layered performance, spiked with subtle textures and generous feeling. And if you fail to appreciate it, well, as Sean Maguire himself would tell you, it's not your fault.

6. Vladimir Ivanoff in Moscow on the Hudson (1984). Yes, that's right: Vladimir Ivanoff. Two years after he hung up his alien spurs on Mork & Mindy, Williams incarnated perhaps an even stranger creature: a Russian saxophonist who defects to the United States in the middle of a trip to Bloomingdale's. But for all of its surface silliness, Moscow on the Hudson is actually a touching coming-of-age story, and it's Williams who lends it its humanity. The fish-out-of-water comedy here is easy—"Russian defector gets repeatedly confused by American customs" practically writes itself—but the movie is about more than the hilarity of a stranger in a strange land. It's about finding one's place in the world, and even as Williams plays up Vladimir's wide-eyed wonderment, he also emphasizes his heaviness, and he quietly articulates the gnawing desperation that's threatening to swallow him. (Nowhere is this more evident than when he gets outclassed by a fellow saxophonist at a night club.) Moscow on the Hudson is a crowd-pleaser, but most of that pleasure derives from Williams' nuanced ability to portray growth. Turns out we're suckers for sensitive stories about people who grow up, especially when they start out as Communists in Bloomingdale's.

5. Armand Goldman in The Birdcage (1996). Robin Williams, straight man? You'd think Williams would have been a prime candidate for Nathan Lane's role in this remake of Le Cage Aux Folles, in which Lane plays a hysterical drag queen who must pretend to be a woman in an effort to cozy up to his uber-conservative houseguests. But Williams instead plays the drag queen's husband (I suppose you could call him the straight gay man), and he proves himself a reliably hilarious stick in the mud. Williams' role in the film is to be perpetually aggrieved, an impression he conveys mostly through dismayed reaction shots, his malleable countenance constantly flickering through infinite shades of horror and exasperation. But while The Birdcage is not overly concerned with propriety—this is a movie in which dinner guests unknowingly sip soup from bowls that feature illustrations of child sodomy—there's nevertheless a quiet dignity to Williams' performance. He's a man willing to demean himself to help his son, even if it means indulging in his fake wife's faux-anti-Semitism or scrubbing his apartment of all vestiges of homosexuality. Regardless, The Birdcage presents viewers with a delightful bait-and-switch: In a movie where rambunctious characters engage in varying degrees of crazy, none other than Robin Williams is forced to clean up the mess.

4. Sy Parrish in One Hour Photo (2002). Just a few months after he stunned viewers with his darkly internalized performance in Insomnia, Williams doubled down in this disturbing thriller about a meek photo clerk who harbors unsavory desires. Thanks to their chronological proximity, the two movies are often discussed in tandem, but they're actually quite different; Williams is the clear antagonist in Insomnia, sharpening the movie's edges with his strange sincerity, but his sick, demented persona is front-and-center in One Hour Photo. There's just no escaping Sy Parrish—the movie places you directly into his headspace and lets you quail in terror. This is one of the few times in which Williams submerges his comedic instincts completely, as there is absolutely nothing funny about Sy. This is not to say that he is blankly evil—it's more that he's simply incapable of processing human emotion. Indeed, two traits conspire to make Sy uniquely frightening. The first is his commitment; Williams plays him as a deeply patient man, one willing to expend the necessary time and effort to achieve his dubious ends. The second, oddly enough, is his decency. Sy may struggle comprehending other people, but he is not, in and of himself, a bad man, and he typically treats those around him with respect. Williams bundles these contradictions into a singularly terrifying protagonist, one worthy of both our empathy and our fear. But more than anything, he makes you grateful for the development of the digital camera, because after seeing this movie, you'd think long and hard before getting your photos developed.

