On Monday August 11th, 2014, one of the world’s most beloved actors passed away. The news came as a sudden shock to many of us, and it is hard to escape the feeling that we have lost one of the most talented, prolific, and influential members of this filmmaking generation. As our way of paying tribute to and remembering a true acting titan, we here at mxdwn Movies would like to spend a moment talking about the cinematic legacy that Robin Williams leaves behind. Here are the nine film performances that we feel best capture all the joy, chills, tears, excitement, and wonder that Mr. Williams brought into our lives.
Best Introduction: Adrian Cronauer, from Good Morning, Vietnam
In some ways, Good Morning, Vietnam is the best representation of Robin Williams’s screen presence. The crazy comedic whirlwind that is practically his trademark (the rapid-fire patter, the explosive energy, the manic improvisation) is front and center in this story about a shock DJ tasked with keeping morale up during the Vietnam War. What makes the entire package come together, however, is what it is contrasted with: the rigidity of army life, the horrors of war, and the ever-present threat of death. Williams’s performance moves seamlessly between the two, exploring the way that both extremes feed off of each other. It’s as much analytical as it is comedic, managing to make us laugh but also raising questions about why we need humor and why some people seem willing to do absolutely anything to get a laugh out of an audience.
Funniest Performance: Armand Goldman, from The Birdcage
I know, I know. This over Mrs. Doubtfire? Or Nine Months? Or Moscow on the Hudson? It might be fighting words, but for my money this film is the zenith of Williams’s formidable comedic output. It’s easy to go into this film, about a gay cabaret owner who must pretend to be straight while meeting his son’s fiancée’s overwhelmingly conservative parents, with a twinge of fear. The film, and Williams’s performance in particular, could have easily just been a collection of gross stereotypes and caricatures about broadly defined “gay mannerisms.” Luckily, a director as sensitive and incisive as Mike Nichols is behind the wheel, and the film ends up being more of a take down of stereotypically macho behaviors and attitudes in a delicious screwball escapade. Nathan Lane, playing the protagonists drag queen partner, gives the flashier performance of the pair, but that just gives Williams layers to play with. In some scenes he’s the straight man, in others he’s the bringer of explosive flamboyance. It’s an intricate juggling act, but Williams plays it with aplomb and complete control.
Most Inspirational Performance: John Keating, from Dead Poets Society
Like many of Robin Williams’s best performances, John Keating from Dead Poets Society is a role that is built upon a balance of opposites. Half the time he’s a steamroller of infectious energy, filling the the sleepy prep school classroom he dominates with theatrics so captivating that you wish you could study Whitman under this man. But in the other half of the film he’s quieter, sharper, and reserved. It’s an equal level of intensity, but it’s now contained completely within the actor. It’s a tightrope act, but one that results in an absorbingly three dimensional character, one that leaves everything on his “stage” but gives you just enough pause to wonder if by the end he still believes in the inspirational words he was shilling. And, in their own way, that makes them even more inspirational.
Most Surprising Performance: Walter Finch, from Insomnia
What exactly made Christopher Nolan go, “Hmm, I need someone to play this chilling, manipulative killer, let’s give Robin Williams a call,” is a mystery to this day, but, much like the against-type casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker a few years later, it was an inspired choice. Williams, the villain of the film, plays a killer who finds himself in a delicate chess game against an investigator played by Al Pacino. It’s a startling role, and not just for how far apart it is from Williams’s wheelhouse. Just as unsettling is the way that Williams plays him: still and rigid, executed through flat tones and slight, meticulously calculated movements. It’s the opposite of everything we expect from a Robin Williams performance, and it’s absolutely chilling.
Most Compassionate Performance: Sean Maguire, from Good Will Hunting
After years of flirtation, this was the role that, finally, won Williams an Oscar. At the time it seemed like an odd turn for this to be the film that finally clinched it, but looking back on it now, Good Will Hunting remains an unflinchingly human and deeply affecting film. At the heart of that is Robin Williams, playing a psychology professor who is tasked with finding a way of reaching out to a young, troubled mathematical prodigy. Williams allows Matt Damon to have the center stage, but manages to inject depth and emotion into every moment of their mental and emotional sparring. Their conversations expose how compassion for another person can take many forms, including admitting our own fears, pains, and wounds. It’s a windy landscape, but Williams navigates every part of the good doctor, from the tough outer demeanor to the dramatic breakdowns, effortlessly.
Weirdest Performance: The King of the Moon, from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Certain careers are dotted with odd excursions and eyebrow-raising misadventures, and Robin Williams’s was definitely one of those. From hyperactive computer programs to Museum recreations of U.S. Presidents, he was never afraid to take on a bizarre role. But by far the strangest role in Williams’s oeuvre comes in Terry Gilliams’s 1987 fantasy epic. He plays the ruler of the moon, a being whose head and body can operate independently of each other, and each one of them seem to have a mind of its own (hey, I told you it was weird). His head is concerned with plans of megalomania and revenge… but his body is more interested in turning its attentions to the Queen of the Moon (or her body, at least). It’s a short performance in a wild film, but the image of the floating, disembodied head of Robin Williams shouting after its rebellious body truly must be seen to be believed.
Scariest Performance: Sy Parrish, from One Hour Photo
Released the same year as Insomnia, One Hour Photo again finds Williams playing against type. The underappreciated thriller centers on a photo processor at a large department store who develops an unusual, and increasingly creepy, relationships with a family who are among his regular customers. Insomnia’s turn is a bit less recognizable, there’s more of the Williams manic energy and kick to his performance in this film, but once the proceedings get going and you get to see what his take of psychopathic madness looks like it is absolutely chilling. Williams always looked a bit unhinged, even in his most family friendly fare, and to see those qualities refocused towards the darker end of the spectrum is a harrowing experience.
Most Sympathetic Performance: Parry, from The Fisher King
Another character that is caught between darkness and light, Parry is yet another one of Williams’s nimble acting balancing acts. The difference is that this is the role where the divide might be most extreme, where the lightness is the most innocent and sweet, and the darkness is the most unsettling. Parry is a homeless man who lost his mind when his wife was brutally murdered. Now he walks through life in a fragile condition, desperately clinging to his naturally upbeat personality, continually haunted by his pain and loss, and constantly betrayed by a mind that is no longer equipped to keep these apart from one another. Working again with director Terry Gilliam, Williams’s portrayal of a reimagined Don Quixote is an expertly calibrated and stunningly empathetic depiction of a man who is not capable of fighting off the demons in his head by himself, an image that has taken an increasingly tragic and poignant dimension after this past Monday.
Most “Robin Williams” Performance: The Genie, from Aladdin
Now, disclaimers up front: I am part of a generation that met Robin Williams through his involvement in Aladdin. I knew the Genie before I know the man, and so, inevitably, this is the film that feels most codified to his identity. But even putting my own past aside to the best of my abilities, there’s something in this film that really feels like it encapsulates his person. Even if he’s not on the screen himself, the animators at Disney found the perfect way to capture and channel his physicality into the animation. And if you look closely, you can see almost every other Robin Williams performance in different aspects of the Genie. There’s the improvisational whizz-bang of Good Morning Vietnam, the compassionately loving mentorship of Good Will Hunting, even a bit of the past pain and hurt of something like The Fisher King. There are more challenging roles, more moving roles, even funnier roles in his catalogue, but for the film that brought it all together for the Robin Williams performance par excellence, look no further.
Thank you for all of the laughs, Mr. Williams. We will miss you terribly.