Fact check: Did Robin Williams’ improv skills really sink ‘Aladdin’s’ Oscar chances?

(CBR) MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Robin Williams ad-libbed so much of “Aladdin” that the film was rejected for a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Tragically, Robin Williams passed away Monday at the age of 63. With the unexpected death of such a comedy icon, the internet is filled to the brim with tributes to the beloved actor. Along with those tributes have come a number of, for lack of a better term, “lists of interesting facts about Robin Williams.” That”s not surprising, of course, as numbered lists have become incredibly popular. However, I”ve noticed something distressing about them: They use a lot of the same “facts” that don”t appear to be verified at all, instead seemingly going under the theory of “Well, if Site X and Y are reporting it, I guess we can, too.” That”s pretty standard behavior for small independent websites, but I”m talking about The Huffington Post and CBS News.

Honestly, it looks like writers are just pulling items from the Internet Movie Database”s trivia page. The issue, of course, is that those “facts” are user-submitted and are often unsourced, leaving the truth behind them up in the air. One fact I”ve seen repeated a number of times over the past few days is that Williams ad-libbed so much of his dialogue as the Genie in Aladdin (a role that ended up causing him a lot of aggravation, as we covered in an earlier Movie Legends Revealed) that the film was ineligible for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Is that true?

A few common elements make my skeptic radar ping when it comes to “facts” on the internet. The most common one is what I mentioned earlier about lack of sources. If an interesting fact is just tossed out there without anything backing it up, it stands out as suspicious. Another major one is when the same fact is reported in numerous different ways. Here”s how I”ve seen it reported just this week:

  • “Because Robin Williams ad-libbed so many of his lines, the script [for Aladdin] was turned down for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination.”
  • “Again, it is thought that Williams ad-libbed a lot of his lines in Aladdin; so much so that producers ended up with over 16 hours” worth of material, and the film could not be submitted for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars.”
  • “Because Williams ad-libbed so many of his lines, the script didn”t get a nomination for best adapted screenplay at the Oscars.”
  • “So much of Williams” wild performance was improvised that the Academy turned down the film”s submission in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.” This quote from the Cleveland Plain Dealer was what the Huffington Post used as a citation for the following quote:
  • “Apparently, the Academy Awards rejected the bid for “Aladdin” in the Best Adapted Screenplay category because so much of Williams role ended up being improvised.”
  • “According to reports, the 1992 Disney film was turned down for a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination because Williams had ad-libbed so many of his lines as the goofy but loyal Genie.” (Do you know what the “report” was for that last one? The IMDb trivia page for “Aladdin”!)

When you have that much variety, it”s often because there”s no true original source to go to so, there”s no consistency in how the story is reported.

So in checking to see whether this was true, I first read a number of Williams biographies and books about “Aladdin” and searched through contemporary news accounts of the time and found no evidence of the Academy denying “Aladdin” a nomination for the stated reason (I did come across an interesting opinion piece by Phil Rosenthal about how Williams deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the role as the Genie).

Secondly, I considered the question: Was it even odd for “Aladdin” to not be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay? Not at in the least. In fact, no animated film had ever been nominated for a screenplay Academy Award. Not “Snow White,” not “Bambi,” not “Dumbo” and more importantly, not “The Little Mermaid” or “Beauty and the Beast” (“Aladdin’s” contemporaries). Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture (“Aladdin” was not) and it still didn”t receive a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (“Toy Story” became the first animated film to receive a nod in that category). So it was unsurprising that “Aladdin” was passed over for a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. However, it would”ve been surprising if it had received one.

So without any evidence that it was specifically denied an Oscar nod, and considering no other Disney animated film had been nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, it already seems highly unlikely this story is true.

But here”s the kicker: Improvised films are eligible for Best Screenplay! There are a number of examples of films with extensive ad-libbing that later received nominations in that category, including “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Shrek,” but the most famous example is 2006's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” which was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay despite the vast majority of the film being improvised (and not just one character”s dialogue).

With all of this factored in, I feel safe in saying that this legend is …


Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.