By The Taste Basket Team
In light of yesterday’s tragic news of the death of the legendary Robin Williams, we here at The Taste Basket joined together to look back on our favorite Williams film roles. There is really not much else to do—before this, we were speechless.
Robin Williams has meant a lot to each of us for several different reasons. Though none of us knew him, most of us felt like we did. He was a bold, flamboyant neighbor; a comforting face on the TV set. While he often felt this close and intimate, Williams in truth was larger than life; a pure force of both comedic and dramatic proportions on the big screen. And his remarkably unique presence in the world of entertainment felt, to us, almost immortal.
Unfortunately, we cannot cover the man’s entire career in one post, but here’s what we talk about when we talk about Robin Williams:
Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
Somehow, being a child of immigrants, loving Robin Williams came as naturally in the household as loving Bill Clinton. At least it felt that way to me, despite both my grandmother and mother seeing a clown for the most part. Robin Williams, that is; they still really, really love Bill Clinton.
Other than still sleeping on my Aladdin bed sheets, I think mostly of Moscow on the Hudson—a powerful document of immigration into this country, not just for Russians, but for humans in the 1980’s. We follow Robin Williams as a Russian circus musician who defects in the New York Bloomingdales from his KGB-eyed job on a trip to the ‘Big Apple.’ He stays with a black family that mirrors his own—three generations stuffed into a tiny apartment doing their best—and falls for an Italian-princess-looking immigrant girl.
I don’t mean to write movie description much more here, but I get carried away. He has a mental breakdown in a supermarket because he’s never seen so many brands of things in clean aisles. He gets mugged at the entrance to his own apartment. He works the cycle of immigrant jobs in a big city. He starts to wear blue jeans.
The culture shock of Manhattan compared to standing in freezing lines for toilet paper is depicted bluntly even amidst the absurdity of the Bloomingdale’s defection or Robin Williams’ terrible Russian that he speaks in the film. Perhaps that is what I have been trying to putter out of here: that this film was adored by my Russian immigrant family, shown to me, and I have continued by showing everyone who spends enough time with me, and it stars a man with atrocious Russian. But we LOVE it.
Somehow, that nonsense of it all swirls into the power of the film, and in this case, Robin Williams’ undeniable charm and allure as a human being (regardless of what the ladies of my family think). It provides an idea of the difficulty and insane drive towards selfhood that so many people undertook, and continue to undertake. It helped me see a version of my own family’s story told through a warm face and voice I already knew from the screen.
We like the people that make children smile and adults giggle too. We respect the people that make us all think a little differently, a little more. And in the wake of such awful news, we are left with much to think about. Memory, humor, talent, being alive, not being alive; it’s not easy, living. But we are still here, and life is for the living, not the what-ifs.
We are lucky that in our impossible contemplations of life, death, and memory that lie ahead, we have the talents of a man like Robin Williams to either distract or guide us. That is something that is never lost to the people who continue.
I started writing about a movie that I really like, and ended up trying to make sense of digesting a piece of shitty news like this.
It wasn’t a hit when it was released in 1991 and it’s gotten a lot of flack over the years, but Hook is not only my favorite Robin Williams movie, it’s also in my top 10 list of all time favorite movies. Directed by Steven Spielberg, Hook tells the story of Peter Pan all grown up, living an uptight and career-driven life as a husband and father of two children. However, when Captain Hook, played by Dustin Hoffman, snatches his kids up, Pan must travel back to Neverland, confront the legendary past he left behind, and get his kids back.
Williams carries the movie—while enhanced by Julia Roberts’ Tinkerbell in various scenes—with a performance that’s so well-rounded. As a stern father, Williams is intimidating, temperamental, and no fun. As Pan rekindling his friendship with the Lost Boys and finding himself again, Williams is charming, funny and childlike. And at the end, when Pan’s in his “smashing” green tights, wielding his sword at Hook’s neck and knocking him off his feet, Williams is a heroic badass.
His performance also makes me weepy. There’s something in Williams’ eyes that is just so gentle and sweet and really sad, and it makes you want to hug him and cheer him on. Williams’ return as Pan at the end of the movie still gives me goosebumps. He is soaring in the air towards Hook’s ship, with a look of pure joy and adventure in his eyes. As a kid, I felt safe with Williams here. I knew he’d save the day and have a sweet reunion with his son and daughter that would warm anybody’s heart. And that’s all I wanted for him. Williams as Pan was my hero. And his performance made me wish I was his son Jack in that movie. That little piss-ant Jack. Doesn’t even appreciate that Robin Williams is his dad!
