Robin Williams is my favorite actor. It is 1992.
Before this, my favorite actor is Rick Moranis. Before that, Christopher Lloyd. How I determine my favorite actor is: I count up the number of my favorite movies that he appears in. A metric perfect in its simplicity and utter ineptitude.
But by this metric, Robin Williams is doing something right, having starred in The Fisher King and then Hook, which I cannot yet find any fault with except possibly the Lost Boys who remind me of Ninja Turtles, and then doing the voice of the Genie in Aladdin, which is even better than when he does the voice of the bat in FernGully: The Last Rainforest.
But Robin Williams is not winning a number game. I’ve only just become aware of him — at least compared to Christopher Lloyd, who I have been aware of since at least 1988.
It is 1991. I am aware of Robin Williams. He is a famous comedian. I have maybe seen Dead Poets Society on cable. I must have seen other things, too, because when I find out that he was on an old TV show, every week, and that people back in 1978 could just sit down and watch Robin Williams antics every week, and they could do it for four years, and now I could watch it every night on Mork & Mindy reruns that have just come to Nick at Nite, my mind is blown. It is the most mind-blowing discovery of a sitcom since I realized audiences in 1982 had a chance to watch a Naked Gun laughfest every week in the form of Police Squad! and they blew it, they blew it, they blew it.
It is 1997 and I have seen every episode of Mork and Mindy. I blow my chance to see Robin Williams in Fathers’ Day, in Flubber, and in Jack. It seems like the correct call, even though Fathers’ Day would have been a bona fide movie event for me in, say, 1994. I intend to see it in 1997. I still never have.
It is later in 1997 and Robin Williams co-stars in Good Will Hunting. He’s up for an Oscar. He’s no longer my favorite actor. But I want him to win, because he brings such unforced warmth to the movie, because he never steals scenes from Matt Damon but just makes the whole scene better. He’s a very good actor, and he wins, and he deserves it.
It is 1993 and I am watching Mrs. Doubtfire with my dad and brother. It is pretty funny even though I feel of twinge of recognition when I read Owen Gleiberman’s Entertainment Weekly review, noting that Chris Columbus “comes close to missing the joke of his own movie. He seems to think the funny part is the makeup, the broad comic spectacle of Robin Williams in drag.” But Williams is good anyway. My dad expresses awe over his performance: not just the funny stuff where a middle-aged man becomes a tough old Irish nanny, but the serious stuff where he pleas in the court to see his kids.
It is 1998 and it is 1999. My dad feels similarly about Patch Adams. And about Bicentennial Man. I do not. I think: this is pretty treacly. Bordering on smarmy. I think, during Bicentennial Man: Williams, Columbus… good chance Mrs. Doubtfire was this way, too. I do not watch Mrs. Doubtfire again. I am not boycotting; I just don’t want to know more about it.
It is 2002. It is the last time I see three movies with Robin Williams in a single year. He goes dark in Death to Smoochy, directed by Danny DeVito. Edward Norton is arguably funnier; Williams relishes the chance to curse angrily as a spiraling children’s show host, and the relishing is better than the material. But toward the end of the movie, he has an offhand yelp, perfectly delivered, about spilled coffee burning his balls, and I laugh. He goes darker in Insomnia, playing one of those murderers who taunts a cop about being the same, you and me. Williams not only makes this man feel human, he acts opposite Al Pacino and holds his own. And he goes perhaps slightly less dark in One Hour Photo, because his photo technician is scary, yes, but also deeply lonely and sad. He’s a very good actor. Maybe even a better actor than a comedian. At very least, he is both, and, despite his manic comedy bits, more willing than some comedians to share a spotlight. He acts opposite Pacino and De Niro; he acts opposite Matt Damon and Edward Norton; he acts opposite Nathan Lane and Tim Robbins.
It is 1991 and I am maybe not even laughing at Mork and Mindy so much as marveling at it, marveling at the way Williams runs around livening up the whole screen. I’m aware of it as a performance. Moranis and Lloyd were giving performances, too; I know that, I know that they are playing pretend. But Williams is doing something more joyful, more musical.
It is 1992 and the reason I am able to convince myself that I really, really like the movie Toys in the face of what is obviously, in retrospect, disappointment, is that it stars Robin Williams, my favorite actor.
It is 2009. I review World’s Greatest Dad. I don’t think much of the movie, but Robin Williams is terrific in it, playing a grieving father who passes off his writing as the work of his dead son.
It is 2011. I think of that Robin Williams stand-up bit about schizophrenia and then I think: Robin, I do not think that word means what you think it means.
It is 2014. I review The Angriest Man in Brooklyn. It is terrible, but I can see why Williams wanted to do it. Like World’s Greatest Dad, it attempts to reconcile some dark feelings.
It is 2014. Over the past ten years, I haven’t paid much attention to Robin Williams. I’ve missed a lot of his movies. I’ve seen him play Teddy Roosevelt in a kiddie comedy (twice); do cartoon voices (twice); play a wacky priest (twice); play a depressed and/or lonely and/or angry father (twice); and play Dwight D. Eisenhower (once). Few of these movies are worth much, but taken together they are pushing and pulling.
It is 2014. My dad has been gone for a year and a half. Robin Williams has been gone for a day.
It is 2014. I think of The Fisher King, The Birdcage, Aladdin, Insomnia. The flying head in Baron Munchausen. The soft-focus man in Deconstructing Harry. The doctor in Dead Again. I think of the reasons my eyes and ears would perk up with him on screen, a metric perfect in its simplicity, full stop. I think of metaphors for loneliness and isolation and desperate attempts to connect. I think, of course. Comedians can be the saddest people. Depression is a bitch and a son of a bitch and on and on. I think, against all logic: but how could you not know?
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