We lost a genius yesterday. As you’re surely aware by now, comedian and actor Robin Williams took his own life in California yesterday morning, aged 63, after what only a few seemed to know was a longtime struggle with depression. Williams had been a household name for close to forty years, first as a stand-up, then as a TV star thanks to “Mork & Mindy,” then as a big-screen leading man. But he wasn’t just a comic. He was also a Julliard-trained actor, and as his career went on, he continued to show new strings on his bow, becoming Oscar-winning character actor.
Almost every generation got to know Williams for themselves. For some, he was the rubber-faced, dextrously-voiced comic who made Johnny Carson howl with laughter. For many others, he was Mork from Ork, the quirky alien who appeared in an unlikely episode of “Happy Days” before landing his own spin off, “Mork & Mindy,” which ran from 1978 to 1982 and which made Williams a star. For others, he was the comedic movie star with a capacity for pathos from “Good Morning Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society,” while for those of a certain age, he was the face seen in some of our first theatrical experiences: “Hook,” “Aladdin” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” before we’d rediscover him as a character actor in darker fare like “Insomnia” and “One Hour Photo.” And for the kids of today, he was the scene-stealing penguin of “Happy Feet” or Theodore Roosevelt in the “Night Of The Museum” films.
Even his most generous fans would concede that he didn’t have impeccable taste in projects, with too many of his films of the 1990s or 2000s amounting to maudlin, ill-judged shadows of his finest work. But every time you thought he was lost to projects like “Patch Adams,” he’d come roaring back, and was never less than entirely, gloriously committed to his performances. Above all else, he always loved comedy: he was legendarily knowledgeable and supportive of young comics, while his last stand-up special from 2009 served as a demonstration of his endlessly inventive, breathtakingly fast improvisations.
To have a mind like that, to be a “lightning storm of comic genius,” as Steven Spielberg, can be a double-edged sword. Genius too often comes at a cost, and Williams was open about his demons: he famously talked about his one-time cocaine addiction on stage (“cocaine is God’s way of saying you have too much money,”), and opened up in recent interviews about his insecurities and bouts of depression. But it seems that he was in more pain than almost anyone realized.
We loved him. If the reactions in the last twenty-four hours are anything to go by, those who worked with him or knew him loved him. Hundreds of millions worldwide loved him. Hopefully, he knew all of that. But if you suffer from depression, even colossal love like that is easy to forget at times. It’s proof that even the funniest, most brilliant, most privileged individuals can suffer, and it’s beyond heartbreaking that a day of reckoning came to Williams on a day that he couldn’t fight it.
Depression is a disease. If anything can come out of his death, we hope it’s that this renewed reminder of the life-threatening nature of that disease may give those in pain the courage to seek help, and those around them the strength, wisdom and compassion to be able to recognise the problem and reach out. That a man so beloved can have felt so alone is incomprehensible, because none of us are truly alone. If Williams has left a lifetime’s legacy of laughter, perhaps this can be the legacy of his death: we need to take better care of each other.
For now, we’re left with the work, work that brought untold joy to so many of us. And so the least we could do to say thank you to Mr. Robin Williams was to pay tribute to his finest hours within a long, variegated, wonderful career.
“Good Will Hunting” (1997)
After two nominations, Williams finally won an Oscar in a competitive year for his turn in Gus Van Sant‘s acclaimed film of a script that made the name of writers/stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. And it’s tough to think of a performance in his career more deserving of the Academy’s recognition, combining all of Williams’ strengths into his most humane, and human, role, one that the film would likely grind to a halt without. Williams plays Dr. Sean Maguire, the sweet-natured therapist who, on the behest of estranged pal (Stellan Skarsgard), agrees to see the brash, arrogant young boy wonder form whom the film is named (Matt Damon), and despite the brick wall he faces, gradually teases out the kid’s issues. This isn’t the Williams of the dark early ’00s period that would come a few years later: the actor allows glimpses of his famous comic prowess, making Maguire a genuinely funny man. But crucially, it’s Maguire rather than Williams making you (and Will) laugh, and this performance is undercut with a deep melancholy and quiet anger of a man robbed of the person he loved most in the world and who’s ossified ever since. But recognizing a kindred spirit in his new charge brings out the open-hearted warmth of the man that was, and even when the writing brushes against being convenient and pat, Williams grounds it in a fully-realized, complex role (“You don’t know about real loss, because that only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself,” he spits at Will at one point, simultaneously both furious and generous). His back-and-forths with Damon are the heart, spine and soul of the film, and the Oscar couldn’t have been more well deserved.
