THE GOOD WILLIAMS” WILLIAMSIEST ROBIN WILLIAMS PERFORMANCES
A Look at Our Top Ten Williamsiest Performances by Actor Robin Williams
By the Members of the Good Williams
Robin Williams was a force of nature. His performances–whether on stage or screen, in character or out–were quite often mesmerizing. Admittedly, he was hit-and-miss. Few would deny that. But when you work at such a feverish pace, you”re sure to make a few jokes that bomb, performances that fall flat, and films that flop. (I”m looking at you RV.) The marvelous feat is that he hit the bullseye as often as he did. He had a mind that seemed to work at coke speed, even when he wasn”t on coke or speed. With his quick wit, his loose-lipped logorrhea, his broad range of references, and his ability to not only conjure up voices but create characters wholecloth at a moment”s notice, he was perfectly suited for not only improvisational comedy (which he was masterful at), but improv in all of its forms (comedic and dramatic). In fact, many of the great Robin Williams moments on screen are from his unscripted ad libs.
Most people know that much of his first major role, as Mork on television”s Mork & Mindy, was improvised. Some don”t realize that, even more so, his role as The Genie in Aladdin was basically one long ad lib session diced into pieces to fit the movie; the character was created from 18 hours of tapes of Williams just improvising into a mic at Disney studios. His broadcasts in Good Morning, Vietnam were also heavy on improvisation. To that list you can also add two of the most famous scenes from his Oscar-winning performance in Good Will Hunting (the flatulent wife story and the “Son of a bitch, he stole my line” final moment). There”s also the Mrs. Doubtfire scene where the main character had to shove a cake in his face so that it wouldn”t be discovered that he was really a man. That part of the scene was scripted, but what wasn”t scripted was when the hot lights on set started to melt the frosting off of his face, Williams decided to let the frosting fall into the cups of coffee his character was making and say, “Oh, there you go, you got your cream and your sugar.” The list of ad lib moments could go on and on, and the truth is we”ll never know all the ways in which Williams” improvisational skill improved his performances and the films they were a part of.
For all the joy and exuberance he often exuded in his improvisation, there was always a hint at a deeper darkness. The fast-paced free association would sometimes have you rolling on the floor laughing and other times would leave you scratching your head, but you always let him keep talking (watch how late night talk show hosts dealt with him as a guest and you”ll see what I mean) because it seemed like through that inexhaustible arsenal of words and voices he was trying to keep the darkness at bay. Continuing in this line of thought, Robin Williams” career, simplified to an admittedly disrespectful degree, might thematically look something like this: the simultaneous avoidance of and confrontation with painful reality through flights of fancy. This is why he was often described as a man-child (both in his real-life persona and the characters he portrayed). That theme of “the avoidance of and confrontation with painful reality through flights of fancy” comes up again and again in his films, in varying degrees, no matter the level of seriousness, from Hook to The Fisher King, from The World According to Garp to Jumanji, from The Birdcage to What Dreams May Come, from World”s Greatest Dad to Mrs. Doubtfire.
What makes Robin Williams” best roles so moving is often his ability to juggle the humor and the pathos, the light and the dark, the scripted and the unscripted, the manic and the purposive: the ability to take his improvisational mind and skill, and allow them to find new ways of expression in the characters others had written. In the words of Keith Phipps of The Dissolve, “In his best roles, Williams conveyed a sense of despair and a need for connection, sometimes joining it to his comedic talents, other times muting that ability, but in his strongest performances finding a way to join the two, even if it was just to let a glimmer of his dervish energy peek out from behind his eyes. Williams’ best work, the stuff that will be remembered much longer than, say, The Big Wedding, didn’t clear room to accommodate his comedic skills. It allowed him to reinvent himself, to pound his gift into new forms to suit the screen. There’s genius in that, too.”
