Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin William's Five Best (Live) Film Performances

Damn, damn, damn, damn. Depression. Suicide. What a terrible, terrible loss.

Of course, I can be critical. Robin Williams manic, surreal, free-associating, vulgar-yet-somehow-never-truly-"dirty" comedy, as hilarious as it was, had a limited cross-over to electronic media. Unlike Steve Martin, he was pretty inconsistent, I think, in the ways he tried (and the energy and wit he invested in trying) to translate his particular performing style into something that worked in front of the camera. And unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman, it's pretty much indisputable that Robin Williams's best film and television work was more than 20 years in his past (in contrast to his ground-breaking stand-up routines, which he wonderfully returned to over the past decade). Still, none of that takes away the essential truth: Robin Williams was, at his best, a screamingly funny and profoundly insightful actor, an insane, improvisational, and insatiable fountain of mockery, emotion, and joy. And thanks to YouTube, posterity will be able to enjoy what he left us with. As always, in chronological order:

Moscow on the Hudson (1984): Williams loved to play weirdly ethnic characters, particularly Eastern Europeans and Russians, because somehow he knew how to plug his always-burning anger into those accents, and bring out something believable and wise. This movie, one of his first, was been unduly forgotten by most--but if you remember the 1980s, then you know that Williams played twice the Russian Yakov Smirnoff ever was.

Good Morning, Vietnam! (1987): Playing a highly fictionalized--and wonderfully so!--version of legendary Armed Forces Radio Service DJ Adrian Cronauer was probably the closest Williams's stand-up ever got to being translated to the silver screen.

Dead Poets Society (1989): For all its many faults academics like me love this film, as does anyone who wants to imagine themselves as somehow caught up in that moment of enlightenment, rebellion, and discovery which our highest myths of education all revolve around (whether we admit to it or not). In plunging headfirst into this myth, in an unpologetically manipulative and sentimental way, the movie needed as a central figure someone who could be profoundly normal while radiating a controlled madness all the same. In Williams, they found just what they needed.

The Fisher King (1991): Surely one the reasons why Williams did so well in Dead Poets Society is because he knew how to lecture--or, at least, when given lecture-type exposition, how to convey it like the best kind of teachers. I wish I could speak to my students in as captivating a way as he does multiple times in this wonderful Terry Gilliam film.

Toys (1992): Another unjustly forgotten, Gilliam-esque film, here Williams pulled off something actually quite remarkable: he plays another one of his pleasantly innocent crazies, yet his role, essentially, is that of the straight man, surrounded with much greater weirdness on all sides. A fine, fun film (with a great, early 90s pop soundtrack, by the way).

What am I missing? Well, I did say "live" performances, didn't I?

No comments: