Remembering Robin Williams
Until recently, I had never seen the 1980 film “Popeye.”
But it’s one of my boyfriend’s favorite films, and I decided that the time had come to watch it. Critically reviled upon release, it has always had its champions (Roger Ebert gave it a rave review) and has developed something of a cult following. I liked the film, and was amazed by the risks director Robert Altman and his cast took.
“Popeye” is a very strange movie, filmed on cartoonish, vaguely nightmarish sets, with odd yet memorable music by Harry Nilsson and actors who embody the characters from the old Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons. But what really struck me was Robin Williams’ starring turn as Popeye — his feature film debut. How bold of Williams, I thought, to pick Popeye for his first big Hollywood movie. Not everyone would be quite so willing to portray an unintelligible drunk with father issues when making the transition to the big screen. Williams spends the entire film mumbling, squinting, doting on Olive Oyl and Sweetpea and throwing punches. And he’s great. Seriously, if you’ve never seen “Popeye,” it is definitely worth a screening.
Williams was a high-energy, manic performer, which made him a good fit for a zany film like “Popeye,” as well as later zany hits such as “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Aladdin.” But some of his best films straddle the fine line between the comic and tragic, and my favorite Williams’ film is probably “Good Morning, Vietnam,” which I first saw when I was in middle school and often found myself quoting. Williams was the perfect choice to play Adrian Cronauer, a disc jockey whose hilarious and somewhat rebellious monologues are popular with troops. He is funny and dazzling, as you might be expect, but so much more. In its second half, the film takes a serious turn, as Cronauer finds himself unable to shake off the violence and mayhem around him with wisecracks and jokes. He becomes a truth teller, at a time when military brass want to avoid talking about what’s really going on in Vietnam.
This is Williams at his best: He made audiences laugh, but he also made them think, and maybe even question authority.
In the late 1990s, kids and teenagers found real inspiration in “Dead Poets Society,” in which Williams portrayed a rule-breaking English teacher who taught his students to think for themselves and pursue their dreams. On Monday night, my Facebook feed was filled with clips from the movie, as friends discussed their favorite Williams’ performance. Almost a decade later, the same kids and teenagers that were so moved by “Dead Poets Society” were similarly impressed by “Good Will Hunting,” in which Williams plays a wise-yet-unorthodox therapist who teaches the brilliant Will Hunting (Matt Damon) to control his emotions and become a better man.
“There’s something about Robin Williams that just makes me happy,” my friend Dave observed after watching Williams in the afterlife drama “What Dreams May Come,” which might explain why so many people feel so affected by his death. But some of Williams’ best work can be found in his more twisted and offbeat films, where he showed that he could play menacing, lonely and troubled as well as anybody.
In “One Hour Photo,” he is genuinely creepy as a retail store photo developer who becomes obsessed with a suburban family who regularly brings him film to develop. In “Insomnia,” he makes you believe that his character is capable of murder. In “World’s Greatest Dad,” his actions manage to be both sympathetic and appalling: When his completely unlikable teenage son Kyle dies in an autoerotic asphyxiation-related accident, he re-stages the death as a suicide and finds himself becoming more popular with his colleagues and the students he teaches.
Williams had his share of critical duds, many of which I’ve steered clear of. I’ve never seen “Jack” or “Patch Adams” or “Bicentennial Man.” But when cast in good material — even mediocre material — he was the rare talent who could make you laugh and cry, often in the same movie and sometimes in the same scene. He was also full of surprises, seemingly willing to try anything — broad comedies, sci-fi, dark dramas, fantasy, animation.
I would have loved to see the next phase of his career — to see him age, entertain and reinvent himself. He was a unique talent — the first and last of his kind.
Top 5 Robin Williams:
4. World’s Greatest Dad
3. Good Will Hunting
2. The Fisher King
1. Good Morning, Vietnam
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