“The Fisher King” (1991)
Up until “The Fisher King,” the moviegoing public was mostly aware of two types of Robin Williams roles in film: the motormouth comedian of ‘Good Morning Vietnam,’ characterized by intense, seemingly boundless energy and inventiveness, and the budding serious actor of ‘Dead Poets Society,’ employed via characters trying sincerely help others to fix their broken parts, often while masking their own inner pain. It’s one of the many strokes of brilliance in Terry Gilliam’s often-overlooked masterwork that Williams’ role in ‘The Fisher King’ combines both those disparate personas into one. First we get the goofy Williams, as the garrulous, oddball homeless Parry, seeing visions of fat fairies and believing himself a knight. But then the layers peel away from Parry’s lovable scamp visage, and we get a glimpse of the profound suffering beneath, which connects him in a devastating way to Jeff Bridges’ washed-up shock-jock radio DJ. It’s difficult to write about many of these roles in light of the circumstances of Williams’ death and what we now know of his battles with depression, but his Parry might be the tenderest character of all: in Gilliam’s film we can see a clear analogy for a man on the heartbreakingly noble quest to bring joy and healing to others, while struggling with inner demons and nightmares that constantly threaten to overcome him. It’s a beautiful, evocative and ultimately uplifting film though, in which the dragon, unlike in life, is eventually slain.
Certainly one of the best films of Disney’s early ‘90s output, “Aladdin” also has a shot at being considered one of the studio’s greatest animated films ever is largely down to the genius decision to hire to Williams as the motormouthed Genie. Seriously, can you really remember much else about the movie? (OK, it has a nifty song). But rightly regarded as one of the actor’s finest, most hilarious and inspired pieces of work, ‘Aladdin’ caused a falling out with Disney when against Williams’ wishes, the studio used his Genie character to sell merchandise, yut nothing can detract from the performance. Ferociously funny, tender and totally lunatic, Williams found the rare sweet spot of managing to entertain kids and adults all at once, with jokes that hit often hit both demographics simultaneously. Given a helping hand from animators whose wrists must have got awfully sore to capture his energy, Williams made the Genie a scene-stealing hall-of-famer. And Disney knew it: they gifted Williams a Picasso for his efforts on a film where he was paid scale, and when it came time to the sequel, bridges were mended and the actor reprised his role. But it was the first incarnation of the Genie that found Williams catching lightning in a bottle. Or maybe a lamp.
Before 1990’s ‘Awakenings,’ Williams’ more dramatic roles had often had ostensibly comic underpinnings, harnessing his manic energy and improvisational skills. ‘Awakenings’ was something different, though. It’s not that there isn’t humor in Penny Marshall‘s fictionalized retelling of Oliver Sacks‘ memoir: there is, though the film is inherently a dramatic one. It’s that surprisingly little of it comes from Williams, who plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a painfully shy, dedicated surrogate for the real-life Sacks, who makes a major breakthrough with patients who’ve been catatonic for decades, most notably Leonard Lowe. The latter’s played by Robert De Niro, who had the showier part (for which he was Oscar-nominated), but Williams is just as impressive; his trademark motormouth is nowhere to be found, and there’s no desire to please in his portrayal. It’s subtly technical work, Williams virtually receding into himself when he has to interact with people, just as locked-in as the patients he treats, afraid of even touching others. But through his palpable joy at the work he does, and the life-embracing example set by Leonard, he gradually opens up enough to ask nurse Julie Kavner for coffee (an admirably un-Hollywood romance, closer to “Marty” than a more standard romantic sub-plot). Performances aside, it’s not a great film: too neat, too saccharine, flatly directed. But it’s a key one in Williams’ career: the point where he realized he could be just as effective by ceding the limelight as he could be storming it.
“The Birdcage” (1996)
The tributes and reminiscences that have flooded the airwaves and the internet since word of Williams’ death spread all tend to mention one thing: his kindness. It’s a generosity of spirit that those who knew him felt personally, but those of us not so lucky can see it in many of his performances, like this one in Mike Nichols’ daffy, silly, fond-despite-its-stereotypes ‘The Birdcage.’ In a film not exactly noted for its subtlety (Elaine May’s script was based on a 1978 Franco-Italian film, and while contemporized, certainly feels pinpoint-dated to its mid-nineties period now) Williams, who could be as outrageous and OTT as any actor working back then, underplays gently and graciously cedes the more outre gags and moments to the rest of the cast. He has to negotiate the “straight man” (irony of phrase not lost on us) role as the loving gay father, in a committed long-term relationship with the star of the drag show he produces (Nathan Lane), whose son announces that he wants to marry the daughter of an arch-conservative (Gene Hackman). Mostly holding down some surprisingly tender middle ground between Lane’s flamboyant drama queen carrying-on and Hackman and Dianne Wiest’s hilariously uptight vehement Tea Partiers, Williams nonetheless has moments where he manages to mine laughs seemingly from nothing (a scene finding him dropping an ice bucket immediately after exclaiming “How ’bout those Dolphins, eh?” has no right to be as funny as it is). As contrived as “The Birdcage” now might seem, and as rushed and pat its denouement, Williams’ performance, a deceptively difficult one, remains note-perfect.
