It’s hard to believe that it’s almost six years since the world lost Robin Williams, and it feels like we lost a little bit of joy with him.
Many thousands of words have been written in the time since then eulogising someone who I consider to be one of the all-time greats. Not only a comedic spark unlike any other, not only an incredibly gifted actor but an anarchic spirit, whose air of unpredictability carried a special aura that will never be replicated.
He had an incredibly successful 35-year film career that covered many genres, so join me as I celebrate the incredible career and life of the wonderful Robin Williams.
Honourable Mention – Patch Adams as Hunter “Patch” Adams
I’ve included this with some trepidation, as Patch Adams isn’t a particularly great film, but it is an example of Williams being a positive influence, even when the material wasn’t up to his standard.
It was a performance that shows his softer side, that sweet, familiar face we’d come to know helped his character feel more inviting, even though the film was, at best, mediocre.
A film I wouldn’t blame you if you skipped, but still something worthy of mention here.
10: Mrs Doubtfire as Eugenia Doubtfire/Daniel Hillard
I’ll admit, despite this being a childhood favourite of many, this film doesn’t quite hold up to modern eyes, despite its still obvious charms.
But, focusing centrally on the performance, it’s transformative and endearing, Eugenia Doubtfire became an instantly recognisable and quotable part of movie history pretty much overnight, and the narrative of a father fighting to see his children lends another emotional aspect to the tale.
While not being one of my favourite films, it still remains a beloved performance from Williams and a taste of the comedy genius that lied beneath the caked-on makeup and outrageous accent.
It’s rather juvenile, but the way he grabs the role with both hands is what ultimately makes this performance as endearing and memorable as it is, it simply wouldn’t work without his commitment to the part, he went all-in on it, and it shows.
9: World’s Greatest Dad as Lance Clayton
A bit of a dark horse here, and somewhat of a forgotten gem amongst his extended cinematography, but there’s still something about World’s Greatest Dad that makes it notable, and worthy of inclusion.
It’s one of his films that have become a slightly uncomfortable watch after his death, he was in a few films that at least mention the topic of suicide, and knowing how he would meet his end ultimately makes this an even sadder watch.
It’s a film that lies directly on the border of his comedic and dramatic talents. One that sadly gets lost in the shuffle when discussing his best performances, granted, the material he had to work with was nowhere near the levels of some of his more acclaimed parts, but he is what makes the film work, his portrayal of the character, without him, the film would fall apart.
It is, however, quite a dark film, especially with the benefit of hindsight, and that might be enough to put people off, and Williams’ character isn’t a clear-cut hero either, but as usual, he gives the material everything he can, and still somehow comes out looking sympathetic, despite doing some very questionable things.
Despite it sadly being somewhat lost to the mists of time, and not being a noteworthy success either critically or commercially, World’s Greatest Dad still deals with difficult issues head-on, with well-handled humour and more than its fair share of heart. It’s just a shame more people haven’t seen it.
8: The Birdcage as Amand Goldman
I often find myself admiring Williams more subtle performances more than his outlandish comedic ones, no matter how watchable he is, there’s just something to be said for his versatility, and his ability to play against type, using his reputation as a way of proving people wrong; and that perfectly encapsulates his performance in The Birdcage.
It isn’t very often Robin was outdone for zaniness unless he wanted to be, and this is a fine example, which sees Robin play the quieter part of a gay couple who run a drag bar, opposite the outlandishly brilliant Nathan Lane as his partner, Albert.
There was something immensely satisfying about watching this film, seeing Williams in a more controlled role, and allowing himself to be upstaged by another outlandish character, instead, he finds himself to be at the emotional heart of the story.
An American adaptation of the French classic La Cage Aux Folles, The Birdcage sees Amand’s son from a previous relationship wanting to introduce his fiancees socially conservative parents to his family, along the way trying to convince Amand and Albert to hide their homosexuality.
It’s an intriguing mix of moral drama and fish-out-of-water comedy (mostly provided by Lane) and the result will just warm the cockles of your heart. Williams and Lane have great chemistry together, and in one of his more contained performances, Robin really shines on his own too.
7: Aladdin as The Genie/Peddler
It says a lot about the man that the performance using only his voice can find itself in the Top 10; but as anyone who knows the film will attest, he didn’t just play the Genie, he encapsulated it.
