Monday, August 11, 2014

Our Favorite Robin Williams Movies

We all say goodbye to a legendary comedian and actor.

Adam Riske: I feel terrible about the passing of Robin Williams. I think that one of the aspects that made him divisive as a performer was that he always seemed to be wearing his heart on his sleeve. He was a very sympathetic actor even when he took on darker roles, such as in One Hour Photo or World's Greatest Dad. My favorite performance of Williams' (and one I'm sure many people will share) is that of Sean Maguire, the therapist trying to navigate Matt Damon's title character out of rocky waters in the terrific 1997 drama Good Will Hunting. The movie is great all around but Williams (in the role for which he won an Academy Award) is the heart and soul of the movie -- a broken man who can only heal himself by helping others. It's a sensitive, funny and moving performance. It's a real shame that his life ended so prematurely. My heart goes out to his family and loved ones.
Erich: I'm still in shock that Robin Williams is gone. He had a huge impact on me as a kid, watching endless Mork & Mindy re-runs, in awe of his whirlwind comedic style. I hadn't seen anything like it. As I grew up, I sometimes found that style more grating than dazzling, but there was no denying Williams' singular voice. His turn as the genie in Aladdin gave me new appreciation for Disney movies at a time when I had largely written them off. His dramatic performances in Dead Poet's Society and Good Will Hunting proved there was more to Williams than rapid-fire funny voices. He could be serious, soulful, sad — even creepy. Of all the movies that deserve special mention, the one I keep coming back to tonight is the underrated What Dreams May Come. I get why a lot of people wrote it off as corny and sentimental, but I was blown away by its unique depiction of heaven and the emotional gut punch at the center of a story about love and loss. Two things we're all feeling today. I wish Robin Williams had known in life the happiness that he gave to so many people. I'm thankful that his legacy means he will continue to give people joy for many years to come.
Alex: Aladdin (1992, dir. Ron Clements, John Musker) While I’ve pointed to watching Hook as the first time my young mind was able to cogently identify a bad movie, it was a different Robin Williams vehicle released the very next year that enlightened my only slightly older mind as to how movies that are good came to be that way.

At 7 years old, animated kids' movies made up the overwhelming bulk of my film intake, which would have made it very easy for Aladdin to fall in line with the rest of the queue as generally enjoyable fare that appealed to me because there were bright colors, simple themes, catchy songs and readily identifiable jokes. But when I arrived home from the theater after seeing Aladdin, I knew something was different, and I immediately knew why.

The answer, as you can no doubt surmise, was the performance of Robin Williams as Genie. I’d seen any number of animated films with affable comic relief characters that served the purpose of leaving me entertained, only to be discarded into a nondescript pile of enjoyable memories. To ask me to say what I liked most about The Jungle Book’s Baloo, The Sword in the Stone’s Archimedes, The Little Mermaid’s Scuttle or any number of Disney jesters compared to one another would be an exercise in futility. But Williams’s Genie changed the game. There was such a persistent energy that was impossible to ignore, a commitment to the jokes and the songs that transcended anything I’d seen to that point. It was that point that I became appreciative of the craft of animated films in a way that was previously unimaginable to me. It was a flawless comedic exercise.

Maybe I still can’t even articulate the appeal 22 years later, but it surely has something to do with the fact that, much like the movie’s most iconic musical number, you wanted a friend like Genie. At the time, and now more than ever, I have always interpreted that sentiment as transcending beyond the fact that Genie could give you whatever you wanted. Sure, that’s what the song is about, but mostly I knew I wanted to surround myself with people who were loyal and supportive and could make me laugh with every breath they could muster.

