Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Like everyone else, I was shocked and saddened by the death of Robin Williams, apparently by his own hand after a lifelong struggle with depression and addiction. I’m a big fan, but his signature hits—Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning, Vietnam—aren’t, on the whole, my favorites. Some of what I think is his best, funniest, least sentimental, most ebullient work was in films that were ignored by audiences and panned by critics.

Below are some examples of the underrated or neglected “other” Robin Williams, which I would encourage you to give another look.

The Adventures of Baron MunchhausenIn his brief role as The King of the Moon, whose head and body are disconnected, in Terry Gilliam’s uneven but fascinating 1989 fantasy, Williams may have taken his fast talking, haywire routine as far as he ever did; he was like Mork squared, or like a live-action version of the Genie in Aladdin. This is one of several films on which Williams worked under a pseudonym—Bob Goldthwait’s notorious Shakes the Clown was another. Under his own name, Williams later gave an immensely touching performance in Gilliam’s The Fisher King.

HamletWilliams was just right for the foppish, fawning courtier Osric in Kenneth Branagh’s full-text version of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Pity he didn’t get to do more Shakespeare. He was also terrific in a funny, quietly intense turn as the psychiatrist in Branagh’s Dead Again.

One Hour PhotoMark Romanek’s odd little thriller about a lonely, alienated snapshot developer who becomes fixated on a seemingly picture-perfect family of customers is sad, unsavory and ultimately unsatisfying. But Williams brings so much gravity and pathos to the part that it’s essential viewing.

The BirdcageThis hilarious and sweet American version of La Cage Aux Folles was a hit, certainly, but much of the attention went, rightly, to Nathan Lane as Albert, the maternal drag queen. It’s possible that the quieter excellence of Williams as the father posing as straight for his conservative future in-laws was a little overlooked. His scene with Lane on a bench, while a ship passes behind them, is one of the best he ever played.

Being HumanBill Forsythe’s reincarnation drama, in which Williams played five people—or rather, the same person in five different lifetimes—doesn’t quite add up, but Williams is great in all five. As a prehistoric man in the opening segment he has a shattering moment, screaming “Mine! Mine!” as he sees his family being abducted.

Cadillac ManWilliams is a philandering, hustling car salesman who finds himself frantically trying to manage a hostage situation when jealous husband Tim Robbins brings a gun into the car dealership where he works. This 1990 comedy with dramatic overtones from director Roger Donaldson shows Williams as an irresponsible but essentially humane guy trying to stave off disaster.

Moscow on the HudsonWilliams plays a Soviet circus musician who defects in the middle of Bloomingdale’s in New York in Paul Mazursky’s comedy-drama. This performance was one of the first to demonstrate his remarkable range.

PopeyeWilliams is buried in the title character’s persona in Robert Altman’s live-action version of the cartoon. But he gives amusing, stoic line readings, and his warmth and sweetness shine through the makeup.

The SurvivorsMichael Ritchie’s satire of survivalists and gun nuts was poorly received, but its picture of the sort of chaotic modern life that breeds such reactionaries is mercilessly funny and original—it starts with Williams getting fired from his job by a parrot. Williams was rarely as precise in his manic style as he is here, and he seems all the crazier with Walter Matthau as his straight man.

The Best of TimesThis football comedy, directed by Roger Spottiswoode from a script by Ron Shelton, is my favorite Robin Williams movie, but it doesn’t seem to be anybody else’s. It’s about a group of middle-aged men who get bamboozled into replaying a high school football game in Taft, California, by the bank manager (Williams) who dropped what would have been the game-winning pass back when. Williams is at his very best here. He never seems to be self-consciously playing the sad clown—something that, for all his great talent, he was quite capable of doing—and thus he’s truly lovable and poignant. And, of course, magnificently funny.


  1. MV:

    If I can add one more of Robin's best lesser knowns---Bob Goldthwait's "World's Greatest Dad". Williams is heartbreaking as a father who loses his frankly horrible teenaged son in a rather unseemly death. As the community starts hailing the dead teen as a paragon of all that is wonderful, things spiral way out of control. Williams is both powerless to tell the truth and is quite enjoying the reflected unearned glory. This is as black as comedies ever get and Robin Williams gets to show all facets of his range. Sometimes laugh out loud funny and sometimes painfully exposed. Just a great performance in a completely overlooked film.

    Great list otherwise!


  2. Thanks for going a little deeper into the catalog. I'm with you on The Best of Times, by the way. Maybe not a great film, but it somehow gets at that yearning to fix the past better than any other movie I can think of. And it's got a little bit of magic to it, too.

  3. Many thanx for that add, dg--I must confess that I hadn't heard of that film, but now I must see it! Thanx also for the words on TBOT, Kevin--very well said, & it's good to know there's another fan out there!