Robin Williams’ Greatest Performances
This has been a tough week for crises domestic and abroad. In the midst of some tumultuous world events, we’ve lost some major film icons, reminding us how ephemeral life is. Robin Williams left us far too early, and we are still reeling over this genius’ sad and untimely departure. While many will remember him for his unbridled lunacy and kinetic comic force, I will remember him most for some truly inspired and powerful film performances. No one who knew him was surprised that he took his life. And as the truth comes to light, those who followed Williams’ career can find telling sign posts along his path, and through his performances, that revealed a tortured spirit.
Here are the performances that will stay with me, always. Chronologically, they are:
The World According to Garp (1982)
It was only Williams’ second starring film role, but he was called upon to shed his comic schtick and live inside a well-rounded, quasi-dimensional man with foibles, eccentricities and a huge load of baggage. Co-star Glenn Close remembers that Williams spent hours working with director George Roy Hill to “unlearn” all the TV tricks he had gathered over the years and give a true and honest performance. Williams had given us quick flashes of pathos on Mork & Mindy, but this was the first time audiences were able to see a talented young actor who allowed us to peer through the artifice to discover a fragile and talented man.
The Best of Times (1986)
Williams’ “go to” persona on screen was many times the nebbish who dreamed of greatness but was held down by feet of clay. In this sweet and underrated comedy, Williams is teamed with Kurt Russell as two ex-high school football players in the small town of Taft, California who attempt to replay the heartbreaking football fumble that has plagued them for ten years. Williams layered performance allows us to see a vulnerable man who fights to quell his obsession over what “could have” been.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
The film most of us have turned to since Williams’ death; it seems to hold some uncanny truths about the man. As an English teacher in a repressed 1960s boys school, he taught his students to seize the day and open their minds and hearts to the possibilities the world offers. Its even more painful and prescient to watch now, since a final act plot point hinges on a student’s suicide.
The Fisher King (1991)
A part that only Robin Williams could play, he’s allowed the manic and wild extremes that his comic persona was known for, which he uses to hide an extremely damaged man-child who has had to go through a tragedy that would drive the strongest of spirits to insanity. Once the harsh truth is revealed, we realize that Williams has taken on a gargantuan feat as an actor, bringing him very close to the greatest performances of Chaplin. Hilarious and heartbreaking.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Arguably the film that “made” Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; the two have unabashedly trumpeted Williams as the reason the film got made in the first place. They wrote the part of Dr. Sean Maguire with him in mind, and it was his excitement at reading the script and championing its production that turned this little indie film into one of the big money makers (and Oscar darlings ) of 1997. As a doctor with almost as much baggage as his patients, Williams “slowed his roll” considerably and was able to just “listen,” revealing a great depth and subtlety that was only hinted at in his previous parts.
Williams took on the villain in this macabre and unsettling cat-and-mouse thriller starring Al Pacino, helmed by Batman’s Christopher Nolan, and did what he did best – found the humanity, and revealed yet another facet to the actor’s expanding palette.
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
This underappreciated darkly dark comedy, directed by Williams’ pal and subversive comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, deals with a High School poetry teacher stuck in a dead end life whose jackass of a son accidentally dies in a heinously embarrassing scenario. Seizing the opportunity, Williams’ pens his son’s suicide note that brings him support, encouragement, accolades and media attention. Williams was always a courageous actor, but this satire on media and the public’s blind search for heroes is one of his most calculatedly brave choices, both for the material and his performance.