I recently rewatched the movie and my amazement stands as firm as ever. I hesitate to say something so hokey, but the energy Williams brings to every scene is palpable. You can literally feel the timbre of the film ascend sharply every time Genie enters the frame and you miss him when he is gone. I guess that’s how I feel about the man behind Genie as well.
Doug: Good Will Hunting (1997, dir. Gus Van Sant) I was never a big fan of the "manic" Robin Williams -- the gesticulating shtick and the annoying voices and the hyper energy (you know -- all the things that made him famous and beloved and I'll just shut up now), which is why I was blown over by Good Will Hunting. He was quiet, serious, dark. Which, as it turns out, is also how he lived his life. The sad clown. The consummate showman who, at the end of the day, wanted to be alone (I can't tell you how often I think of that scene of him drinking, silently, in his messy, yellow/green kitchen). Good Will Hunting may have aged horribly (future podcast?), but Williams' understated performance as Dr. Sean Maguire affected me. A lot of other people, too, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried when he tells Will Hunting (ugh) "It's not your fault."  Over and over again. I cried. And sure, maybe my response was a mix of his performance and some personal bullshit baggage, but whatever. At that moment, I rethought the man who I previously only rolled my eyes at.

Mike: I was prepared to write something about how my favorite Robin Williams performance was from Good Will Hunting -- about how the scene in which Williams discusses his dead wife to Matt Damon, pointing out their idiosyncrasies, destroys me every time I see it. How at the time I saw it, his performance meant a lot to me and still does. I was prepared to go into more detail, but then my six-year old daughter walked up to the computer while I read another obituary. This one had pictures of Williams throughout the years, including one of the Genie, the larger-than-life character he voices for Disney’s Aladdin. Evie noticed the picture as she walked up and gasped excitedly, “Dad! The Genie!” She then asked me what I was reading and I didn’t know what to say. I mumbled something like, “Oh, it’s nothing,” and she moved on. Great parenting? Probably not, but I wasn’t prepared in that moment to explain why one of her favorite Disney characters was showing up in articles Daddy is reading. But that moment did, however, force me to rethink my answer. While there are no right or wrong answers to which is your favorite Williams movie and/or role, I think mine might actually be Aladdin. It’s a character that not only has brought joy over the years not just to me, but also my wife and now our two daughters. It’s a manic performance that manages to reach all of us in different ways. The Genie is important to my girls, therefore he’s important to me. As tragic as Robin Williams’ death is, the fact of the matter is he was suffering. And like the Genie at the end of Aladdin, I hope he’s now free.
Heath Holland: There are a lot of Robin Williams performances that I love, from Awakenings and Insomnia to Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin, but my favorite is Hook. I was 12 when that film came out and it meant SO MUCH to me. In fact, it was my gateway to the story of Peter Pan. I get that the movie has a ton of flaws and I know Spielberg himself has admitted to dropping the ball a little bit, but I didn't care then and I don't really care now. I can see those failings with my adult eyes, yet somewhere inside me the kid that saw Hook in the theater and watched an old, fat Peter Banning slowly discover that he was Peter Pan all grown up will always be transfixed by the magic of it all. In the wake of this tragedy, the final lines of the film repeat in my head. Peter realizes that family is his true source of happiness and looks into the sunrise, saying: "To live would be an awfully big adventure." This is how I will remember him.
Mark Ahn: One Hour Photo (2002, dir. Mark Romanek) Robin Williams was already well established as the manic, sometimes crass, often likable fellow by the time One Hour Photo came around. I think we often enjoy actors who give performances against type, and Williams does that in a very reserved and restrained role as a perfectly banal photo developer. What gives the character weight is Williams's ability to imbue the ordinary with darker character traits. The darkness that he creates in Seymour Parrish is not easily identified as that of a simple voyeur, but one that is a mix of longing, isolation, and self-pity, and it is one of my favorite of his performances because the character is worthy of sympathy, but unerringly creepy all at once.

