Sometimes the Mask of Comedy hides the Mask of Tragedy beneath it. The news of Robin Williams’ death by suicide at age 63 came as a shock to his multitude of fans. He was beloved for the laughter he brought with his rapid-fire, stream of consciousness delivery, beginning with the alien Mork on “Mork and Mindy.” He was a Tony away from winning all of the major awards, though three out of four is still quite an accomplishment. (It didn’t win a Tony, but his one-man Broadway Show, which was broadcast live by HBO, won a Grammy as the best comedy album in 2002.) On the big screen, the projects he appeared in didn’t always match his talent. Movies like Bicentenial Man, RV, License to Wed and Old Dogs will be forgotten, but he also amassed credits of which any actor would be proud. Below are my choices of his ten best movies, in chronological order.
The World According to Garp (1982)
Williams’ first foray into the movies, Robert Altman’s 1980 live-action version of Popeye was savaged by critics, but he had better luck the second time around. George Roy Hill (The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) directed this adaptation of the John Irving bestseller. The film is also known as a launching point for the career of another very funny actor, John Lithgow.
Good Morning Vietnam (1987)
It wouldn’t be until this film that Williams’ wild comedy style was set free in a film role. Playing real-life DJ Adrian Cronauer, Williams got to shake up the radio air waves during the Vietnam War. All of the radio broadcast material was improvised by Williams. The real Cronauer, who was a life-long Republican, was not pleased by the anti-war message of the film, but fans flocked to see the movie and it was the 4th highest grossing movie that year. The role led to Williams’ first Oscar nomination, and the movie also brought notice to Forest Whitaker, in one of his first major roles. (They’d work together again last year, when Williams played Dwight Eisenhower in Lee Daniel’s The Butler.)
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Peter Weir’s film continues to gather fans 25 years after its release. It is one of those movies that, once you’ve seen it, it will stay with you forever, especially the climax. Williams plays John Keating, an English teacher who encourages his students not to conform and to find inspiration in poetry. The movie was blessed with a cast of young actors who went on to success, including Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles. The movie added “Captain, my Captain” and “Carpe diem – sieze the day” to the litany of famous movie quotes. Williams’ second Oscar nomination came for this film, though he lost out to Daniel Day Lewis for My Left Foot.
In Penny Marshall’s movie, Williams plays it straight as Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a fictionalized version of Psychiatrist Oliver Sacks who wrote the non-fiction book on which the movie is based. He holds his own with Robert De Niro, who portrays one of the patients who awakens from a catatonic state thanks to an experimental drug. One bit of trivia – another of the patients is played by famed jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who passed away before the movie was released.
The Fisher King (1991)
Terry Gillam’s film takes a much different tack on Arthurian mythology than did Gillam’s other directing project, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a former DJ who seeks redemption by helping a homeless man, played by Williams. Williams’ character, Parry, is a former college professor who’s become unhinged after witnessing his wife’s murder in a bar shooting – an act unwittingly inspired by Jack. They play out the Fisher King legend in modern New York City, in a powerful tale of loss and redemption. Williams received his third Oscar nomination for this film, but this was also the year that Silence of the Lambs was released.
Once again Williams’ incredible improvisational comedic skills are on display, and it takes this animated film to a whole different level. When the Genie appears, the energy of the film goes into hyper-drive. It seems unbelievable that Williams hadn’t done an animated film before Aladdin, since the medium is perfect for illustrating his wild flights of comedy fancy.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Director Chris Columbus’ high concept comedy stars Williams as Daniel Hillard, an actor who has gone through a bitter divorce. In order to stay close to his children, he has his gay makeup artist brother Frank, played by Harvey Fierstein, help him become Mrs. Doubtfire, a Scottish nanny. The movie was the greatest financial success of Williams’ career, breaking the $200 million mark at the box office. (It was number 2 that year, behind the juggernaut Jurassic Park.)
The Birdcage (1996)
This was definitely not playing it straight. Mike Nichols’ adaptation of the French film La Cage aux Folles has Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple whose son informs them that he’s marrying the daughter of a conservative US Congressman, portrayed by Gene Hackman. The film was a solid hit – #9 at the box office that year – and launched Broadway actor Lane as a film star. Originally, though, Williams was cast in Lane’s role, with Steve Martin in the role Williams eventually played. A scheduling conflict kept Martin out of the film, and opened the door for Lane.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
The fourth time was the charm for Williams, as he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the South Boston psychologist who’s brought in to help Matt Damon’s damaged genius. The film was written by Damon and Ben Affleck, but Williams was able to insert several ad libs, including the final line of the film, “Son of a bitch, he stole my line.”
This was Christopher Nolan’s follow-up film to his classic debut, Memento, and it’s the only film Nolan’s directed that he didn’t write. Instead it’s an adaptation of a 1997 Norwegian film that starred Stellan Skarsgard (who worked with Williams in Good Will Hunting). Williams plays a killer who is at first hunted by Al Pacino’s LAPD Detective, who’s been imported to Alaska to help solve a murder. Things get strange when Pacino accidentally kills his partner and covers it up, leading to a truce between the two men. Hillary Swank portrays a local officer who throws a wrench in their plans. It’s a cat-and-mouse thriller, where you’re never sure who’s the mouse and who’s the cat.
Robin Williams (1951-2014). “Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”