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)
Williams 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)
Williams’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)