So, without further ado, we here at The Good Williams, forever in awe of the genius that is Robin Williams, offer up our top ten of his Williamsiest Performances…
10. Alan Parrish in Joe Johnston”s Jumanji
“My favorite thing about the late Robin Williams is not his hilarity, but his ability to consistently deliver powerful (and often dark) thematic elements with humor and aplomb. I think that this is why the movies here in our top ten Williams roles, and many of those that didn’t make the list, remain on my most-watched movie list. My favorite roles of his are those that struggle to find the balance between their carefree whims of adolescence and the harsh demands and responsibilities of adulthood, perhaps because I often find myself struggling with the same issues. Jumanji“s Alan Parish is a boy who, being born into an affluent and influential family, has not yet been faced with “real” reality. Unfortunately, even in his small opportunities toward maturity (such as standing up to a bully), his father seems constantly disappointed by his timid son, shouting his mantra: “You have a problem; you face it like a man.” Alan finds refuge in Jumanji; a mysterious board game with drums, which seems to offer just the escapism that Alan craves. His refuge is short-lived, however, as Alan finds himself trapped within the game–lost in its jungles for 26 years. “A game for those who seek to find a way to leave their world behind,” Jumanji reminds us that no matter how far we run from the things that scare us most–even growing up–they catch up with us eventually. And despite the fact that it took him two tries at growing up to get it right, Alan Parish becomes a pretty kick-ass grown up! In working up the courage to be honest with his father, Alan achieves catharsis and a second chance at childhood. The truth is that Jumanji shows us that the process of emotional maturity and the responsibilities of adulthood don’t always come easy–or quickly, for that matter. But when they do, they are that much more savored. Though the movie seemed magical as a child (CGI monkeys and an indoor lagoon!), what keeps me watching now is the film’s hopefulness–that we can all do this whole “grown-up thing,” no matter how unlikely that seems at the start.” – Ariana Lader, Lifetime Williams Enthusiast
9. Rainbow Randolph / Randolph Smiley in Danny DeVito”s Death to Smoochy
“While rewatching Death to Smoochy for the first time in over a decade, I felt a little uneasy about chortling as a forlorn, homeless Rainbow Randolph dumps a jug of gasoline over his head before an apathetic group of glassy-eyed New Yorkers. Williams strikes a match. “I’m sorry to put you through this, my friends,” he croaks. “Don’t try to talk me out of this.” Though it’s often a mistake to conflate an actor’s personal life with his or her work, Williams’ suicide has made me consider his comedic roles differently. Revisiting his funniest films in the weeks following his death revealed how he brought a tangible sense of what was (perhaps) very real sadness to his most memorable characters. Death to Smoochy“s near-self-immolation scene is hard to watch (and harder not to laugh at), but it stands as one among many powerful examples of Williams’ brilliant tip-toeing between the macabre and the innocent. Danny DeVito’s film is a radical departure from some of Williams’ more family-friendly roles in the mid-90s. While the film contains several classic Williamsian archetypes (the manic delivery, the kinetic slapstick, the pseudo-Scottish accent), it blends a dark, sociopathic atmosphere with the brightly-colored optimism of children’s television. In a particularly disturbing scene, Williams tricks Smoochy (Edward Norton) into performing at a benefit for “Parents for Decency in Children’s Television.” When the blinding spotlight moves away from Smoochy and his wimpy guitar, the gathering turns out to be a Nazi rally, complete with red swastika banners and a crowd madly chanting “Heil, Smoochy!” In many of his films—Hook, What Dreams May Come, Jack, etc.–there is a somber blend between childhood innocence and existential despair, but Smoochy is different. Whereas Williams’ other dark roles still preserve some allegiance with children, Rainbow Randolph betrays the hope of innocence. Fueled by greed, madness, sexual confusion, jealousy, and probably some unknown form of childhood trauma, Rainbow Randolph is hell-bent on Smoochy’s demise, frequently threatening the soy-hot-dog-with-gleuten-free-bun eating rhino. Though the arrival of the angelic girl saves Randolph from an ugly rainbow-immolation, the viewer can’t help but imagine whether Williams was prescient of his own demise. One has to wonder if once-memorized lines (either good or bad) run through an actor’s mind in his final moments. “Don’t try to talk me out of this.” We wish we could.” – Conor Higgins, Lifetime Williams Enthusiast
8. Armand Goldman / Armand Coleman in Mike Nichols” The Birdcage