I’ve probably seen that movie 34 times and yet, whenever it’s on, I have to watch the whole thing. It’s one of those movies for me. It’s my immediate magic carpet (Aladdin? See what I did there?) back to my childhood, sitting on my grandparents’ orange tiled floor in the living room, drawing Peter Pan tearing Captain Hook a new one in blue ink, eating grilled cheese; watching Hook and being 100% content because I knew Robin Williams, my hero, was going to get his kids back from the evil Dustin Hoffman.
If Tinkerbell were to tell me to find my Happy Thought and hold onto it, in order for me to fly up to the sky, that would be it.
Robin Williams is my Happy Thought.
One man can contain multitudes, is my chosen takeaway from Aladdin, and I’m sticking to it. I’m not about to say actors are fungible (though really, if you were to put Jeff Daniels into all of Bill Pullman’s movies, who would know the difference?) but there have been few roles more suited to the unique talents of an actor than Robin Williams as the Genie. That’s because it was tailor-made for him. They showed him test footage of the character doing his act just to convince him to take it on. And it made the movie what it was.
The man had three modes: Bearded Drama Robin, Puckish Man-Child (or Child-Man) With a Heart of Gold and Life-Affirming Mischief Streak Robin, and Everything Ever From a Talking Backhoe to Joan Rivers, Groucho Marx, Pat Sajak, Don King, Grand Marshal of a Parade and an Entire Crowd of People Robin. This turn belonged to the last one. Williams was given free reign to be on. And he was always on; manic, nebulous, changeable like his blue vapor avatar. It’s a rare instance of a performance informing the entire direction of a film, and, in the medium of animation, he could shape it just about as much as he wanted.
In the end, though, the Genie’s fate is touched with poignancy. He is near-omnipotent, but he is made to serve. Out of the lamp, he has to act his part, to entertain and embolden our Diamond in the Rough hero. The gold manacles on his wrists chafe and sometimes, between the gags and the constant front of fun, we can miss the toll this showmanship takes.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
I do not come from a childhood of divorce. I did, however, learn about divorce at a young age. It was Mrs. Doubtfire that brought the concept—one so deeply scary for a little kid who doesn’t know much about the real world—to life. I had many questions about the lives of my cousins and friends in relation to their first-hand experiences with parental splits, and what I usually ended up with was the face value of the matter: Mom and Dad live in different houses, one day you’re here, one day you’re there. And that was that. Perhaps it was easier for these kids to just think of it this way. It seemed less painful. But Mrs. Doubtfire showed me the raw, rapid trajectory of two parents (Robin Williams and Sally Field) who were no longer in love, and it taught me to really, truly empathize.
The Hillard marriage, albeit bruised and panting, is still alive at the beginning of the film. But when Williams’ free-spirited yet recently unemployed voice actor Daniel throws a “don’t tell Mom” crazy birthday party for his son, Chris (complete with goats eating soccer-themed birthday cakes to House of Pain’s “Jump Around”), all-business Miranda Hillard (Field) is ultimately dissatisfied with Daniel’s parenting style and pops the nega-question. What ensues is an immediate bout of begging, and eventually, when Miranda does not budge, we find ourselves at a court hearing where Daniel learns that, even in the eyes of the law, he is not a “suitable father” to his three kids. Williams gives a heartbreaking, organically desperate performance. It all happens so fast.
Of course, the midsection of the film is fat with kooky optimism, in that, let’s not forget: Daniel Hillard takes advantage of his acting talent to become an elderly Scottish nanny named Euphegenia Doubtfire. And as much as I believed Hillard would do something so outlandish so as to be with his children, so did I believe that Robin Williams might, too. His comic range in Mrs. Doubtfire is unmatched—from “Figaro!”, to the post-divorce job interview which serves doubly as an impressions reel, to “Matchmaking” in the studio with Harvey Fierstein’s infectious Uncle Frank, to whip-cream facial masks and boobs-on-fire, vacuum-dancing and peeing standing up—the role felt perfect, only accomplishable by the legend himself. Just as Williams’ comedic force felt somehow rooted, yes, in sadness—it felt rooted also in pure love and humanity.