“Dead Poets Society” (1989)
There were inspirational teacher movies before ‘Dead Poets Society,’ and there have been many since, but few have ever felt as authentic as this Peter Weir film. The Oscar-winning script by Tom Schulman did a remarkable job of capturing that moment in adolescence when artistic dreams and the pragmatic necessities of education and life seem like irreconcilable impulses. For the students at Welton Academy in the ‘50s, their lives already seemingly mapped out for them, new English teacher John Keating opens the door to philosophies and possibilities they’d never considered or hadn’t had the courage to explore. In one of Williams’ most heartwarming turns (he was Oscar-nominated for the performance) he was the teacher and parent we all wish we had, someone who openly defied convention, and embraced and encouraged the importance of the individual spirit. There is nothing particularly new about this message, and the movie itself doesn’t shake up its genre constraints, but Williams is the film’s soul, its energetic spirit and artistic conduit. “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,” John Keating says. We can only wish that Robin Williams had found enough of that poetry, that he shared so generously with audiences, in his own life.
Overshadowed a little at the time by “Memento,” which preceded it and subsequently by the blockbuster “The Dark Knight” franchise that followed, “Insomnia” has remained slightly overlooked within Christopher Nolan’s canon. But Williams’ demise is almost certain to go some way toward addressing that: his performance here is the quiet, atypical, black heart of a clever, absorbing exercise in mood. It’s a film that the passage of time has done little to tarnish, with Williams’ third-act appearance retaining its surprise power, and the doppelganger-style mind games he plays with Al Pacino’s craggily sleep-deprived, compromised detective proving as riveting an onscreen face-off as Pacino has ever been involved in. But if Williams had done “serious” before, he’d never really played straight-up bad, evil or creepy (though he’d go on to do that occasionally in films like “One Hour Photo”) and what’s so shocking about this portrayal is how quickly the “hey I can’t believe they cast Robin Williams as a villain!” effect wears off and how soon you become mesmerized by how chillingly he embodies the monstrous, self-justifying murderer Finch. Bleak, spare and almost nihilist, the film’s atmosphere of myopia and incipient madness admits very little levity or optimism into its cold white Alaskan landscapes, and what little there is is not accorded to Williams’ character. It makes it a film that feels like entirely the wrong one to watch today, or tomorrow or maybe even next week, but it’s a performance that will soon take its place as possibly the greatest of Williams’ purely dramatic turns, a register he mastered as fully as comedy, but in which he never got to work enough. Other films remind us of what a beloved entertainer we have lost; “Insomnia” reminds us that an actor of enormous range has left us too.
“Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987)
For those of us who grew up in the 1990s, it’s hard to imagine that Williams’ movie career got off to a rocky start in the eighties. Big-screen debut “Popeye” flopped, and aside from the moderately well-received “The World According To Garp,” subsequent appearances in the likes of “The Survivors,” “Seize The Day” and “The Best Of Times” mostly went ignored. ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ changed everything, though: Barry Levinson‘s wartime comedy was a smash hit, and earned Williams a Best Actor Oscar nod. The secret? Letting Williams off the leash in a role —Armed Forces Radio Service DJ Adrian Cronauer, who heads to Vietnam to raise the troops’ morale and irritate the top brass— that he was born to play. Reportedly Mitch Markovitz‘s script didn’t contain any of Cronauer’s on-air riffs, with Levinson simply asking that it read, “Robin does his thing.” And boy, does he: the film stands as the one that best captures Williams’s million-miles-a-minute, multi-voiced improvisational riffing, Levinson harnessing his energy and driving the entire movie forward with it. It’s one of the finest comic performances of the last thirty years, but Williams, who’d always effectively leavened his comedy with pathos on screen even in questionable films, carries off the more dramatic moments just as effectively. Perhaps more than anything else here, this isn’t just a film that features a brilliant performance from the star: the film is a brilliant performance from the star. Everything else is window dressing.