“Everyone should see The Birdcage. Everyone. If you haven’t seen it, and you tell people you like “good movies,” then you need to stop what you”re doing (after you read all of these blurbs, of course) and see The Birdcage. I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I get it. In your defense, the movie really sounds like a stinker on paper. In The Birdcage, Robin Williams plays Armand Goldman, a gay club owner living with his over-the-top partner, Albert Goldman (Nathan Lane). During a trip home, Armand’s son, Val, announces his plans to marry his college sweetheart. But there’s a catch! The young woman’s mother and father, Louise and Sen. Kevin Keeley (Diane Weist and Gene Hackman), are Limbaugh-loving, hardcore Conservatives. On top of that, Sen. Keely’s already elbow-deep in a very public election scandal, and they can’t afford another bump on the campaign trail. To help his son, and because the young girl’s family would never understand Albert and Armond’s lifestyle, Armand reluctantly agrees to try to hide Albert for a night, and pretend to be a “normal” heterosexual at a dinner party. But it’s all really funny, I promise! I have seen this movie well over 100 times, and it makes me laugh hard upon every viewing. But I haven’t seen this movie over and over again because it’s funny. The truth is, The Birdcage is a “complex [movie], full of mythic themes.” I see something new every time. It’s never what I signed up for. It’s always something better. This movie has a strong heartbeat, and that heartbeat is Robin Williams. As Armand, he plays the straight man (Ha!), the center of a movie filled with spinning, vainglorious characters, drawn big enough to make this movie a comedy, and not something horrifically trite or depressing. Whatever I am currently trying to “pull of” in my own life, Armand makes feel like someone else out there understands how scary it is to be myself. His story reminds me that being who you are takes practice. It’s a nice reminder when I beat myself up. We all have a lot going on. We are all trying hard to be loving, successful, honest, tactful, strong, and so many other things all at once. But we keep it all inside. Why not watch The Birdcage and have fun for an hour-or-so?” – Caitlin Cutt, Lifetime Williams Enthusiast
7. Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson”s Good Morning, Vietnam
“The fact that many of the films on this list of Robin Williams’ most iconic performances feature the actor playing two characters is testament enough to the late actor’s raw talent and versatility. And while it seems as if Williams only plays Adrian Cronauer in 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam!, the role is truly as dichotomous (yet harmonious) as any of his other dual-role performances. Cronauer is a naïve but formidable airman and military DJ who arrives in Vietnam to boost morale. While the premise seems a bit facile and akin to the saccharine miscalculation that was Patch Adams, Williams finesses the Sisyphean struggle of a man slowly coming to terms with both his responsibility to use his innate talents to provide for the welfare of those around him and the systemic forces that make it impossible for him to do so. Each of Cronauer’s radio performances is exhilarating in its own right, and perfectly set in a radio booth–a silent, isolated stage, those around him all uncontrollably laughing their asses off. Here, we witness Williams in an ideal space, erupting with the controlled comic spasms of one of cinema’s truest improvisational geniuses, all amid the maddening inhumanity a rank-and-file feels trapped in the fog of war. At his best, this is what this performer does–illuminate the lonesome insanity of the clown who can see cathartic humor in the face of black dogs.” – Alex Bacha, Lifetime Williams Enthusiast
6. John Keating in Peter Weir”s Dead Poets Society
“Even in his more dramatic roles, Robin Williams’ distinctively unbridled comedic persona manages to break through the seriousness of everything working to stifle it. It’s a creative decision that could prove detrimental to his performances, but instead serves as the touchstone of his craft. In Dead Poets Society the comedic breakout occurs when Professor John Keating defends the relevance of Shakespeare to his disinterested students. It’s a short little scene, but in about one minute Keating impersonates the classically stuffy Shakespearian delivery, Marlon Brando, John Wayne, and English commoners with cockney accents. Very soon after he has his pupils eating out of his palm. Williams operates here at around 40 percent of his normal, frenetic pace, yet the scene allows the sometimes overly sentimental and egoistic film a lighthearted moment of relief. It also shows these timid prep-schoolers that the words and ideas of anthologized dead guys can, in fact, L-I-V-E LIVE! and enliven if only their teenage hearts open to the possibilities, and it reveals Keating as their ally in the battle at the ultra-conformist “Hellton” Academy—their captain if they’re slightly more daring. All his impersonations aside, however, this is the standout dramatic performance of Williams’s early career. His ability to temper that wild force within is astonishing. If you need convincing of this, seek out the interview he does with Letterman to promote the film. He”s out of control in the best way. Compare that, then, with the reserve on display in Peter Weir”s film. Irony and cynicism are damned. Sincerity and humanity and joy seep from the very pores of his perpetually-inspiring professor. That we members of the human race are alive to witness his powerful play go on is the privilege. That he, like Whitman, encourages us to contribute our verse makes John Keating all the more emotive, all the more desirable.” – Matthew Cabe, Lifetime Williams Enthusiast