Melissa Henderson: Is it weird to say that Robin Williams’ humour and craziness was a key part of my becoming who I am today? He showed us that singing doesn’t have to be strictly singing, it can be a showcase of who you are, LOUD, happy and with a touch of crazy insanity, all while carrying a tune in an animated film. One of the first songs I ever memorized was "Friend Like Me" in Aladdin, and as I listen to it now, it is so ingrained in me after all these years that I can still sing along with every inflection and “HA HA HA” that makes it so entertaining to both children and adults alike. Around the same time, the movie Hook was brought into our house, so we were able to annoy our Dad with not only our imitations of our favourite Genie quotes, but with the hundreds of one liners that still haunt my childhood memories (Ru-Fi-O!). He leaves behind a legacy of humour and incredible performances, but also a bittersweet feeling that what we saw on screen was more of a “comedic mask” than the real Robin Williams. You shall be forever missed and constantly revisited. RIP XOXO
Adam Thas: I was 11 years old when my family rented Dead Poets Society and I sat there totally into a movie that I didn't quite understand. My family sat around the television watching the movie and the final scene where the boys stand on the desks was the very first time I remember getting choked up and finally crying at a movie. It wasn't sobbing, and, being 11, tried buried my head so my father and siblings wouldn't see I was crying. For those of you who don't know, I'm a teacher, and every time I see that movie or just that scene I get choked up. Something about that moment where Robin Williams looks at Ethan Hawke through the door for that brief second really gets me.
Erika: When I first heard of Robin Williams' passing today, I thought, "That is sad." Half a minute later I was trying to hide my tears from the kids. Something did not seem right about this, and that feeling only intensified when I read reports about Williams' depression. It breaks my heart that his sadness overtook him. I went about my 'parenting business' but then started thinking about his roles. I remember Popeye from when I was very little. I remember a friend's wealthy parents playing the soundtrack from Good Morning Vietnam practically every time I was at her house, and so I equated success with liking movies like Good Morning Vietnam. Makes me giggle to think about that. My friend and I used to quote that movie even though we had not seen it. But most of all, I thought about Williams' role in Good Will Hunting (and started sobbing silently again). So many elements need to come together to make a movie work, and his performance is a giant part of what works in that one. He's quiet; he's strong. He's subtle; he's direct. In many ways his character is the thread that ties so much of the theme together. He is the heart of the movie.
JB: My favorite Robin Williams performance has always been Moscow On The Hudson. Working with writer/director Paul Mazursky, who was a fan of improvisation, Williams was able to channel his usual mania into a believable, moving performance. He was never sweeter than in Moscow, nor more vulnerable and heartbreaking. Williams plays Vladamir Ivanoff, a Russian circus performer who accidentally defects while performing in New York. His Russian accent is amazing. There is a scene late in the movie where Williams and Maria Conchita Alonzo share a bathtub that is one of the most true-to-life depictions of how love actually feels that I have ever seen. It's a shame Williams got a little pigeonholed after winning the Oscar. My favorites from his performances were always the less "showy" ones, the quieter ones, and the oddballs: Popeye, Garp, Awakenings, Dead Again, and Jumanji.
Patrick: I don't think I have a favorite Robin Williams movie. I have several. I've always been a fan of Robert Altman's adaptation of Popeye, which features great music (by Harry Nilsson) and a perfectly cast Williams as the Sailor Man and Shelly Duvall as his main squeeze Olive Oyl. I like him in Good Will Hunting (a movie several before me have mentioned) for the way he portrays not just grief and loss, but a kind of blue collar academic we don't often get to see in movies. I love him in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King, which has a tendency to get too squishy but which puts Williams' particularly manic comic persona to good use, exploring the pain and madness beneath it. I love his subdued murderer in Christopher Nolan's remake of Insomnia; it would have been easy for Williams to push the character's crazy too hard, but he never does. I even remember really liking his turn in the otherwise forgettable The Night Listener from 2006. He was great at playing sensitive and sad in a way that felt very real; now we know he was drawing from his own life more than we might have realized.