“World’s Greatest Dad” (2009)
Given the circumstances of Williams’ passing, it’s going to be a while before we’ll be comfortable rewatching ‘World’s Greatest Dad.’ But the now-doubly-queasy nature of the material hopefully won’t cast too long a shadow, given that it features one of William’s most nuanced and understated performances, and probably the finest among his late-period work. Directed by comic-turned-filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait, it’s a tough, jet-black Solondzish comedy about a mild-mannered, harried teacher/ frustrated novelist (Williams) and his unpleasant, sex-obsessed prick of a son. When he returns home to find that his offspring has expired in an autoerotic accident, he fakes a suicide note to save embarrassment, only for the note (and a subsequent faux-journal) to suddenly win literary acclaim. The film’s savage skewing of the culture of posthumous sanctification is sharp, if even more uncomfortable today, but it’s Williams who stops it slipping into pure misanthropy. As restrained and toned-down as he’s ever been, he plays a man of multitudes: one capable of (initially, at least) capitalizing on his grief, and yet one who genuinely, despite himself, loved his vicious child, and steps up to become a pariah when the boy’s name and memory becomes hijacked. The film’s imperfect, but Williams here blends the darkness of his other ’00s work with his more touching performances from the 1990s to create something that should serve as a monument to his talents, even as the sad coincidence of the subject matter stands beside it.
“An Evening at the Met” (1986)/“Live on Broadway” (2002)/”Weapons of Self Destruction” (2009)
Williams began his career as a stand-up comedian and continued performing sporadically while his TV and film career took off. But though you can find short clips of his stand-up work online, as far as full-length specials go, they come no better than ‘An Evening at the Met’ and ‘Live on Broadway.’ The first, Williams’ historic appearance at the Met, showcases his talent for singlehandedly building complex stories with multiple characters (if there are two standout set-pieces in ’80s stand-up comedy, they’re probably Eddie Murphy’s family cookout in “Delirious” and Robin Williams’ description of an especially vivid drug trip in ‘An Evening at the Met’). Then in 2002, Williams decided to go on tour again having realized the world could use some humor after 9/11. And as though inspired to even greater heights by the despair and insecurity of the time, with “Live on Broadway” William’s turned in his best stand-up performance without doubt . Proving he was still at the top of his game, Williams doesn’t skip a beat during the entirety of his manic performance, creating some of the funniest bits in stand-up history —the finale involving Williams performing cunnilingus on his own famously hairy arm for a full five minutes is by itself a wonder to behold. His now-final special, 2009’s “Weapons of Self Destruction,” recycled some of his jokes from “Live on Broadway” and didn’t display the same energy, but it too contains plenty of memorable moments, mainly revolving around his then-recent heart surgery.
Had we more time, and if we all weren’t so damn miserable, there are many other roles of Williams’ we could feature–even when the films weren’t stellar, he almost always brought something special to them. For example we only narrowly excluded notorious flop “Death to Smoochy” because no one could really go to bat for such a poor film, but Williams’ performance therein is his most off-the-leash, and worth checking out on that basis alone. More obviously, a rewatch of “The World According to Garp” suggested it wasn’t actually among the top tier of his work, while Mark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo” is a film we never managed to warm to, and Williams’ arguably reached the apotheosis of this type of portrayal with the superior “Insomnia.”
Because it’s Altman and because it’s been the recipient of a revisionist campaign recently, “Popeye” still feels lesser in terms of Williams’ involvement to the above, while Paul Mazursky’s 1984 fish-out-of-water comedy “Moscow on the Hudson” also just missed the cut as one of the lesser seen but most appealing of Williams’ early roles. And whatever nostalgic fondness we might have had for “Hook” wasn’t quite enough for it to make it onto our main list either.
As always happens with a life so abruptly curtailed, Williams was involved in a host of projects at the time of his death whose status is now unclear. But most recently we caught up with his starring role in Dito Montiel’s “Boulevard” at the Tribeca Film Festival and found him giving one of the most nuanced, soulful and complex characterizations of his career–our review is here, and a release date will no doubt be forthcoming.
Our thoughts today are with Williams’ friends and family and with anyone who suffers from depression. But as we contemplate how sorely Williams will be missed, and how very sorry we are that the sadness won, we have to be thankful for such an amazing, and amazingly generous, often hilarious, corpus of work he leaves for us and future generations to enjoy.
In the meantime, do share your own favorite Williams performances and memories in the comments–we’re pretty sure you all have some.
–Oli Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Otkay Ege Kozak, Kevin Jagernauth, Rodrigo Perez