3. T.S. Garp in The World According to Garp (1982). More than anything, Williams' performance in The World According to Garp serves as a staunch rebuke to anyone who suggests that he spent his early period working in comedies. Not that the movie isn't routinely hilarious; in one scene, Williams bites a dog, and in another, he patiently explains the mechanics of prostitution to his baffled mother. (It's also unintentionally funny in that the 30-year-old Williams spends a few scenes playing a high-school student.) But The World According to Garp is far more than a comedy of the bizarre—it's a deeply moving story about a man who attempts to find order and happiness in a chaotic and unhappy world. It's also a tale of the unshakable bond between mother and son, and if Glenn Close embodies the movie's carefree spirit, Williams is its warped-but-tender soul. Unlike many of his characters, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about Garp (other than his talent as a writer), and Williams plays up his Everyman quality, resulting in the most natural acting of his entire career. This is not to suggest that his work is staid. Garp is a lively, occasionally ferocious character, and Williams forcefully conveys the fullness of his arc, from swooning first love to unhealthy lust, from simmering distrust to boundless hope. Garp is not an alien, nor a brilliant doctor, nor a killer, nor a drag queen. He's just a man, and Williams imbues him with beautiful, flawed humanity. The world may be according to Garp, but it's undeniably a world where all of us make our home.

2. The Genie in Aladdin (1992). Has there ever been a more perfect fit between actor and character? In his original review, Roger Ebert suggested that Williams and animation "were born for one another", and you can see what he means. As an actor, Williams slips in and out of different characters as a matter of habit, firing off so many impressions that it's exhausting just to keep up. Aladdin provides viewers with an illustrated guide to the fireworks perpetually exploding in his mind. In one scene, he's Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver ("Are you lookin' at me?"), and shortly thereafter, he's Jack Nicholson. One minute, he's aping Ed Sullivan, and the next, the duck from Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life swings down into the frame. It's all marvelously freewheeling, but there's also an order to it, a sense that Williams isn't just firing improvisational darts at the wall but is invested in shaping the Genie as a character. It's almost as though he's part actor, part writer. (He improvised so much of the dialogue that Disney refused to submit the screenplay for an Oscar nomination.) I recognize that the movie is animated and that Williams essentially only acted with his voice, but there's nevertheless a corporeal component to his performance, the sense that he's somehow present on screen. When Aladdin rubs the lamp, it isn't just a genie that comes out. It's genius.

1. Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). Robin Williams has never been funnier than he is in Good Morning, Vietnam. His performance is simply a master class in deadpan humor. One of the movie's most memorable visuals involves the radio station's volume meter—it sits comfortably in the acceptable range before zooming up to red once Williams' Adrian Cronauer arrives—but Williams gets most of his laughs without ever raising his voice. Every scene, not just the radio broadcasts, is littered with throwaway gems. Consider the comic timing in the sequence where Cronauer bribes a teacher so he can take over his class and chase a sexy local, and he first asks the class what subject he's found himself teaching. "Is it English?" one student asks, to which Cronauer replies without missing a beat, "Yes it is, and how lucky for me!" And then there's my personal favorite, when a superior officer, furious that Cronauer has failed to take heed of the number of stripes on his uniform signifying his rank, bellows, "What do three up and three down mean to you, airman?" Cronauer's flat-line response: "End of an inning." I'm almost grateful that I was too young to see Good Morning, Vietnam in the theatre, because the first time I watched it, I had to continually pause my VHS copy so I could get my laughter under control before resuming.

But here's the thing: Williams has also never been more heartbreakingly soulful than he is in this movie. He starts off completely disinterested in the horrors of the world around him; he just wants to crack a few jokes, makes some GIs laugh, and head home. But gradually, he develops an attachment to a few people, and as he realizes the hopelessness of their situation, his dawning recognition is devastating. There is no single moment of catharsis—Williams is too deft an actor to equate the film's accretion of human moments to the concept of phony self-discovery. Nor does he ever fully abandon the live-wire persona that makes watching Good Morning, Vietnam such a joy. Instead, he grudgingly acknowledges the existence of evil in the world but refuses to surrender to it. He may not be able to win the war, but he can still make those GIs laugh, and in a world suffused with sadness and loss, the power of laughter is all the more potent.

And so, Good Morning, Vietnam is not just the pinnacle of Williams' acting career. It is also emblematic of his very particular brilliance: an unparalleled ability to mingle comic dexterity with nuanced emotion, with both elements complementing rather than combating one other. I do not believe Robin Williams was the greatest actor who ever lived, but he did carry with him a singular, maniacal genius, the particular contours of which we are unlikely to see again. May he rest in peace with the knowledge that we will continue to watch his movies, and to laugh, cry, and be happy.


Unknown said...

Great post, Jeremy. Good thing you're still a night owl.


Jeremy said...

Thanks, Travis, appreciate that. Given how quickly the Internet moves, I basically had no choice but to stay up late and bang this one out.

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