I heard the news about Robin Williams, ironically, when I was watching Guardians of the Galaxy with my kids at a vintage movie theater in Akron, Ohio.
“How appropriate,” I thought to myself. I’m watching a great film when I learn that one of America’s greatest film entertainers of my time has died surrounded by other film lovers.
Robin Williams – the entertainer – has been around all of my life from Happy Days and Mork & Mindy to HBO's Comic Relief to one of his first film's Popeye and on and on and on. There’s an eerie sensation when someone that has lived in your pop culture world for the past 40 years and suddenly, tragically passes away. It's happened before and will happen again, but it's just odd.
I think it's a reminder – at least to myself – that we're all mortal (even these untouchable movie stars) and the grim Spectre of Death will always be roaming around searching for its next victim to take into the afterlife - much like Williams underrated film What Dreams May Come, based on a short story by Richard Matheson. Don't let people fool you, I was one of about five people in the whole United States who saw this movie in the theater.
That said, I wanted to take this time to honor this wild, crazy and insanely funny guy with my top six favorite films of this man’s storied career:
I was 11 years old when I first saw The World According to Garp. It was at my Grandpa Baker's house in a small town called Dillies Bottom near Shadyside, Ohio. He had Showtime. My family didn't have cable until I was 18. So, I was always more then excited to head on down to his house for some free awesome cable. (Later in my life, it was for the free beer, Boxcar Willie music and great Grandpa stories, but that's another story.) While my mom, dad, grandpa and cousins were hanging out in the kitchen drinking beer and having fun (Gasp!) my brother and I would turn on the big oversized TV with a wooden case and click on over to Showtime, always giddy to ogle some boobies, raunchy sex and bloody horror flicks that our parents (although very lenient when it came to movies) would probably otherwise have put the kibosh on.
Sure I was only 11, but man did I love me some Garp. I loved that Garp (the character) was this awkward person constantly unsure of himself, always searching for the meaning to his life as he grew up. Once, every four or five years, I always like to revisit this film. It puts me in the body of that 11-year old kid once again. Down at my Grandpa's enjoying the summer air conditioning, secretly watching risqué movies on Showtime. In my opinion, this is one of the first movies that truly showed Williams' hidden dramatic talent. And oh, by the way, my brother and I definitely got to see some titties as well as a blow job scene gone horribly wrong. (To be honest, at the time I didn't really know what was going on in that car.)
When I was a freshman in high school, I was on the kick-off return team. There was about 2 minutes left and we had a chance to win the game if we could get the ball, go down field and score even a field goal, a measly three points. Of course the kick came to me. Of course I ran it up the field at a very slow pace. And, of course I was hit in the knees and fumbled the football. And of course we lost the the game. Once or twice a year, I always think about that fumble. It doesn't sting like it used to, but I still shake my head in shame. Oh, if I could play that game at my current age, what would have been the outcome? Which brings us to The Best of Times.
I just turned 14 when this movie was released on VCR in 1986. My brother, mom and I were at the video store picking out movies (this is what you did in the old days, folks) and my brother chose this film as his official ‘pick’ (we were all allowed one VHS rental per visit mind you). Being the film snob that I was, due to the fact that I had never heard of the movie, I made a face like it was a pile of shit. But, in hindsight, it starred two very good actors in Kurt Russell and Williams – so when we got home I decided to give it a try. I sat on the couch with my arms crossed expecting a giant turd sandwich. But, boy was I wrong.
Next to Hoosiers and Tin Cup, this is one of my favorite sports movies. It just came out of left field and smacked me in the face. Another under-the-radar movie that’s highly recommended. Written by Ron Shelton (White Men Can't Jump, Bull Durham, Tin Cup, Cobb) this film has it all: nostalgia, football, tragedy, action, defeat, and humor. It’s got everything you want in a redemption film. And, most importantly, it's got Robin Williams.
When I was in high school, I asked the eventual salutatorian of our senior class if she would like to go to homecoming with me. To my surprise, she said yes. I liked this girl. I thought she was a little funky and a little bit different. When everyone else listened to Metallica and Slayer, she listened to The Smiths and proudly wore her Cure t-shirts and dressed in black. She was Bona Drag before Bona Drag was even popular. Suffice to say, she was also pretty smart. Like really smart. I think she's a lawyer now. And she watched some crazy ‘out there’ movies - two of which she recommended to me while we were 'dating' - which are still favorites to this day. The first film was Heathers and the other was Dead Poets Society.
