The cinematic image of Robin Williams, who was found dead at the age of 63 of apparent suicide, runs between off-the-wall and sentimental, between aggressive and clingy. Williams, who began his career as the alien Mork in “Mork and Mindy” in the 1970s, remained an extraordinary character full of contradictions. On the one hand, he could play an Everyman, as he did in his first and excellent film role as Popeye in Robert Altman’s 1980 film. But on the other hand, there was something so intense about him that it cut him off from the day-to-day and familiar, and allowed him to play characters that were eccentric, even mythic.
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In his second film, “The World According to Garp” (1982) directed by George Roy Hill, based on the best-selling novel by John Irving, Williams also played an extraordinary character, as he did in his subsequent well-known films. For example, in “Awakenings” (1990) directed by Penny Marshall, Robins played the role of the physician who treated patients awakening from catatonic states that had lasted for years. In “The Fisher King” (1991) directed by Terry Gilliam, he played a deluded homeless man on a quest to find the Holy Grail. In “Good Will Hunting” (1997) he played the role of therapist Dr. Sean Maguire, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He had been nominated for an Academy Award three times before: for “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987) directed by Barry Levinson; “Dead Poets Society” (1989) directed by Peter Weir; and for “The Fisher King.”
His appearance as a DJ in “Good Morning, Vietnam” was one of his best since it allowed him to combine his various talents, moving skillfully between restraint and hysteria in a film that itself ran the gamut between wild and serious. It was one of Williams’s few films that created a near-perfect match between his cinematic character and the film in which he appeared. A similar match was created in one of his early films, “Moscow on the Hudson” (1984) directed by Paul Mazursky, in which he played the role of a Russian musician who comes to the United States with a circus, falls in love with America and decides to defect. The defection scene was one of the funniest of Williams’s career (and one of the best in the work of Mazursky, who died in late June 2014). The film was a high-quality comedy that navigated between the realistic and the mythical in its portrayal of the difficulties of immigration, with only a few light touches of sentimentality.
Among Williams’s many films, it is hard to find good ones such as some of those I enumerated above (I did not like “Dead Poets Society,” which was successful; I saw it, and its designing of the character of the professor Williams played, with his love for poetry and slogans, as emotional manipulation).
Williams’s television interviews, which always tended toward the mad and hysterical, as did his guest appearances on comedy-variety shows, were sometimes better and more entertaining than the films in which he starred. A fair portion of the films in which he appeared in leading or supporting roles were pushed to the fringes of memory.
His desire that the audience love him – a yearning that, as everyone knows, is never satisfied – was evident in almost all of his comic and dramatic performances. Among his best-known films were “Cadillac Man” (1990) directed by Roger Donaldson; “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993) directed by Chris Columbus, in which he played a woman, like many other actors before him (and the film became one of his biggest hits); “Jumanji” (1995) directed by Joe Johnston, also a big hit; “The Birdcage” (1996) directed by Mike Nichols, the American version of “La Cage aux Folles” in which he was very funny even though he played the more stable member of the couple portrayed in the film; and “Insomnia” (2002) directed by Christopher Nolan, in which he co-starred with Al Pacino.
There were also some big failures, such as “Jack” (1996) directed by Francis Ford Coppola, in which Williams played a 10-year-old boy in the body of a 40-year-old man, and films that were embarrassingly clingy, such as “Patch Adams” (1998) directed by Tom Shadyac, in which he played a physician who uses humor to treat his patients. He played a supporting role in Justin Zackham’s murky comedy “The Big Wedding” (2013), and President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Lee Daniels’ 2013 film “The Butler.” He also played President Theodore Roosevelt in the film series “Night at the Museum,” the latest of which is scheduled for release in December.
Despite the failure of “Jack” there was something in the film that showed Williams in his most concentrated essence – the combination of man and boy within him. This combination enabled him to play supporting roles and also, on occasion, the roles of psychotics (such as in Mark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo”), which he portrayed chillingly.
Did Robin Williams fall victim to these contradictions in his character? It seems that the story of his life and his career remain wide open, as do the question and its answer – if there is one.