For many young adults of my age group it is with abject horror that we discovered over the past day or so that Hollywood comedy icon Robin Williams has passed away. Most famous for his roles in family friendly classics such as Mrs Doubtfire, Aladdin, Jumanji and Hook, Williams also proved himself as a capable dramatic actor securing plenty of critical and public appraisals with such pictures as Dead Poets Society, a star turn opposite Robert De Niro in Awakenings and his Oscar winning role as Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. And as great as Williams was in all of these appearances, I personally have always found the Genie’s most appealing work to be lesser known. Williams was never afraid to throw himself into a role and the following are some of the most captivating performances from a storied career that may have slipped by you…
This is absolutely a real film and it is shocking just how many people don’t know it. Robin Williams first feature starring role was as Popeye the Sailor Man and if you’ve never seen this movie then whatever you’re imagining doesn’t come close to what Popeye delivers. Directed by cult auteur Robert Altman (MASH, Gosford Park), Popeye is one third live action cartoon, one third musical and one third absolute goddamn fever dream. Popeye is a mess of a movie that serves only to prove two things: Saturday morning cartoons probably shouldn’t be adapted into feature length films and Hollywood was built on nothing but cocaine in the 80’s. Despite the absolute inanity of the songs written for the film and an ending so utterly ludicrous that I dare not even attempt to describe it (okay, fine, a squid gets punched to the moon), Williams…somehow nails the role of Popeye. He beings just the right amount of physicality to pull off the animated ridiculousness that is necessary to stage a production this absurd and he pulls off the affectations that make Popeye so memorable, right down to the squint and high pitched grumbling.
Fun piece of trivia: An entire to-scale set of Sweethaven was built over the course of seven months in Malta for the film and…was promptly abandoned as soon as filming concluded. I have literally been there. It is insane.
The Birdcage (1996)
Let me preface this entry by admitting that the above trailer is absolutely terrible. It is also the only decent quality clip of The Birdcage floating around on Youtube. Although it made over $185 million at the box office, the sad truth is that The Birdcage was a movie so progressive in its portrayal of gay culture and families that it kind of got swept under the rug following its 1996 release. This was a movie that put gay relationships and the stigma surrounding them in the spotlight and made that spotlight hilarious. It certainly didn’t hurt that Robin Williams and Nathan Lane portrayed the disastrously entertaining lead couple opposite a suitably curmudgeonly Gene Hackman at what was possibly the height of popularity for all three actors. And although, yes, The Birdcage dials into all the tropes that you might possibly associate with a gay relationship it’s also distinctly sweet in its portrayal of a gay couple with the jokes absolutely accentuating the affection on display.
Before he directed Inception or any of the Batman movies Christopher Nolan directed a remake of a Norwegian movie about two police officers investigating a murder in a rural arctic setting. For some reason Robin Williams was cast as the murderer and perhaps most surprising of all he was really, really good. Up until this point in his career, Williams had dabbled in dramatic roles (three nominations followed by one win, courtesy of the Academy) but he had never really played a villain. It takes some time for Williams to show up in this taut thriller but when he does he brings a real sense of tragedy and pathos to a character that could easily have been played as a straight villain. Instead, Williams plays the role with an upset earnestness that suggests things have just gotten out of hand but that it’s too late to turn back, a choice that makes his actions throughout the film all the more chilling.
One Hour Photo (2002)
If Insomnia was Williams playing out his affable chummy persona in a different light, One Hour Photo is Williams setting fire to that persona and building something entirely new. It is with Photo that Williams showcases chamelionic ability as he positively slithers under your skin as Sy Parrish, a supermarket photo technician who becomes increasingly obsessed with a family who regularly bring in photos to be developed. It’s upsetting how likely it is that One Hour Photo will become lost to time as amateur photography is so much more accessible with the advent of technology and there are already grown children who would not understand the premise of this movie because the central characters job is pretty much entirely obsolete already…but if ever Robin Williams was going to put forward a performance that would stand out from the rest, this is probably it because the man is goddamn terrifying. It doesn’t help that I’m pretty sure his surname was Parrish in Jumanji, too…
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
Insomnia and One Hour Photo are both roles that were impressive to see just how diverse Robin Williams could be as an actor. The reason that Robin WIlliams impresses with World’s Greatest Dad is that he chose to take the role at all. Playing a has-been English teacher who decides to forge the suicide note of a son who has accidentally killed himself by way of auto-erotic asphyxiation takes a lot of bravery. Even for an actor on Williams’ scale, this is some pretty dark subject matter which World’s Greatest Dad decides to play as a straight up black-comedy. It’s as if William’s career came full circle from the shocking stand up he’d presented in the 80’s at a time where his life was one very long, rude, crude party. But his performance in World’s Greatest Dad is imbued with a lot of heart, heart that a younger actor (probably even a younger Williams) would struggle to pack into such an obscene and voyeuristic tale of depravity. Not to mention that Williams’ bravery extends right the way through the running time of the picture. I know I said that I wouldn’t ruin Popeye and then announced the ending but I couldn’t do that to a movie like World’s Greatest Dad. It’s heartfelt and shocking and astounding in every way imaginable and any fan of Robin Williams owes it to themselves to see it.
Robin Williams was born on July 21st, 1951 and was found dead in his home on August 11th, 2014 at the age of 63 years old. He leaves behind his wife and three children. He shall be sorely missed.
Features image rights; Loren Javier