For me it was never really about how funny he could be, how crazy he could play it, it was rather the opposite. What I liked most about Robin Williams as an actor, was the vulnerability he showed in his roles. Most of his films have an underlying sadness, a serious theme running through them.
Take Mrs Doubtfire; timeless comedy in which Williams wears women’s clothes and has everyone in stitches. However, at the heart is a family breakdown and the central issues are how to deal with this, humour aside. Heart breaking stuff for millions of families around the globe, now more so than 20 years ago.
As much as I love Hook, Aladdin and in particular the Birdcage, it has always been his serious roles and films that attracted me the most; In particular the quieter, more dramatic films that did not get blockbuster releases.
Awakenings was one of the first films with Robin Williams that my dad introduced me to. Although I only watched it once, I still have clear memories of his young Oliver Sacks. As brilliant as DeNiro was in the film, Robin Williams’ performance remains outstanding. The fact that he played a real person with such humility and subtlety speaks volumes of his talent and shows his ability and the depth of understanding for the characters he portrays.
Personal tributes since his passing have all mentioned his insatiable interest in almost any subject matter he comes across. How he uses acquired knowledge to transform himself, either on the spot by rattling off an improvised standup with 20 different accents within three minutes or by developing several layers of a well rounded character for a movie.
One of my all time favourite films will remain the Dead Poets Society and although his John Keating is brilliant, it is the symbiosis and chemistry that Robin Williams has on screen with the young students that makes this film so emotional. In particular his scenes with Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard are so touching in an almost minimalistic way; most of the emotions are communicated through glances. When I re-watched it last week and saw John Keating look at me from the screen with his sad eyes, I felt like Robin Williams was looking directly at me, bearing his soul.
Good Morning Vietnam is a film that highlights my hatred for genres. I always despised that it was classified as a comedy, I still do. For me it is a drama about a character that uses humour to make the atrocities of war bearable. Another brilliant performance of a real life situation, which was only possible to be so convincing due to Williams ability to fully immerse himself in a role and yet letting his vulnerability show throughout.
When Robin Williams finally won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting it was well deserved. It felt like it was one of his most autobiographical roles at the time, almost like a miniature summary of his (inner) life. However, he also deserved it for the collective achievement of all his roles up to that year - a midlife achievement award. One of the many performances he should most definitely have won an Oscar for is the absolutely brilliant film, The Fisher King.
People speak of Robin Williams’ impromptu standup routines as “going off on one”, leaving everyone behind; In The Fisher King he does exactly that but not for laughs. He is stripping down his character, both figuratively and physically. Parry is on the literal search for the holy grail and engages a reluctant and absolutely brilliant Jeff Bridges on his quest. It is a search Robin Williams will make you remember for the rest of your life and it is worth every second of it! Many of Williams’ roles deal with death/suicide and depression/sadness, yet Fisher King is strangely life affirming through it all.
This is exactly the genius behind the talent of Robin Williams and none of it is calculated, it is entirely intuitive, both in how he plays the chosen role and how he connects with the audience. There are not many people that are able to do this. Many talented actors can move viewers to tears and break their hearts in one film and then take them on an exciting adventure the next time. Robin Williams is a chameleon in the truest sense, it feels like he can adapt to you personally in any role that he plays - from one moment to the next in sync with your own emotional state at the time.
But he also has a dark side; the ability to play absolute creeps - the kind, you do not want to cross paths with. He still manages to give them a vulnerable side that make you feel some empathy, but from the safe distance of your couch. One Hour Photo is a brilliant film with an outstanding performance by Williams and an anazing soundtrack. Insomnia and the Night Listener were equally pure joy to watch Robin Williams be on the wrong side of things.
As much as Good Will Hunting seemed very close to home for Robin Williams, the same can be said about Patch Adams. Robin Williams entertained and healed millions with his acting and standup - a Patch Adams for the nation so to speak; the medical validity can be argued about. Fact of the matter is, he makes us laugh or cry when we feel sad or are vulnerable. It was very generous to share his talent in this way and we can only be grateful. I hope he found peace of mind.