Dead Poets Society came out in the middle of summer blockbuster season (June 9) and was quickly in and out of theaters in a flash. But, then, something crazy happened. It was nominated for a ton of Academy Awards and slowly, but surely gained steam once again during awards season. She talked about this movie like it was the bible. To be honest, I thought she was being a bit over dramatic. But I decided to give it try. I remember watching Dead Poets with my family. They seemed to like it, but I was simply mesmerized by the film, more importantly Mr. Keating's (i.e. Williams') words throughout. Everything from whispering ‘Seize the Day’ like a ghost in the hall to breaking Ethan Hawke out of his shell to tell a kick-ass poem to the final ‘O Captain, My Captain’ scene – the movie was perfect in so many ways. Sure, you have to give credit to director Peter Weir. But if there was anyone else but Williams in the role, I can assume with 100% accuracy that it would not have been the same film. I was enamored with this film so much, I watched it four times in two days.
Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, The Meaning of Life, Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Twelve Monkeys, etc.) is one of my favorite directors. I remember hearing about this odd little film called The Fisher King being filmed in New York City starring Robin Williams. I saw a couple pictures in the newspapers and movie mags (sorry, there were no internet movie geek sites) of knights and swords and castles and I couldn’t wrap my mind about what the hell this movie was about. Then I saw it in the theaters. Then, again, I was floored. Just like Ed Wood and Pulp Fiction, I couldn’t believe a film like this could be made or would have been greenlit by a major studio. It was not a romantic comedy. It was not a straight-up drama. It was something ... totally different which I loved. In fact, when I left the theater, I was jealous of all the people who made this odd, quirky little film so damn cool. "Why didn't I think if that first?" I fumed.
Credit is due to Gilliam and, of course, Jeff Bridges, supporting actress winner Mercedes Ruehl as well as others. But Williams' talents as a humorist and tortured soul of a man shine through in every scene. Just a great acting tour de force, and a highly recommended film. Come to think of it, learning more about his addictive past and his depression - maybe Williams wasn’t acting at all in this film. It’s dark. It’s sad. It’s humorous. It’s simply fantastic.
I'm not going to talk to much about this film because everyone else and their mother has posted YouTube snippets of this film on Facebook the past couple days. But I will say this; Every scene. Every single scene that contains Robin Williams is simply jay dropping. Sure, this is Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s vehicle – with great direction by Gus Van Sant. But Williams simply steals the show every single time he’s on screen. The night of the Academy Awards, I was pulling for Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights to win Best Supporting Actor. (Hey, I loved Smoky & the Bandit, Hooper, Sharky's Machine and The Cannonball Run plus he was pretty good in this) But, after they announced Williams name, I was like ‘Of course, that was a no brainer’. Great film. Great acting. Great directing. And a great performance by Williams. Nuff said.
Taking a cue from his other dark films later in his career like Nolan's Insomnia and Romanek's One Hour Photo, Williams plays his most subdued part to date – and it works. The Final Cut may be an odd pick as one of my six best Williams' films, but it’s just a movie that always seeps back into my conscious every once in a while. The film has stuck me with year after year. What if we could implant a video camera in our brain at birth that could record every breathing moment of your life, even your death? What if after you die, there is a 'director' that’s hired to make a film out of your life’s for people to enjoy at your funeral, and remember you after you die? This is just a very interesting, unsettling little film that I would be remiss to not add to this list. William's performance is dark and a little quiet – but it’s the skeletons that he’s trying to hide in his closet that you can see working in the back of his mind every time he's on screen.
Of course, there are other great Williams films like Good Morning Vietnam, World’s Greatest Dad, Happy Feet, Alladin, The Birdcage, Jumanji, Dead Again and Awakenings – but when I think of Robin Williams, I think of these six fantastic films. And, if you haven’t seen these films, I urge you to seek them out anyway you can.
So, what about you? What are your favorite Robert Williams performances?