Apparently, the script for this film was disqualified for contention for an Oscar because of the amount of improvisation Williams did for the Genie, and it turns out animation is the perfect field to let his stream of consciousness delivery run wild, as the animation team tries to keep up with his frantic pace and tailor the animations around his performance, that is a different kind of trust, and a different kind of respect to show an actor.
Like most things he did, he didn’t just roll up to Aladdin for an easy paycheck, he threw himself into it, he was essentially given free rein to ‘go nuts’ with the character and take it in any direction he fled it needed, as long as he was hitting the right story beats.
The result is a show-stealing performance from the Genie that’s so beloved, that anyone who succeeded him has been looked upon as nothing more than a pale imitation. This is where a generation of fans first learned of Robin and his rapid-fire style, and I dare say it’ll hold up for generations to come.
6: One Hour Photo as Sky Parrish
In the words of Monty Python: ‘and now for something completely different…’
One Hour Photo is one of those films that pas a lot of people by, it didn’t receive a great amount of hype upon release, yet it shows a side rarely seen of its leading performer.
I don’t want to say too much about it, as I have reviewed it in full before (One Hour Photo Review) but Williams is unsettlingly sinister in this dark thriller, as he plays a lonely man obsessed with a seemingly happy family.
His ability to be unnerving was rarely seen, but still finely honed as shown here, it’s easy to forget while watching this film that the man behind it is the man behind so many affable, and instantly loveable characters. He truly transforms into a chilling example of loneliness and makes us forget his usual friendly persona in the process.
5: Dead Poets Society as John Keating
In the course of his career, Robin Williams received four Oscar Nominations (three for Best Leading Actor, and one for Best Supporting) and all four of those nominated performances appear in the Top 5.
Now, I’m not a massive fan of the Oscars, as some of you may know, but I do think they got these nominations right, and he could have possibly felt hard done to not to have won at least one more statuette.
Dead Poets Society was his second nominated performance and one that was heavily referenced in tributes to him after his death. This is after all the film with the now-famous ‘oh Captain, my captain’ scene that has been paid tribute to several times in the following few years. It’s also an example of another such movie that becomes a little more uncomfortable to watch after his death.
I would say that this is perhaps one of Wiliams’ most tender performances, he’s certainly a bit more understated here than he was in other films, the larger-than-life comedy persona is dialled back to reveal a gentler side to him, one with a tremendous amount of heart, which would also serve him well in future performances.
It’s the tale of a teacher with new and exciting ideas challenging the norm, in a way that reflects his own personality perfectly, he was always a personality that ran against the norm, and this just shows the influence such a personality has.
It is a showing of just how consistently good he was that a portrayal such as John Keating can only rank fifth, as the character is the type of teacher we all want to have; influential, passionate, and just a little bit irreverent, played with such joyfulness and heart that lifted the film from middling school drama to memorable emotional journey.
4: What Dreams May Come as Chris Nielsen
This is one I’ve only just watched and one that I’m not entirely sure I completely understood on a first watch; it really does feel like one of those films that makes more sense the more you rewatch it, which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it, but I enjoyed it because of its performances and subtext, rather than its slightly surreal delivery of said subtext.
Here’s a basic summary: Chris Nielsen (Williams) plays a man killed in a car accident, a few years after his two children also perished in similar circumstances, he finds himself in a heavenly landscape, made up of images based off his wife’s paintings. After his wife commits suicide (again, a bit difficult to watch) he must journey to another part of this afterlife to try and convince her soul to join his.
That is a very basic run-down of what I understood after my first watch, it’s much deeper than this, and its approach to portraying the afterlife doesn’t stick too much to one set of religious rules, preferring instead to make its own guidelines and rules, amidst increasingly surreal surrounds that the spirits of the deceased find themselves.
Again, given its use of suicide as an inescapable plot point, it does make viewing somewhat uncomfortable now, but Robin is his usual charming self in the lead role, he even finds various different layers to his character. Chris is like a scrap-book of all Williams’ successful characters; the affable and disarmingly humorous one as seen in films like The Birdcage, the tragic figure similar to The Fisher King, and last, the grieving family man, a role he excels in here, but would arguably perfect in another film that we’ll get to later.
It’s a film that is very difficult to surmise briefly without going into more detail than this format would allow, it’s dream-like landscapes, and its central performance aids its extremely heartfelt premise, and a face and personality as beloved as Robin Williams more than help its case in delivering the films more affecting messages.