Like with Paul Walker's death late last year, I find myself moved by the loss of Robin Williams more than I expected. It's more than just a life that's cut short or a family suffering a horrible loss. It's that Robin Williams was truly a special person. I made more than my share of jokes about his terrible movies and uncomfortable talk show appearances, but every person who has ever met or worked with him has said that he was truly one of the nicest, best people in Hollywood. He was supportive. He was sweet. He wanted to make people happy. He's a guy who made a ton of crappy movies, and he was often bad in them -- too broad and cloying and out of touch to really be funny. But when he was on, he was really on. His work as a dramatic actor was consistently terrific. He didn't make me laugh, but that's ok. I loved a lot of his non-comic performances. Plus, he made a whole lot of other people laugh. He brought joy into their lives. He meant something to them. To me. To all of us. In that way, he left the world better than he found it.


  1. I really hate to say it, but as of this moment, I'm not sure if I can ever watch a film or comedy special of his ever again. In so many of "good" films, Mr. Williams played a character who taught others to believe whenever the chips were down. That life was worth living. That the best days were ahead. Today, in real life, he taught us the opposite and it breaks my heart.

    How can I watch his reaction to Neil's suicide in Dead Poet's Society and not feel angry now?

    1. I don't think a suicide teaches anyone anything other than just how much pain he was going through. It's its own thing and I don't think it should cast a shadow on anything he's done in the past. Most importantly, and sorry for the cliché, but it just goes to show how many battles he must have won before he finally lost the war and we should continue to admire him for those victories rather than focus on his ultimate defeat.

    2. Sol said it very well and I will echo what he said. It doesn't make what he said in those films mean less. If anything it makes it mean more. When you're really in the thick of it you get so lost. You are not yourself. It is an intense battle to keep yourself from not giving into those thoughts. The way you grasp to life and see it then is hopeless. But if you are out of the dip long enough to feel hope the world does seem beautiful enough to keep trying. And he did for as long as he could. It doesn't mean he didn't believe those lines. It means he was very ill and unfortunatly and tragicly lost the battle. He deserves to be remembered for the amazing strength he must have had to see the beauty in life even when he was sick for so long. I hope that people will realise that just because you loose the battle that doesn't make your life mean any less. It makes me so sad he died and his life had great value and still does. People are normally shades of grey. Try and remember that he was someone who lived as well as suffered. He deserves that much.

    3. Thanks Gabby and Sol for saying this so well. I agree with Gabby's assertion that the way he went out doesn't mean he didn't believe in the lessons and themes of his best work. Sometimes depression is a struggle of believing intensely in the beauty of the world and others, but being let down by your brain dropping you into a hole. Thanks for being more articulate than I am guys:-)

  2. Thanks for the fittingly sweet column. Love his Popeye and Good Will Hunting performances. Definitely need to check out Moscow On The Hudson.

    side note: Is "He Needs Me" one of the most beautiful, romantic songs ever, or what?

  3. I'm with you Cameron. As I go back through my mind about Williams' body of work I find it hard to think I can watch "Good Morning, Vietnam," "The Fisher King," his guest-appearance on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" or any episode of "Mork & Mindy" ever again. I know it's too soon, but the way he left us and the pathos he brought to his better roles makes it tough I could get any joy from seeing "Death to Smoochi" or "Good Will Hunting" any time soon.

    That said, there are not enough words for me to express how much I love "Awakenings" and "What Dreams May Come," his two films roles that I've always held dear to my hearts as examples of what a great dramatic actor he could be when given the right role/material. Both could easily be categorized as schmaltzy and melodramatic, but the sincerity of Williams' performances and his cast members (DeNiro in "Awakenings," Annabella Sciorra and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in "What Dreams May Come") truly sold the hearts and souls of what these films represented.

    1. I tried watching a little of his stand up comedy tonight and a Charlie Rose interview he did and I sat in disbelief. A man this jovial and kind (that we all have been watching for decades) would ultimately do himself in like the Ben Kingsley character in The House of Sand and Fog. It's sad, maddening and tragic for his friends and family.

