It is a show-business axiom: The tragedian pines to be a comedian; the comedian longs to be a tragedian. So it was with Robin Williams.
In films varied as The World According to Garp to One Hour Photo, the man whose motormouth exceeded the land-speed record made audiences laugh and cry — often during the same movie; or as in the case of Mrs. Doubtfire, won tears and guffaws in the same scene.
While the man who first caught the public eye as Mork from Ork seemed a pure creature of stand up comedy, Williams was, in fact, a thespian stage-trained at Juilliard. The story goes that when Williams auditioned for the role of Mork, producer Garry Marshall told the hyperactive actor to sit down. Williams responded by doing a headstand on the proffered chair, leading Marshall to hire him because “he was the only alien who auditioned.”
Here then are some of Robin Williams’ unforgettable screen creations:
The World According to Garp (1982)
Williams made a striking, if not altogether smooth, dramatic debut as the fatherless son of a feminist mother in George Roy Hill’s adaptation of John Irving’s tragicomedy of men and women at cross purposes. The actor is remarkably assured in the film’s playful passages. But in this episodic story about a wrestler who maintains his manhood among castrating women, Williams transition to the serious sequences is less than graceful.
Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
In Paul Mazursky’s wistful Cold War-era allegory Williams uses his facility with foreign accents to play Vladimir, a circus musician frustrated by the economy of scarcity and politics of paranoia in the Soviet Union. When he travels with the circus to the United States, Vladimir defects in Bloomingdale’s, that American supermarket of abundance. While the story is a simple celebration of American democracy, Williams’ performance — from Russian-inflected English to body English — is remarkably nuanced.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
The role of real-life Armed Services disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson’s ‘60s-era comedy gives Williams ample room to surf the stream of his own frantic consciousness in what seem to be improvised monologues. Ditching Bing Crosby ballads for James Brown funk, Williams’ character introduces a new kind of sound and attitude to the soldiers and sailors. Here is a performance that embodies Williams’ personal motto: “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”
Dead Poets Society (1989)
As John Keating, the nonconformist teacher who opens a window into a stuffy prep school, Williams delivered an uneven performance, uncertain whether the focus should be the teacher or his students. Still, the actor’s prodigious energy is a tonic, as are his colorful recitations of Walt Whitman and Will Shakespeare. Call him Captain, my Captain!
The Fisher King (1991)
Terry Gilliam’s modern allegory fuses Parsifal with the story of homeless New Yorkers; Williams’ turn as Parry, a medievalist-turned-catatonic, is the actor’s most fully-realized performance. After a personal tragedy Parry, now a derelict whose moods swing from manic warmth to depressive chill, embarks on a quest for the Holy Grail. He saves and is saved by Jack, a former shock jock played by Jeff Bridges. The delusional Parry guesses that the Grail is in a billionaire’s Fifth Avenue penthouse. “Who would think you could find anything divine on the Upper East Side?” he asks.
From the Grail to the magic lamp. For a humongous personality who brings to mind a ton of fun crammed into a 16-ounce Ziploc, Williams is ideal as the voice of the giant genie liberated from the lamp in the animated (in both senses of the word) Disney film. Singing “Friend Like Me” — I’m on the job, you big nabob! — Williams gives the film a bounce and magic that makes its airborne carpets jealous.
In the cross-dressing comedy directed by Chris Columbus, Daniel (Williams) is a manchild, husband, and father of three. And he is underemployed, most recently as a sometime dubber of animated movies, while his wife (Sally Field), the grown-up in the family, has a grown-up job. When she boots him out and forbids him visitation, the loud, eccentric father poses as a soft-spoken, centered English nanny who gets hired to take care of his own kids. Because Williams vocally impersonated so many different characters in his comic improvisations, creating the effect of having comic multiple-personality disorder, his roles as the slob Daniel and the veddy proper Mrs. Doubtfire play to his strengths. When the plot turns earnest, Williams has the uncanny capacity to simultaneously play broad comedy and narrow sentimentality.
The Birdcage (1996)
Mike Nichols’s and Elaine May’s very funny remake of the French farce La Cage aux Folles gives Williams another multiple-personality part. This time, as Armand, a flamboyant gay cabaret owner who plays straight — for a night — when his son gets engaged to the daughter of conservative senator played by Gene Hackman. Rather than swing between the extreme poles of wild man and prim woman as he did in Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams does much subtler work integrating the gay Armand with his presumably straight alter ego. And he is hilarious when he teaches his drag-queen partner (Nathan Lane) how to walk like John Wayne.
Good Will Hunting (1998)
The role of Sean McGuire in Gus van Sant’s movie about a gifted psychotherapist who treats a troubled genius (Matt Damon) was Williams’ most substantial — and the one that earned him a supporting actor Oscar.
Shedding all affectations and schtick, Williams plays a damaged and grief-stricken psychologist who sees the damage and grief in his patient and struggles mightily not to let said patient push his buttons. It is Williams’ quietest and most patient performance, one that slowly builds from sessions where Sean’s questions are unanswered or avoided, to close encounters where Sean delicately unlocks the emotional armor that Will uses to hide his guilt. In their scenes together, Williams and Damon do not act but behave. What begins as a professional relationship ends up as a familial one: Sean is the father Will never had and Will is the son Sean always wanted.
What Dreams May Come (1998)
P.S.: No list of Williams’ screen achievements is complete without mention of his offbeat performance as the loving husband who in the afterlife pulls his wife up from hell to heaven in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come; as the title character in Robert Altman’s enchanting Popeye; and his absurdist turn as the King of the Moon in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.