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Remembering Robin Williams Through Movies

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Robin Williams has had plenty of memorable roles over the years, but these were some of his finest.

Celebrity deaths are weird. In an age of instant news, communication and constant connectivity we’re often pulled in the opposing directions of feeling the natural human sympathy/empathy the occasion calls for and the self-conscious need to not feel too much of it lest it seem untoward: “I didn’t actually know them,” “Is it wrong that I feel for famous people but not everyone else who I don’t know that dies every day,” etc.

But this time that didn’t seem to happen. Whatever the details of Williams’ passing, it was clear immediately that for a vast number of people this was the most personal-feeling loss of an icon to happen in a long, long time — right up there with the losses of Jim Henson or Fred Rogers, I’d say. It had become commonplace to criticize (or at least look askance) at how Robin Williams had reinvented his persona from high-energy standup comedy genius to a star of beloved family comedies and Oscar-ready serious dramas, but in his absence it became immediately clear that those roles really did leave countless people feeling like he was a friend — maybe even family.

I wish I had something more to offer in this case than, like every film writer, to make the case for which of his performances stood out the most to me, but I thought on it and nothing else seemed right to do. What I can say is that this is not so much a “best” list as a “what jumped immediately to mind for me” list. Yours is likely different — so maybe there’s one or two you missed.

POPEYE (1980)
For a long time this Disney/Fox collaboration from Robert Altman was thought of as a Howard The Duck-style bizarro bomb, but it’s been reappraised in recent decades and I’ve always thought it was a lot of fun. A rare attempt (given the era) at turning cartoons into full-blown live-action, it’s a bit loose and messy but anchored by the fact that Williams really “gets” what he needs to do to make such a strange characterization work. Few other rising stars of the time would’ve been as willing to go all-out for such an idiosyncratic project.

Probably still the all-time champ of “find a story-excuse for him to just do his stand-up act for most of the movie” comedian-vehicles (see also: Jack Black in School of Rock), this loose biopic of unorthodox Vietnam War radio-broadcaster Adrien Cronauer was “the” Robin Williams movie for a good long time. It’s easy to see why, as it offered a solid showcase both for his known comic and (then) surprising dramatic chops. Williams was often thought of as the principal “bridge” comedy-icon between the edgy/angry 70s and the exuberant 80s, and that’s on full display here.

Williams is here one of a huge assembly of big-name stars showing up for small but memorable supporting roles in Terry Gilliam’s revisionist dream-logic fantasy-spectacle based on the famous Munchausen stories. He plays the King of The Moon, a giant whose mind and body are (literally) at odds: Everything from the neck down just wants to debase and indulge in vice and pleasure, while the head just wants to fly off and ruminate on matters philosophical (though it follows the body’s lead when attached). It’s a singularly strange role, and even now remains one of the most unusual turns Williams ever gave — which is saying something.

Yes, it’s inspired a hundred terrible “unorthodox teacher” movies (and probably a hundred-thousand actual terrible movie-emulating teachers in real life) but good is still good. Williams had done drama before, but this was the movie that made him one of Hollywood’s go-to sensitive/inspirational figureheads.

Being a constantly-“on” stream-of-references bundle of energy was Robin Williams’ comedy stock in trade, but here he proved a more than capable straight man while Robert DeNiro takes center stage as a man roused from a decades-long coma by a new drug. Williams is his doctor and confidant, who helps him try to understand a new world and must cope with the idea that the miracle-cure might not last.

HOOK (1991)
Folks? I’m sorry, but we really do need to face this: Hook isn’t a great movie. It’s not a BAD movie, but it’s a tonal mess, the Lost Boys are uniformly irritating (yes, even the one you’re thinking of) and Julia Roberts shows even less range than usual. The reason we “remember” it as being great is because Dustin Hoffman does something fairly remarkable as Captain Hook… and because, yes, Robin Williams was in fact the only possible choice to play a grown-up Peter Pan.

ALADDIN (1992)
Does Disney’s Aladdin have great songs? It does. One of the all-time great Disney villains? You bet your ass it does. A compelling, likable hero? Actually… no, not really — Al is kind of a smarmy douche even before he’s pretending to be Prince Ali — but two out of three ain’t bad. Even still, would anyone remember this as well as they do if not for Robin Williams’ Genie? Hell no! This was probably the most perfect translation of the comedian’s signature stand-up style to a full-fledged character ever, a rare perfect sync of animation and improvisation that gave the world one of its most memorable characters ever.

Today, this well-liked remake of La Cage Aux Folles (premise: a lifelong gay couple pretend to be a straight male/female pair to fool the ultra-conservative parents of their son’s fiancée) feels less like a movie from the recent-past than a relic from a lost civilization: Was the idea of family-film superstar Robin Williams playing a perfectly normal, decent man who just so happens to be gay really such an “event” at one time? It was, and Williams deserves all the credit in the world for doing it — and for once again ceding the “showy” stuff to Nathan Lane’s starmaking turn (for live-action film, anyway) as his partner.

Williams tried several “dark spin on traditional persona” roles in the later end of his career to varied success, but seldom did he get to play as broad and nasty as he did here. The film (directed by Danny DeVito) is a pitch-black satire of the children’s television business, with Williams in rare form as Rainbow Randolph, a thoroughly-rotten disgraced former kiddie-show host who schemes to murder his Barney-esque replacement (Edward Norton).

Of Williams’ two highly-touted “prestige” villain roles (the remake of Insomnia was the other one) I still like this one the best. It’s a psycho-stalker movie, about a Supermarket photo-developer (ask your parents) obsessed with a (seemingly) “perfect” family of regular customers. When he discovers that they may not be the ideal unit he imagined, he comes unhinged and his fixation takes on a chilling new dimension. Creepy stuff.

Ugh. I hesitated putting this on here, for reasons that will be immediately apparent, but it was one of the great “dark” turns in the man’s career. A creation of comedy maverick Bobcat Goldthwait, it’s a brutally-bitter “grief industry” satire about a teacher and failed writer (Williams) whose horrible human-being of a son dies accidentally in an act of autoerotic-asphyxiation. Hoping to avoid embarrassment upon discovering the body, Williams’ character stages the scene to look like a suicide… only to see the fake suicide note go viral as evidence that the (awful) kid was an undiscovered deep-thinker — inspiring dad to realize his dreams of authorial fame by forging more works to “discover.” A little hard to watch given recent circumstances, obviously, but it’d be wrong not to include it here.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has an odd identity crisis where most of the time it’s a semi-realistic show about a special police unit dedicated to sex crimes but occasionally decides to build episodes around bizarre Batman-esque super-criminals played by celebrity guest stars — with Robin Williams as one of the standout examples. He appeared as Merritt Rook, a self-styled vigilante who used a mastery of electronics and sound-engineering equipment in order to stage increasingly-dangerous stunts aimed at embarrassing authority figures. It’s a weirdly understated but thoroughly spooky turn, said by some to be an attempt by Williams to partially realize his long-held dream of portraying The Riddler in a Batman movie.

About the author

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.