  4. Regarding Cameron and JM's comments, in a way, I think that's a testament to how great he was in dramatic roles. He made you believe these things coming from his characters, even if it wasn't all completely true or embraced in his own life. Or maybe he was a man who desperately wanted to believe these things himself, but in the end he just couldn't. One thing's for sure, mental illness and depression are terrible, horrible things, and I urge anyone suffering from these issues to seek help immediately. There is ALWAYS a light somewhere in the darkness of life. Sometimes you just need help finding it.

    Anyway, the impact of Robin Williams' screen presence in my life, especially in the '90s, cannot be overstated, but there are three particular roles of his that come to mind for me.

    Aladdin was one of the first Disney movies I remember seeing in a theater (I must have been 8), and I can make a very strong case for it being my favorite Disney movie, as well as one of his best overall. Williams was PERFECT for the Genie character. There's no way I can imagine anyone else supplying that voice now, even though they tried later on with (I believe) Dan Castellanetta. It just wasn't the same.

    I remember watching Dead Poets Society for the first time in my middle school English class, and being blown away by how much I loved that movie, and again, Robin Williams' performance. I think he played the teacher/mentor type of role better than just about anyone else, and I wanted him to be my teacher. He's totally Oscar-worthy in this movie, and it's maybe my favorite Robin Williams role overall, perhaps even above my next choice.

    I didn't see Good Will Hunting until after its release, but when I finally did, I fell in love with Williams' performance. It's another example of how Williams excelled at the mentor roles, and he's just excellent in the movie.

    I wish I could comment on everyone's writings individually, but I'll just say, collectively, that this made me cry. It's wonderful to read everyone's connections to and memories of this legendary actor.

  5. My best friend sent me an email that was only one word. Gutted. That may be the only word to express my feelings at the moment. The Fisher King is an exploding heart movie for me, one of my all-time top 5, and it already devastated me before this awfulness. I can't imagine how to watch it now.

    While I understand people not being in tune with his manic comic energy, when he was ON there was nothing else like it. My parents let me watch A Night at the Met when I was much too young for it and even though half the jokes went over my head the energy of it was electric and made me laugh all on its own. It was the first videotape I ever wore out, I had the whole set memorized and I still find myself quoting it often. Yes, his act got stale and later movies and talk show appearances could often feel like watching that one uncle you have who thinks he's the funniest person in the room when he's got a couple drinks in him, but I'll never forget what an impact A Night at the Met had on me, and it's something I never thought could break my heart.

  6. Great tribute guys - I've seen most of the movies mentioned and Robin Williams is something special in all of them.

    Williams' death has hit me the hardest of all the "celebrity" deaths we've had in many years - not sure if it's the suicide or that he just seemed like such a swell guy (in spite of being almost unbearably manic sometimes) or that he's been in so many things I've loved. I remember finding my parents' "Robin Williams: A Night at the Met" tape and secretly listening to it (alone and then with every friend I could) - I'm not sure how it holds up now but it was a treasure trove of swearing and dick jokes for an 8 year old and my real introduction to stand-up comedy. I remember crying like crazy at the scene Adam Thas brought up above in Dead Poets Society. Then came a slew of things aimed right at my demographic - Hook, Aladdin, Ms. Doubtfire - a far cry from his "A Night at the Met" material but I loved it just the same. My first year of college what is still my favourite, Good Will Hunting, came along at just the right time again. His record has been a little spottier since then but I don't think there's another actor whose career I can say has touched me at so many times in my life.

    It's heartbreaking that a guy who seemed so kind and did so many wonderful things, didn't SHARE all of the joy and laughter with us, he just GAVE it.

  7. I read the column Patrick wrote yesterday about being able to process difficult to understand movies via the internet now (please forgive me for butchering the “jist” of that piece. It was excellent). You talked about having a conversation about a movie without opening your mouth. I loved that. I often come to F This Movie for just that. I think it is oddly appropriate I read the piece yesterday because this morning one of my first thoughts was, “I hope F This Movie does something about Robin Williams.” I wanted to read and mourn and celebrate and process by reading what you all (some pretty great people whose opinions on movies I greatly respect) had to say. I enjoy F This Movie for many, many reasons. Today I’m thankful for you all because I got to have a great conversation about an incredible performer without opening my mouth.

