Dirk’s Five: Robin Williams

If you’re in the UK you probably woke up on Tuesday to the sad news about Robin Williams (followed this morning by Lauren Bacall, it seems the grim reaper has switched to working on commission in Hollywood). Williams will always play a large part in my childhood TV and movie-watching memories, from ‘Mork and Mindy‘ to an illicit VHS in the back of the drawer that my Dad wouldn’t let me watch labelled ‘Robin Williams Live at the Hollywood Bowl’. When I eventually succeeded in watching this tape I was shocked and appalled: it wasn’t recorded at the Hollywood Bowl at all, it was the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Then there’s the utterly confusing spectacle of Robert Altman’s POPEYE (“He’s large”): half live action adaptation of a classic children’s cartoon and half terrifying acid flashback. I loved pretty much everything he was in until I became a teenager and therefore super-cynical about anything approaching sentimentality (in my defence this was around the time that Williams started making saccharine guff like PATCH ADAMS (1998) and JAKOB THE LIAR (1999), so our paths were hardly converging). Here is our pick of Williams highlights, in tribute to a great comedian and fine actor:


1. MRS. DOUBTFIRE (Columbus, US, 1993) 

Will always hold a special place in my heart for being a 12 certificate film that we managed to get into despite being only 11. If you grew up in the nineties then chances are that Robin Williams was a mainstay of your childhood with films like HOOK (1991) and JUMANJI (1995). However that all-important 12 certificate lent this one an added edge, thanks to a couple of swears and a woman setting her breasts on fire (scenes of mild peril). There’s a few good dollops of schmaltz in there, such as Williams’s impassioned plea to the judge to keep his kids but overall the whole thing is kept on the right side of screwball comedy, with some brilliant supporting turns from the likes of Anne Haney, Robert Prosky and, of course, IrishBond, who cannot be killed by conventional weapons but can be taken down by cayenne pepper.

2. INSOMNIA (Nolan, US, 2002) 

INSOMNIAWilliams could be a terrific straight actor, especially when given the right director and material to rein him in a bit. Christopher Nolan was one such director, yet INSOMNIA seems to have fallen off the radar slightly in recent years, sandwiched as it is between Nolan’s breakthrough hit MEMENTO (2000) and the start of his all-conquering Bat trilogy. This is a shame because it contains what is probably the last great Pacino performance, aided by a generous turn from Williams as the killer with an earnest belief in his own essential innocence (“I didn’t murder her. I killed her, but it just ended up that way”). Williams’s open-faced honesty forces Pacino’s detective to look into the mirror of his own hypocrisy as a veteran cop struggling to sleep at night after covering up the shooting of his rookie partner.

3. ALADDIN (Clements & Musker, US, 1992) 

ALADDINWilliams’s trademark zaniness could be overpowering, however in animation, and the shape-shifting character of the Genie in particular, he found a medium which could keep up visually with the quickfire multiple personalities of his stand-up and more madcap comic roles. Originally envisioned as a cameo, the energy and inventiveness Williams brought to the film was moved centre stage and made sure Disney’s recent resurgent run of classics that began with THE LITTLE MERMAID in 1989 continued until POCAHONTAS (1995), which is pants.

4. AWAKENINGS (Marshall, US, 1990) 


A personal choice which many might argue should be pushed aside for something like THE FISHER KING (1991), GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (1987) or GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997). Based on the book ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat‘ by neurologist Oliver Sacks, AWAKENINGS is the fascinating and moving story of a Doctor investigating a possible new cure for Parkinson’s disease. Robert De Niro plays the first patient to be awakened from their catatonic state, however the effects of the new drug tragically turn out to be temporary. Williams’s neurologist, as a man who would rather talk to his house plants than other human beings, is a brilliant piece of casting against type. Williams with a beard is generally a winner.


5. DEAD POETS SOCIETY (Weir, US, 1989) 

deadpoetsThis one has been much quoted in the last couple of days, so it obviously has its fans, but I’m afraid it leaves me entirely cold. IMPORTANT LIFE LESSONS are dispensed in quotable bite-sized chunks, in that particular way that’s proven to be catnip to the Academy. Some of Williams’s worst excesses break through, when lapsing into the “Elvis reciting Shakespeare” bit, for example. The lads end up getting him fired from the job he loves, but there’s that bit at the end where they stand on their desks to make up for it so that’s OK.

5 responses to “Dirk’s Five: Robin Williams

  1. Insomnia was a great movie for him, quite a disturbing one but great. Awakenings left me with just a maeh. My favourite is still his stand up where his dynamic really comes out. He’ll be missed.

  2. Great to have you back Andy.

    The reaction on the internet and social media has been very interesting, not least in its meta-commentary on mainstream medias’ handling of depression in general and suicide in the particular. I remember watching Mork and Mindy when it was first shown in the UK. There was a rumour that was circulating for weeks that Williams had been injured in a road traffic accident. The story had gathered such a momentum that the TV continuity announcer gave a statement to say that he was alive and well. A story like that would burn out in a matter of minutes thanks to the global reach of the internet. In the 70s it was discussed for weeks before a man on the telly told us everything was alright.

    So there’s that.

    • True, but it’s also a lot easier for such stories to start in the first place. Remember that crazy rumour about Barry Norman launching his own line of pickled onions, for example.

  3. My dad took me to see Mrs Doubtfire and asked if we would get a discount as I was only 11. Luckily they let me in anyway. Totally agree with this list!

  4. Pingback: Dirk’s Five: Dickie Five | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

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