What Dreams May Come is a film of Robin’s that has fallen out of the public subconscious in the years since its release and his death. Part of that could be the fact that it deals with seeing his character in the afterlife, but it could arguably give closure to his life, despite the tragic circumstances of his passing, he is seen to find happiness in whatever comes next. It was uniquely touching to see this film, seeing its interpretation of ‘heaven’ with Robin’s character right in the middle of it. It’s a film that has only become more poignant in these last few years.
3: Good Morning, Vietnam as Adrian Cronauer
In terms of scale, this film is very different from the previous one. While What Dreams May Come was a drama film that leaned effectively into comedy, Good Morning, Vietnam is a comedy that leans extremely effectively into dramatic territory.
Set amidst the backdrop of the ever-controversial Vietnam War, Willaims picked up his first Oscar nomination for his role as Adrian Cronauer, an airman in the US air-force, whose forces radio show lifts morale amongst station troops, but faces the ire of those higher up in the military food chain.
To me, this film is a perfect intersection of his comedic and dramatic talents. On one hand, we see his frenetic, off-the-cuff delivery style as seen in his performance as The Genie, and in his stand-up routines, but we also see the realities of someone stationed in a war zone, facing potentially losing friends, and relationships he’s worked hard to build among the ruins.
As much as his radio presentation scenes are beloved, and rightly so, I find the real treasure is to be found in his scenes with the locals, specifically his relationship with local boy Tuan, and his sister Trinh (Tung Thanh Tran and Chintara Sukapatana, respectively) as it shows the deeper narrative going on within the film. On the surface, it’s a comedy about a loud-mouthed DJ, but dig a little deeper and you find a rumination on the war itself and the strained relationship between locals and aggressors.
These elements are what helps make the film so memorable because it embraces deeper themes and ideas than just its surface narrative, it can stake a claim to being a film with a message rather than just a noisy piece of propaganda, and in that respect, it’s almost disarmingly perfect.
Adrian is noisy and rebellious, not for the sake of it, but because it’s what he thinks is right, and when he’s let down by someone he thought to be a friend, his visible disappointment and eventual anger is almost heartbreaking.
This film is one of the best examples of balancing comedy and drama, and its leading performance is one of the reasons why. He believably floats between both categories to create a well-rounded, and likeable, character.
2: Parry/Henry Sagan – The Fisher King
Another film I only watched recently, The Fisher King was a surprise to me. Not only did it deliver another great RW performance, but it perfectly mixed that performance with the mind of one of the film worlds most creative directors, Terry Gilliam.
Again, I don’t really have much to add here on top of what I said in my recent review (The Fisher King Review) but it says a lot about the film and the quality of Willaims’ performance (he wasn’t the only one worthy of mentioning though) that it leapfrogs pretty much the entire list, and lands in 2nd place after a recent first watch.
There was no way I could deny that it’s one of his best performances, and he could perhaps feel hard done to that he didn’t win the Oscar this time out, but his win was to come, and it was to come for…
1: Sean Maguire – Good Will Hunting
There was never any doubt in my mind while compiling this list what would be number one. Not only is Good Will Hunting, to my mind at least, Robin Williams’ best performance, it’s also my second favourite film of all-time, just below The Godfather.
This isn’t to say I think it’s the second ‘best film of all-time’ just that it’s my, subjective, second favourite, and a bulk of the reason for that is the character of Sean Maguire, played so effortlessly, and lovingly by the great man himself.
That isn’t to say he’s the ONLY good character here, far from it, Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is also a complex, somewhat tragic figure, but he’s done a disservice by having to share so much screen-time with Williams, who delivers a masterclass in character acting.
His range encapsulates, humour, tragedy and anger, all in such perfect strokes, he uses the trappings of a psychologist character to turn all the stereotypes and expectations on its head, leaving us to think just as much about him and his struggles as Will’s, without ever pulling the focus away from Will’s journey to self-acceptance. It’s truly marvellous.
Again, I have recently reviewed Good Will Hunting (Good Will Hunting Review) so I don’t want to repeat myself too much, but it really is a beautiful performance. Anyone going into this with the idea of Willaims as being ‘just a comedian’ is sure to have that impression smashed by the end of the film.
It’s a performance packed with raw emotion, has some of the best moments of his acting career, and is, therefore, for my money, the best Robin Williams performance ever.