By the end of the film, Daniel Hillard, found out by his family and ashamed on that front, steels himself against the law and uses his zany shortcoming as proof of the wild love of a father. To the judge, Williams’ wavering voice proclaims, “I’m addicted to my children, sir.”
And so he moves on, gaining legal joint custody of Lydia, Chris, and Nat, and eventually making his big break on TV as Mrs. Doubtfire herself.
But what really moves at the conclusion of the film is the state of the Hillard family at large, and by extension, the state of every family that has ever experienced divorce. Mrs. Doubtfire responds on-air to a letter sent by a young viewer with parents on the verge of splitting, and the Hillards are at home watching. The whole Mrs. Doubtfire story is topped by a brilliant, sort of microcosmic bow when Williams-as-Hillard-as-Doubtfire says that, while all the world’s families cannot be traditional, “…if there’s love, dear, those are the ties that bind—and you’ll have a family in your heart forever.”
My well wishes to the Williams clan.
The Birdcage (1996)
As Christine Baranski’s Katherine Archer points out, The Birdcage glistens like Armand’s gold medallion in his nest of hair. It’s vibrant, exciting, and most of all, hilarious. I believe it’s a perfect comedy. The dynamic between Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) is irresistible. There’s such a beautiful balance between Armand’s dryness and Albert’s flamboyance—there’s a real affection there.
These characters know each other. They lead a shared existence and I feel this every time I watch it. When I’m writing stories of my own, I think about The Birdcage and the specificity of its setting—a drag club in South Beach, Florida, as well as its characters. The Birdcage serves as a character in itself. Armand and Albert, through their choice in wardrobe and color scheme, reflect their environment. They wear patterns and tiger bathrobes and they embody warmth and attitude. They are distinct, individual characters.
I can watch The Birdcage from any point in the plot and I slip right inside, like an old familiar shoe—in Albert’s case, a shiny white clog, and in Armand’s case, a brown leather sandal. I think when a film, or any piece of art, is truly good, it lives and breathes and endures. It can be watched over and over, and each time something funny or new reveals itself.
It’s totally weird that Francis Ford Coppola directed Jack. The film, branded by this cinematic legend, was released and simultaneously panned in 1996. Some moviegoers were confused; why would the guy behind The Godfather and Apocalypse Now waste his time on a family film? And then, after seeing Jack, some threw tomatoes on the grounds that its tone was stark in contrast; its silly, light-hearted parts were lacerated by melodrama. Coppola, how could you!?
But it’s also weird, in a way, that Linklater (though acclaimed for his versatility) did School of Rock, isn’t it? Of course, that one did well; it’s arguably become a staple of the millennial generation’s cinematic cabinet. It was light-hearted and fun and 85% family-friendly. It didn’t have a tragic twinge like Jack, so it wasn’t susceptible to heavy-handedness. Sure, it was directed by the same guy who piloted the cult Before Sunrise trilogy and the gritty, uncomfortably animated A Scanner Darkly—but it was its star, the popular comedic actor Jack Black, who drew folks in.
Considering this while looking back on Jack, the formula is similar. The draw to Jack is undoubtedly Robin Williams. And for me, despite the film’s poor critical reception, Williams gave a performance which, to many other actors, would be a great challenge. The movie needed him, and he gave himself over completely.
Williams in Jack came before Pitt in Benjamin Button, and, while after Willis in Look Who’s Talking, trumped that one on two levels: 1. The character of Jack was not some fantastical, precocious version of a kid, and 2. Williams wasn’t in a sound booth—he was playing a ten-year-old child with his god-given body, hairy knuckles and all.
Sure, it’s a sentimental movie. Maybe even overly sentimental. But its scenes remain etched in my memory: rapidly aging Jack finding comfort in laser tag with Mom and Dad (Diane Lane and Brian Kerwin), hiding comically in a full-size cardboard box after a bad day, making his first friends at school, eating gross concoctions in his tree-house (with Bill Cosby, no less). The touchier stuff, too: Jack going into sudden, disease-specific cardiac arrest when his first crush, Miss Marquez (Jennifer Lopez), explains her feelings are not mutual—his buddy Louie coming quickly to his aid. And of course the film’s ending sequence, seven years later, where we see a now elderly Jack graduating from high school.