    -D Court

  8. I'll never claim it was a great movie, but I always loved his performance in Final Cut. There's a lot of pain and buried grief in it as he deals with editing the memories of the deceased and Williams pulls it off in spades.

  9. That's a great idea. A podcast to celebrate all that Robin has achieved. Lots to talk about. For me my favourite performance is in Awakenings. I could list all others but most have been mentioned that are also fantastic including the brilliant Fisher king but Awakenings almost every time makes me cry. For me the greatest compliment you can give any actor is there performance is so great that they have the power to make you cry. Robin has certainly done that to me and I dont cry easily and for this I salute you sir.

    I love this site. So many lovely compliments from people who spoke the words I wanted to but say them far more eloquently than I can.
    R.I.P Robin Williams

  10. This is a wonderful tribute. I was holding back tears on the bus. I am so glad for the nentions of Awakenings and especially The Fisher King, which has been haunting me all day. Good Will Hunting and the Genie were amazing performances as well. I want to re-visit some later on when I can manage it.

  11. One of my favorite Robins Williams performances was on the television series "Homicide: Life on the Street". In the second seasons episode "Bop Gun" Williams plays a tourists visiting Baltimore whereupon his wife is murdered.

    Williams' character goes through stages of shock/disbelief, to anger and grief. His portrayal is both haunting and gut wrenching.

    *a young Jake Gyllenhaal also appears in the episode playing the son of Williams' character.

  12. I have been thinking about Robin's appearance on "Louie". He and Louie are the only two people that show up to the funeral of a comic they knew coming up. It's an understated, soulful performance that seems to come from a lot of understanding.

  13. It's a testament to the versatility of Robin Williams' performances that we have so many different favorite performances. I grew up with "Aladdin", "Hook", and "Mrs. Doubtfire" on constant rotation. We lost one of the greatest comedic actors of our generation. My thoughts are with his family.

  14. I have never wept over a celebrity's death. I have often been horribly sad that we have lost them, and for their loved ones and the hole they have left in the world, but part of it was always "I didn't know them. I've never met them." If that makes me look heartless or lacking empathy then that's what it does; I'm simply being honest. Sad but not destroyed. Life went on.

    I got home from work yesterday and found out about Robin Williams (via Twitter, as seems to be the case with almost anything these days) within 30 minutes. I quite literally screamed "NOOOOOO" at the screen. Then I started reading everything everyone had to say...and within a few minutes, tears were streaming down my face. It took a few more minutes to compose myself.

    I don't remember a time when he wasn't around and making me laugh. This pop-culture addiction I have began early, and I remember watching what must have been first run eps of Mork and Mindy at the age of 4 or 5 and laughing hysterically. I remember losing my shit at age 12 over Good Morning Vietnam. I remember seeing Aladdin in theaters as a teenager (by choice) and thinking it was -- in its way -- as good as the Disney movies I had watched all throughout my childhood, but -- in its way -- better somehow because it was ROBIN WILLIAMS.

    I don't know what it is, exactly, that made him different from the other celebrities and comedians and artists that I've loved throughout the years and have passed...I don't know why this hit me so hard.

    I guess it's because he made me happy. Because he made me care. And even though (of course) he made more than a few movies that I didn't particularly like or sometimes even hated...I'm going to miss him. Terribly. I hate that I found myself crying yesterday because Robin Williams was gone. Not BECAUSE I was crying...WHY I was crying. I hate that Robin Williams is gone.

    We are lesser for having lost him, this I know. I wish things could have been different. I wish he could have found peace without removing himself from the world. I hope he has found it. Removing my own selfishness from the matter -- being crushed by his absence and missing out on fresh laughs and new smiles he'd give me -- I wish nothing more that wherever he is, that he could somehow be even half as happy as he made me throughout my life, because the man deserves it.