5. Daniel Hillard / Eugenia Doubtfire in Chris Columbus” Mrs. Doubtfire
“I would argue that more than any other film on this list, Mrs. Doubtfire is a showcase piece for Mr. Williams” incredible ability to impersonate and improvise with flair–every other character serves as either foil or support for his non-stop tour de force performance as Daniel Hillard, a loving father who impersonates an elderly English nanny to be with his children following a divorce. In the hands of a lesser actor, a movie with this premise could easily devolve into a lame, unfocused lowbrow screwball comedy with fleeting moments of facile sentimentality and little depth. Yet throughout the high jinx, the montages, and the slapstick, Williams always manages to reel in the ridiculous by showing glimpses of real angst so his underlying motives as a devoted father always remain foundational to the action. Mr. Williams” profound and unique ability to juxtapose pathos and jollity, to integrate the dramatic and the silly with ease and grace elevates Mrs. Doubtfire as a film–and so, through the strength of his acting, Robin Williams created a hilarious, but also deeply touching, story of what it means to love each other as a family.” – Ben Steinberg, Lifetime Williams Enthusiast
4. Parry / Henry Sagan in Terry Gilliam“s The Fisher King
“Perhaps the most moving scene in Terry Gilliam’s oddball and often overlooked retelling of the Arthurian grail legend, The Fisher King, comes when Robin Williams” homeless holy fool, Parry, tells the story of the Fisher King to Jeff Bridge’s self-absorbed shock jock, Jack, in the middle of Central Park. Both Parry and Jack are the “bungled and botched,” two damaged men imprisoned inside of the darkest corners of their minds and brought together by intertwined tragic events. They are adrift in a decaying New York City sandwiched somewhere between the Koch and Giuliani eras and resembling T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland.” It seems like all they really have is each other. In the scene, Parry strips completely naked and emerges from his manic state completely lucid. “Jack,” he says laying in the grass, “I may be going on a limb here but I get the feeling you’re not a happy camper.” Parry then begins to tell Jack the story of a king once destined for greatness but whose pride during his quest for the Holy Grail overcomes and wounds him. As the years go by, the wound only grows deeper. He cannot experience joy or love. The land around him withers. The king begins to die. One day a fool wanders in the castle where the dying king is laying. Being a fool, of course, he does not see a powerful leader but only a man in pain. “What ails you, friend?” the fool asks the king. “I’m thirsty and I’d like some water to cool my throat.” The fool grabs a nearby cup, fills it with water, and gives it to the king. The wound immediately heals as the king begins to drink. He realizes the cup was the Holy Grail. “How were you able to find what my bravest and brightest could not find?” the king asked the fool incredulously. “I don’t know” the fool says. “I only knew that you were thirsty.” Although Parry is meant to be the healer and Jack the ailing Fisher King, it’s hard not see it differently in the wake of Williams’ suicide last month which is why the film will now be remembered as one of Williams’ most personal performances. Richard LaGravanese’s excellent script about redemption and forgiveness is that rare creature: an earnest morality play with razor sharp black comedy. And Robin Williams was that even rarer creature: able to balance the light and dark moments found in comedy. Williams’ serenading his lady love, played by the awkwardly awesome Amanda Plummer, with Groucho Marx’s “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” while on a date at a Chinese restaurant, is perhaps the best example of this act, itself a fusion of Marx’s anarchic spirit, Chaplin’s pathos, and Williams’ own humanity and grace now gone forever. He will be missed.” – Anthony Volpe, Lifetime Williams Enthusiast
3. Peter Banning / Peter Pan in the Steven Spielberg”s Hook
“Robin Williams is, to quote Toys, another great Williams film, “the eternal child in all of us.” Robin Williams’ role as Peter Banning / Peter Pan in Hook is not just a superb example of quintessential Robin Williams acting and spitfire humor, but is also a personification of Williams himself. Peter Pan is of course the embodiment of childhood: care-free, living in a world where good and evil can be seen in terms of black and white, lost boy and pirate, able to soar above an imaginary land with just a happy thought and a little fairy dust. Forced to grow up and “be a man,” Peter Banning is the paunchy, drunk, too-busy-to-care-about-his-
2. Dr. Sean Maguire in Gus Van Sant”s Good Will Hunting