In fact, Jack’s valedictory speech at this graduation ceremony (in which he urges his classmates that life is short, and to “make your life spectacular”) is especially tender considering current events, and is evocative of Williams’ emotional book-ending of Mrs. Doubtfire in 1993. Corny? Maybe, if it weren’t the skilled Robin Williams doing it—and this can be similarly applied to many of his films.
During the 1990’s, Williams saw the bulk of his highly emotional work as an actor, and yet I believe he tackled each role with a sad kind of sincerity and had little inconsistencies in terms of quality of performance. In short, Robin Williams was always the selling point.
So Jack, then, is not such a bad movie. Rather, the role of Jack is a pretty important undertaking of Williams’, and I think even Coppola should be proud.
What Dreams May Come (1998)
Like many other people yesterday, I was absolutely devastated upon hearing of the death of Robin Williams. Having such a warm, funny and compassionate person be taken away from us so soon made me completely numb inside. Upon hearing the news, I was sad, angry, confused and a whole plethora of other emotions. As I sat in complete silence, weeping over the death of a celebrity who shaped my childhood, I thought about another death that completely shook me to my core.
In the waning months of my senior year of high school, my English teacher Ms. Lisa Cooke unexpectedly died. The news completely shocked my entire school. She was known as a very intelligent, funny, and compassionate teacher students looked up to, and liked to be around. I was one of these students, as I had her both in my advanced English course and as an advisor to our chapter of the National Honors Society. Through both outlets, Ms. Cooke, my classmates, and I had a very good repertoire as we waxed philosophical about a piece of literature one moment and then goofed around the next.
Being so tight-knit in her class, my advanced English classmates and I really didn’t know how to deal with this unexpected loss. In the days following the funeral, one of my classmates decided to have us over so we could watch What Dreams May Come. We thought it might be fitting to watch a film that focused on such themes as death and the afterlife. We thought that we could discuss the film much like we discussed the literature in her class. As we huddled in my classmate’s living room, dumbfounded and completely lost, we watched this beautiful and emotionally driven film.
I had seen bits and pieces of the film on television in my childhood, but this was the first time I had watched the film in its entirety. It was completely breathtaking in how it presented the afterlife, from the colorful Neverland-esque Heaven sequences to the dreary, horrifying sequences in Hell. At the centerpiece of this amazing film was Mr. Williams himself. Having known him primarily from his comedic and animation roles, this was the first time I fully witnessed his greatness as a dramatic actor. Portraying a man who has experienced both Heaven and Hell, Robin Williams completely runs the gamut of the emotional range. From childlike wonder as he explores Heaven, to his undying determination in saving his wife, Robin gives an emotionally heavy performance, and gives it completely. You could tell just by watching his performance, how much his character absolutely loved his wife. He was willing to literally go through Hell and back just to save her soul from eternal damnation.
After watching the film, we classmates all felt a sort of catharsis in regards to Ms. Cooke’s death. Although her death had stung our hearts, What Dreams May Come helped unite us in both grief and in remembering her life and legacy. With that same stinging happening now around the world, many others are willing to watch this movie to feel the same way about Williams. I hope to revisit What Dreams May Come in order to gain more closure for the passing of a brilliant performer and person.
R.I.P. Robin Williams.
Patch Adams (1998)
As a kid, my most sincere wish was to swim in a pool full of noodles. I owe this strange desire to repeated TV broadcasts of Patch Adams, a 1998 Robin Williams classic that follows the life of a mental patient-turned-med student who treats his patients’ sicknesses with humor.
With the death of its leading man yesterday, I can’t help but see the parallels between the life of Patch Adams on the screen and the life of Robin Williams. I think back to that pivotal scene where Adams stands on a cliff, questioning God and contemplating suicide after the brutal murder of his girlfriend at the hands of a patient. After so much time spent sharing humor and happiness with others, Adams cannot see why God can let such cruelty happen in his life. There, on the cliff side, when it seems all hope is lost, Adams sees a butterfly, and is reminded of the wonder and beauty of life.
It seems almost too appropriate now that the man who lent us his comedy and light for years, treating our sadness and our bad days and our lonely hours, could not bear the weight of the world we live in. But it makes me wonder: where was Robin Williams’ butterfly? Where was the divine intervention that might have saved our real world Patch Adams?
