Robin Williams moved from commercial productions to prestige cinema with ease

08.11.14 3 years ago 19 Comments

Buena Vista Pictures

I had to stop and think about it. When was the first time I encountered Robin Williams? I'm pretty sure it was reruns of “Mork & Mindy” at a young age, if not the boisterous Oscar-nominated performance he gave in Barry Levinson's “Good Morning, Vietnam.” By then he had already dazzled countless audiences in “The World According to Garp.” Whatever it was, like so many, it was the start of, as his widow noted in a release, “countless moments of joy and laughter” he would deliver for the next three decades of my life. And now, he's gone.

It soon became erratic late night appearances with David Letterman and the like, as the movies flowed in. Terry Gilliam's “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” for instance, or another, much more timid Oscar-nominated performance in Peter Weir's “Dead Poets Society.” He continued to spotlight range and versatility in Penny Marshall's “Awakenings” and Gilliam's “The Fisher King.” And then hit took off with a whole new generation as a fun-loving genie in Disney's “Aladdin.”

That was a pretty major milestone, not just for Williams, but for animation and voice performances. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association handed him a special Golden Globe award for the work, in fact, and it was an organization that honored him countless times through the years, from his work on television's “Mork & Mindy” all the way through a lifetime achievement Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2005. And it was at a time when he was being discovered by children the world over, whether as a passionate cross-dressing dad in “Mrs. Doubtfire” or as a spin on a classic tale in Steven Spielberg's “Hook.”

The '90s continued to soar for Williams. Mike Nichols' underrated “The Birdcage” is a personal favorite. He moved back and forth from commercial (“Jumanji,” Francis Ford Coppola's “Jack,” “Flubber”) to prestige (Kenneth Branagh's “Hamlet”) with an ease that would make any actor jealous. And that body of work soon culminated with an Oscar-winning performance in Gus Van Sant's “Good Will Hunting” that would show yet another shade of what he was capable of, the depths of regret and experience and soul that maybe betrayed, in some way, the demons he fought in real life. But I couldn't begin to put this guy, who was always so open about the depression that plagued him (the comedian's curse, yes, but something more with him), on the couch. I just want to think about the work.

I thought he was exceptional even in the lackluster stuff. “What Dreams May Come,” for instance, or “Jakob the Liar.” When he delivered a performance in Mark Romanek's “One Hour Photo” that yet again turned our idea of what he could do on its head, we really shouldn't have been surprised. That performance even flirted with the big boys that Oscar season, being nominated alongside “About Schmidt's” Jack Nicholson and “Gangs of New York's” Daniel Day-Lewis at the Broadcast Film Critics Awards in 2003 (back when there were only three nominees) and gaining plenty of other critical attention besides. In the same breath he delivered another creepy villain, in Christopher Nolan's remake “Insomnia,” another underrated film and piece of work.

Things fell off. The fluff didn't seem to have the same whiff anymore as films like “RV” crashed and burned and successes like “Night at the Museum” gave birth to dubious sequels (with another, apparently his swan song, still to come). Tries at something in between, like Levinson's “Man of the Year,” failed to connect as well. He transitioned to TV again, but it all seemed like a priming of the pump. Sundance hit “World's Greatest Dad” seemed to hint at the fact that there was still more to mine from this performer, and it appeared we were just waiting for yet another act break, another big role that would again surprise us and show us that he had a whole other shade to offer.

That next act won't be coming. And I sort of want to flip off the universe for this one. Any death is tragic, no question, and I don't mean to seem as if I'm shining a light merely on the two high profile celebrity deaths of the year, but this on the heels of Philip Seymour Hoffman a few months ago feels like a roundhouse to the gut. These guys obviously battled demons, and in different ways, they each took their own lives.

What else can you say? This Monday sucks.

If you're up to it, share your Robin Williams stories in the comments section below. I obviously skipped a stone here but there are plenty nooks and crannies in this career and we could spend an entire afternoon discussing them. Hopefully people will be doing just that, because to again quote his widow, Susan Schneider, “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin's death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

Thanks for the laughs, sir.

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