“Great dessert chefs often use salt because they know how well it compliments the sweet. Too sweet, sickly sweet is for children. It’s not so different in comedy, and it’s certainly no secret that the best humor is always rooted in pain. Robin Williams explored the entire spectrum, from salty to sweet, from hilarious to heartbreaking, and his Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting remains his most balanced role. The movie is a funny one, don’t forget, and Maguire has some of its best lines: “My wife used to fart when she was nervous. She had all sorts of wonderful idiosyncrasies. You know what? She used to fart in her sleep. Sorry I shared that with you. One night it was so loud it woke the dog up.” Here, Maguire talks with Hunting (Matt Damon), trying his best to disarm and befriend the troubled boy genius. It works, and the two of them break into a shared convulsive laughter. Until Maguire breaks the spell: “Oh Christ….aahhh, but, Will, she”s been dead two years and that”s the shit I remember. Wonderful stuff, you know, little things like that. Ah, but, those are the things I miss the most.” And there’s the rub, the salty rub. Williams’ Maguire is a death-haunted man who gets by on cracking the occasional joke and using his sorrow in the service of a penetrating insight. But this only gets him so far. In one of the film’s most affecting moments, right after Hunting cheaply eviscerates Maguire and insinuates he “married the wrong woman,” Maguire kicks him out of his office. Which is followed by a quiet moment, almost too quiet. Williams stares just past the camera, and looks, I don’t know how else to say it, broken. Heartbroken. And it feels real. This is what I want from art, adult emotional honesty. The good and the bad. A reality somehow “more real” than the real world. Too bad it took his leaving to remind me what that costs.” - Scott Cheshire, Lifetime Williams Enthusiast
1. The Genie (& The Merchant) in Ron Clements & John Musker”s Aladdin
“It may be shocking to some that our number one Robin Williams performance is from a movie in which you never actually get to see Robin Williams” face or encounter his manic mannerisms. How could a role comprised solely of voice-over work take our top spot? Because Robin Williams” performance as the Genie in Aladdin isn”t just your average voice-over work. It”s basically a Robin Williams stand-up / improv performance set to animation and surrounded by a happily-ever-after fairytale. Not only does he do impersonations of everyone from Carol Channing to William F. Buckley, Jack Nicholson to Peter Lorre, Rodney Dangerfield to Señor Wences, but he excitedly jumps in and out of a thousand and one voices with a frenzy and at a pace that only Robin Williams could ever dream of achieving. But unlike other comedians who would go on to follow in his footsteps and voice supporting characters in Disney (and non-Disney) animated films, not only is Robin Williams the comic relief in his role as the Genie, he”s also the very heart and soul of the picture. As with the best Williams performances, Aladdin“s Genie allows him to mesh his frenzied comedy with some heartfelt sentimentality, without it veering too far into saccharine territory. One of the movie”s main messages, about freedom from imprisonment being an ultimate good, hinges upon his character”s storyline. The film”s greatest symbols of the sickness and sadness of slavery are the shackles on the Genie”s wrists that bind him forever as a slave to his master (whomever is lucky enough to possess the lamp) and the lamp itself in which he is forever imprisoned until he can convince someone to give up one of their wishes and free him from his bindings. The film presents freedom as the obvious ultimate ideal (Jasmine, Aladdin, and the Genie all dream of freedom from the prison of their social classes / lots in life), and yet the movie makes clear that freedom achieved through the process of being someone you”re not isn”t freedom at all, but rather the creation of new prison. When Aladdin becomes Prince Ali, he”s as imprisoned as when he was Aladdin, if not more so. The film”s ideal is for you to overcome your prison while still maintaining your integrity, while still being truly YOU. In that way, maybe it is perfect that the film”s central performance is one in which Robin Williams is free from the cumbersomeness of his own body (thanks to the infinite possibility of animation), so that his schizophrenic imagination can run wild and take his comedy places that would be difficult to go in reality, while still being as Williamsy as humanly (or should I say genie-ly?) possible.” - Tyler Malone, Lifetime Williams Enthusiast
The members of the Good Williams are a group of film fans who love all that is Robin Williams. The group consists of Tyler Malone, Scott Cheshire, Dustin Illingworth, Anthony Volpe, Alex Bacha, Randall Winston, Shea Formaneck, Ariana Lader, Kelsey Malone, Rachael Bacha, Shane Boyle, Caitlin Cutt, Artie Moreno, Conor Higgins, Taylor Zahn, Ben Steinberg, Matthew Cabe, Andy Neltare, Jeff Malone, and Liz Malone.
Written and Compiled by the Members of the Good Williams
Photography Courtesy of TriStar Pictures
Design by Francesca Rimi
Film Still from The Fisher King, Photography Courtesy of TriStar Pictures