The answer is simple: in this life, there are no signs from God; there are only the things we choose to make meaning of. For me, I find meaning in Patch Adams. I find meaning in the nights I spent running from the living room to the kitchen and back for snacks on commercial breaks, determined not to miss a second of the movie. I find meaning in the way that Robin Williams made me laugh and cry in equal measure with his incredible acting and huge capacity for emotion on camera. I choose to take these things and create a world filled with the wonder and beauty that Patch Adams finds on that cliff. The world has suffered a great loss in Robin Williams, and I can only hope that we can reconcile the loss of such a great man with the reality of a life worth living here on earth.
It was not Robin Williams’ time to die, but it would be a dishonor to his memory to forget the things his iconic roles have shown us, or to give up looking for the butterflies when we find ourselves at a cliff. Patch Adams taught me that our time on earth is both beautiful and brief, and I hope when the time comes for me to pass on to whatever comes after this life, there is a pool full of noodles waiting for me on the other side.
One Hour Photo (2002)
Most of the films discussed in this memorial post are comedies. And for good reason. Robin Williams was one of the most undeniably funny people to ever appear on screen, but part of what made him such a brilliant comic actor was the seriousness and sincerity he brought to every role. Let us not forget, Robin Williams was a Julliard graduate, and that fundamental training and discipline shines through in even his silliest roles. Okay, well, maybe not Flubber.
It’s always a treat, then, to see Williams play a role where he drops the comedy entirely, and we can appreciate his immense craft. One Hour Photo is not one of Williams’ most popular films, even amongst his serious movies, but in it, he delivers one of the most breathtaking performances of his career. Williams plays Seymour “Sy” Parrish, a photo technician at the one-hour photo developing clinic of a SavMart. Aging and lonely, Sy becomes obsessed with a family whose photos he develops, idealizing their seemingly perfect marriage. When he finds photographic evidence of an affair, he snaps. The guiding light in his life has been taken away and we watch his descent into madness. His performance is haunting, arresting, and simply wonderful. I have yet to see a more frightening or heartbreaking film, and its success is due almost entirely to Williams.
There are comedic actors and actresses who take on serious roles, and there are serious actors and actresses who take on comedic roles, but no one has ever done both as effortlessly and convincingly as Robin Williams. It’s unlikely that anyone else ever will.
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
Many of us know Robin Williams for the manic energy that he brings to his many comedic roles. The film that sticks out in my mind from his filmography definitely has to be World’s Greatest Dad, a pitch black comedy from writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait that had Williams (and the rest of the cast) wrestling with all sorts of demons while creating laughs that stick in your throat. A brutal dressing down of the post-mortem bandwagon and intense character study where Williams is allowed to bare his chest (literally and figuratively), World’s Greatest Dad is one for the history books.
People are so familiar with Williams as a comedian that the depths he sinks (rises?) to are legitimately shocking. Here, he’s Lance Clayton, a high school teacher and failed author whose life is slipping through the cracks; his poetry class is on the wane (insert Dead Poets reference here), his girlfriend Claire (Alexie Gilmore) won’t be seen with him in public, and his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is a nihilistic hellion who rejects life like it’s a sickness. In the event of a family emergency that I won’t spoil, Clayton finds himself in a position where his writing will be recognized and adored by millions—at the cost of his soul.
World’s Greatest Dad deserves to stand in Williams’ pantheon because it’s unafraid to ask questions that matter, and neither is Williams with his performance. He and Goldthwait open the door on a man who’s been rejected for most of his life and allows himself to be consumed by greed and self-loathing…and the irony is too damn palpable to not be hysterical. The film is a comedy after all, albeit a very deranged and twisted one, and the one-damn-thing-after-another piling up of good fortune on bloodied hands while classmates of the dejected Kyle begin to claim he was their friend makes for some biting satire.
Plus everyone sells the hell out of their roles. Sabara’s Kyle is repulsive to the point of being a cartoon character, which works for this kind of story, and Gilmore takes the role of Claire through some pretty drastic changes. And it all just works. The full capacity for acting, both dramatic and comedic, present in Robin Williams is given full space to shine in World’s Greatest Dad.
The Taste Basket Team mourns the loss of the great Robin Williams.
Some important food for thought in the wake of Williams’ death can be found here on Cracked.com. Executive Editor David Wong (“What is the Monkeysphere?”, New York Times Bestselling Author: John Dies at the End), breaks the unfortunate truth about depression and its prevalence among famous funny people.
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