Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Film Babble Blog’s Top 10 Robin Williams Films

I was extremely saddened as well as shocked to hear yesterday evening that Robin Williams was found dead at age 63 of an apparent suicide.

Since I was a huge fan as a kid – it was the era of Mork and Mindy, POPEYE, and his first stand-up comedy album “Reality…What a Concept” (still have the original vinyl, pictured on the left) – and I’d seen nearly every movie the man made in the three decades since (as well as tons of TV appearances on just about every talk show there is), I've been finding it very difficult to process William’s passing.

However, one thing that helps is to look back at his rich career, particularly his legacy on film since this blog is all about babbling 'bout that. I compiled a list of my 10 favorite of Williams' many movies, which I am sharing below. I have to say with a “heavy sigh” (as Mork would say) that it wasn’t easy as he was in many lackluster or just plain sucky films (I’m looking at you PATCH ADAMS, JACK, MAN OF THE YEAR, RV, FATHER’S DAY, CLUB PARADISE, the list goes on and on), but I’m here to praise Williams not bury him.

So I’m going to forget the fluff, flops, and FLUBBER and remember the times he most made me laugh, as well as touch something deeper, on the big screen via these fine, unforgettable films (several of which are available for streaming on Netflix Instant):

(Dir. Terry Gilliam, 1991)

Williams' performance as Parry, a homeless Holy Grail-seeking New Yorker, garnered him his second Oscar nomination (#4 on this list was his first). It was the perfect mix of his manic madman schtick and his somber sad sack personas, an alteration he could make simultaneously. For instance, an early scene in Parry's boiler room hideout when Jeff Bridges as a down and out former radio shock jock is exiting: “Now that you know where we are, don't be a stranger. Come back. We'll rummage.” Then less than a beat later in a softer tone, “Take care of yourself, Jack. Give my love to the wife.”

Williams also recites tender speeches to Amanda Plummer as a mousy accountant he loves, croons the standard “How About You?” backed by a band of bums, and strips naked in Central Park at night to lie in the grass, look at the sky and participate in what he calls “cloud busting.” Mercedes Ruehl, who won the Oscar (well deserved) for her role as Bridges' long suffering girlfriend, may have held the heart of the movie, but Williams was its bungled and botched soul.

2. POPEYE (Dir. Robert Altman, 1980)

Although its box office doubled its budget, and there were many critics that liked it (including Roger Ebert), Robert Altman's take on E.C. Segar's famous comic strip, and cartoon, character was largely considered a commercial and critical flop (see Mad Magazine's satire “Flopeye”). I had issues with it myself as a kid but it's really grown on me over the years. Williams is perfectly cast as the salty sailor with the comically large forearms (matched with the equally dead-on Shelly Duvall as Olive Oyl), although much of his mumbled dialogue is unintelligible. It really stands out as a film debut for the Julliard trained actor, who despite the rough reaction, proved there was a lot more to him than Mork.

Also check out my post about the film's strange soundtrack scored by Harry Nilsson.

(Dir. George Roy Hill, 1982)

Instead of retreating into the conventional comedy comfort zone that would plague much of his career, Williams followed up POPEYE with this lofty adaptation of John Irving's 1978 bestselling novel. The fan that I was at the time, I read the book (my parent's copy) in anticipation, which wasn't really appropriate material for a 12 year old.

Although I loved the ethos of Williams' everyman dealing with the sexual revolution, and John Lithgow's blustery Oscar-nominated portrayal of a former pro football player turned trans woman, I didn't really get the movie when I saw it at that age - but it my opened my eyes way wide for sure. Williams, no doubt, led many youngsters into edgy adult territory with this one.

(Dir. Barry Levinson, 1987)

Williams' first Oscar nomination was for his role as Armed Forces DJ Adrian Cronauer, a real life radio personality who ruled the airwaves in 1965 Vietnam. It's a definitive Williams performance, in a fine film that much like M*A*S*H successfully mixed humor with dark drama, but what's most memorable about is the in-your-face, over-the-top man's many hilarious broadcast booth scenes. The audio of these are well captured on the soundtrack, which you can read more about in my 2009 post 10 Movie Soundtracks That Think Outside The box Office.

(Dir. Bobcat Goldthwait, 2009)

Williams' last great movie was also one of his gutsiest. He plays a high school poetry teacher and aspiring writer whose douchey son (Daryl Sabara) accidentally kills himself via autoerotic asphyxiation. Williams writes a suicide note to cover for him, and when that gets a lot of attention he fakes a journal of his son's writing which scores him a publishing deal. It's twisted stuff, right in line with the weird yet intriguing rest of writer/director Goldthwait's output (SHAKES THE CLOWN, SLEEPING DOGS LIE, GOD BLESS AMERICA), and Williams nakedly owns it.

(Dir. Terry Gilliam, 1988)

It could be seen as a glorified cameo, but as the floating, disembodied chatterbox head of the King of the Moon for his first feature with Gilliam, Williams stole the movie fair and square.

7. MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON (Dir. Paul Mazursky, 1984)

In another dramatic curve ball, Williams role as Vladmir Ivanov, a Russian circus musician who defects to America, is one of his most believable and grounded performances. It also is the basis of the theory that if Williams is bearded in a film, we're dealing with serious stuff. Soviet born Yakov Smirnov, a sensation in the '80s for his communism mocking comedy, had a small part in the movie. Of course he did.

8. AWAKENINGS (Dir. Penny Marshall, 1990)

Williams' role as a physician experimenting with a new drug on Parkinson's patients in this adaptation of Oliver Sack's 1973 memoir again backs up the beard theory, but more importantly its another dose of weighty yet warm work in which he keeps the wackiness under wraps. Aided by a sharp screenplay by Steven Zaillian (SCHINDLER'S LIST, GANGS OF NEW YORK, MONEYBALL), Williams' relationship with Robert De Niro, yet again Oscar nominated, as a patient who comes out of a long catatonic state, is a joyous collaboration that helps make it Penny Marshall's best film (yes, better than BIG and A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN imho).

(Dir. Gus Van Sant, 1997)

The fourth time was the charm nomination-wise, as Williams won the Oscar for his part as Matt Damon's therapist (bearded) in this highly acclaimed, crowd pleasing drama scripted by Damon and Ben Affleck (who also won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay). Williams made quite a mark in his sensitive portrayal of a widowed psychologist, and was able to fit in some funniness as well.

10. THE FINAL CUT (Dir. Omar Naim, 2004)

Probably the least well known movie on this list, and possibly the worst reviewed, this is a personal favorite because it came during a period in which I had written off Williams. His sober nuanced performance as “a cutter,” somebody who edits the memories of the newly deceased into two hour movies to be viewed as their funeral (the sci-fi tinged film takes place in the near future) made more of an impression on me than his widely praised part in the way too creepy ONE HOUR PHOTO from two years earlier. 

Other notable Williams film work: 


R.I.P. Robin Williams (1951-2014)

More later...

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