Looking Back at Five of Robin Williams' Best Performances
Yesterday we lost one of the greats. I don’t think there’s a single person reading this who wasn’t touched by Robin Williams at some point in his or her life, specifically during childhood. Whether it was seeing Aladdin for the first time and marveling at the spontaneous wit a blue genie could spout off, or discovering Williams’s stand-up when approaching adulthood and realizing just why your parents thought he was the funniest man alive, or seeing his face for the first time under layers of makeup in Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin Williams was there, somewhere, making us laugh, making us cry, making us laugh while crying or cry while laughing.
I have no interest in dissecting Robin Williams’s death. Williams brought a lot of joy to millions of people’s lives, but even if he hadn’t, suicide is a tragedy and his death would have been a tragedy. There’s no point for a film writer like myself to play psychiatrist and start diagnosing a man I never knew. But the thing is, it felt like I knew the man. He was a star I recognized as a child. From as early as I can remember being aware of movies, I was aware of Robin Williams. It took me years to discover another actor I found as funny, as manic, save perhaps Jim Carrey, a similarly gifted actor and comedian from a younger cadre of performers.
So to celebrate all that Robin Williams gave us, I’d like to remember five of his best performances. He gave more than five performances that can be considered great. He was an amazing performer, and many people will hold a different performance of his in special regard, whether it’s his Genie in Aladdin, his desperate father in Mrs. Doubtfire, his kindly psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting, or his sadsack teacher in World’s Greatest Dad. But the following are the ones I chose to focus on, which I believe speak to his immense range and his genuine humanity as a performer.
John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989) dir. Peter Weir
I’m sure more than one person stood on their desk in salute to Robin Williams when they learned of his passing yesterday. It’s understandable. As John Keating, the literature teacher at a snobby prep school in the 1950s, Williams was the mentor figure every smart kid truly wanted. He inspired his students to grasp the emotional urgency of classical poetry and, most famously, seize the day. He channeled his immense energy into a role that could have been stodgy and sentimental, creating a vital figure that is understandably revolutionary to the kids he teaches. He was the ideal teacher: bursting with enthusiasm for knowledge and boundless in his compassion.
Parry in The Fisher King (1991) dir. Terry Gilliam
Williams was a good fit with director Terry Gilliam, a performer himself with Monty Python, and a director who combined madness with emotion. As the homeless, mentally unstable Parry in Gilliam’s The Fisher King, Williams does what he did best, which is create an energetic, larger than life character and imbue him with human dimensions. The sheer physical energy on display in the role is astounding, as Williams lets his entire body inhabit the instability of Parry’s mind. The sight of Williams writhing in horror whenever he sees the Red Knight of his Holy Grail fantasy is heartbreaking. Underneath Williams’s manic energy was profound human sadness. Williams helped us understand Parry’s sadness at the loss of his wife but also his sadness at the knowledge that reality will never live up to the fantasies he retreats into in his mind.
Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) dir. Barry Levinson
Widely considered Williams’s breakout role, Good Morning, Vietnam is furiously funny and showcased Williams’s humour better than any other film on this list. As an irreverent disc jockey during the Vietnam war, Williams riffs on the radio in an attempt to lighten the mood of the American servicemen. Humour amid horror. Laughter amid tears. This is what Robin Williams was known for. Few films are a better display of his ability to distract us from the horrors of world we inhabit, even if that very horror is what drives his humour.
Peter Banning a.k.a. Peter Pan in Hook (1991) dir. Steven Spielberg
It has been awhile since I’ve seen Hook, so I don’t really know how good or bad the film is anymore. I’d probably rank it at or near the bottom of my Steven Spielberg rankings, but it also had a profound effect on me as a child. That effect is almost entirely due to Williams’s performance. There’s one shot in particular that has stayed with me all these years. It’s after Williams’s Peter Banning has finally come to terms with the fact that he is Peter Pan and has donned the familiar green tunic and pointy shoes to go rescue his children from Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman). As he swoops down on Hook’s ship from the air, he floats for a moment above Captain Hook and there’s a twinkle in his eye. That twinkle was all I needed to know that, yes, this man was Peter Pan. That no other actor could ever better embody the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grew Up. Did any actor ever capture the notion of being a child at heart better than Robin Williams? I don’t think so.
Walter Finch in Insomnia (2002) dir. Christopher Nolan
As Walter Finch, a crime novelist and murderer, Robin Williams played one of the few villainous roles of his career. It’s one of his best. Williams understood that he was an actor known for going big, for being big vocally, big physically, and letting his performance overshadow the scene. In Insomnia, as a killer who wishes to stay anonymous but can’t, Williams chooses to internalize that physicality, to hold it at bay. He’s very still here. His soft voice isn’t used for laugh, but instead to play mind games with Al Pacino’s detective. There’s something terrifying about Robin Williams as a quiet killer. And all his manic energy lurks beneath the surface here, ready to burst out in entirely inappropriate ways. It’s a great performance and a testament to Williams crazy range as an actor.
Rest in Peace Robin McLaurin Williams (1951-2014)
This article was originally published on The Rooster, Spareparts' now-defunct community culture blog.