It’s hard to think of many actors from the past few decades who were one of a kind, but Robin Williams was truly a performing force unlike anything that’s ever existed. No one will ever be able to fill his now sadly empty shoes. The fact that his life was taken in such a lonely, horrific fashion after a long struggle with depression only makes this loss more tragic. For now, however, let’s focus on how Williams lived as apposed to how he died. What a life he lived and what an unparalleled career full of laughs, inspiration, and flubber he’s left behind. In honor of this great talent, here are my five personal choices for his best performances in film.
5. “Dead Poets Society”
“Dead Poets Society” is one of those movies that I should unconditionally hate as it has so many frustrating clichés, i.e. rebellious kids that want to be free, adults that just don’t understand, and a sanctimonious teacher who goes against the social norms. Despite having so much going against it story wise, Peter Weir’s wonderful film is a surprisingly inspirational feat and a lot of that is because of Williams. In a performance that established once and for all that he wasn’t just a comedic genius, but a serious dramatic actor too, Williams plays John Keating. He’s your dime-a-dozen inspirational teacher archetype who pushes his students to seize the day and make their lives extraordinary. On paper, Keating might come off as too self-righteous, if not manipulative. Regardless, Williams takes this fairly conventional archetype we’ve seen a million times before and morphs him into a charismatic, rousing, and believable leader. Had another actor been given the role, you might have a hard time rallying behind this familiar character. With Williams acting as Keating’s vessel, though, you’d passionately follow this teacher in a heartbeat. It’s too bad Williams couldn’t make this archetype work as well in the panned, yet inexplicably successful, “Patch Adams.” As far as his work in “Dead Poets Society” goes, though, Williams will have anybody standing on their desk chanting, “O Captain! My Captain!”
4. “Mrs. Doubtfire”
Movies that center on men having to dress up like women couldn’t possibly be more hit and miss. For every “Some Like It Hot” or “Tootsie” there’s a “White Chicks,” “Sorority Boys,” “Juwanna Mann” or “Big Momma’s House” trilogy. In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Williams manages to pull off what Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Dustin Hoffman had done so miraculously in their iconic drag performances. Williams realized that it wasn’t enough to just look like a woman. He knew for this material to work, he had to convince us that Mrs. Doubtfire was an actual person with an identity of her own. After watching this character for a while, you don’t see Williams anymore. You don’t even see Daniel Hillard, the man pretending to be this Scottish nanny in order to get close to his children. You just see the kindly Mrs. Doubtfire in the flesh. Heck, if you walked into the film halfway through with no prior knowledge of the story, you likely wouldn’t even realize that’s Williams under all that Oscar-winning makeup. It’s also quite seamless how Williams is able to so convincingly jump between being two different characters in a matter of seconds, but we all knew that’s what he was best at. Only four months ago, it was announced that Williams would be reprising his role as Mrs. Doubtfire after more than two decades. Although the project hasn’t been officially cancelled yet, it’s impossible to imagine the studio moving forward without the man who made this project a success. It’d be like doing a sequel to “The Mask,” “Dumb and Dumber” or “Bruce Almighty” without Jim Carrey ... oh wait...
3. “The Fisher King”
There are a few different ways you could interpret Williams’ character in “The Fisher King.” He plays Parry, a disturbed homeless man who lost his wife and sanity in a terrible shooting. Now the delusional Parry treats the city of New York as if it was a magical kingdom and he is its king, collecting trash off the street like treasure. Williams interprets the character as a cartoon that has run off a cliff, but keeps charging through the air instead of glancing down and falling. It’s easy to look at this man and say, “What a sad, deranged soul who needs serious psychological help.” However, you could just as easily find it encouraging that a man who’s lost everything can still seek out true beauty in every dark corner of life, even if he is being chased by repressed inner demons. You can have a very similar debate about Parry’s relationship with Lydia, a quiet, socially awkward woman he’s been following without ever directly approaching. On one hand, Parry could come off as the creepiest, most uncomfortable stalker on the planet. On the other hand, Williams’ wide-eyed, childlike innocence makes us believe that this man is 100 percent sincere about his feelings for this woman. Because of this, the audience has no trouble buying into their bizarre relationship. We all know Williams could be funny and inspiring, but the “Fisher King” reminds us that in his own unique way, he could also be quite romantic.
Among all the Williams memes that have popped up on the Internet these past days, none have packed a more emotional punch than Aladdin telling the Genie, “You’re free.” It is admittedly hard not to get choked up by this imagine, not only because this might have been Williams’ most famous movie role, but because the role perfectly summed up what made this comedian one of a kind. Robin Williams was a magical, animated genie that could change into anything or anyone with a snap of the fingers. The marriage of Disney animation and Williams’ improvisations was a true match made in heaven, creating a character that felt more alive than most live-action characters. Williams’ performance was such a game changer that many critics speculated he would become the first actor to merit an Oscar nomination for a voice-over performance. While Williams wasn’t nominated that year, he did receive an honorary Golden Globe for “Aladdin.” His performance would further alter how audiences view voice-over performances and how studios market the talent behind animated features. Thanks you, Genie, for the huge impact you’ve had on all of our lives. We’ll never have a friend quite like you again.
1. “Good Will Hunting”
We see great performances in film every year, some of which even go on to win Oscars. There are some performances, however, that ascend to another level of greatness. Watching this actor accept the Academy Award for this particular performance, you’re left feeling nothing but satisfaction and relief. Such is the case with Williams’ Oscar-winning performance in “Good Will Hunting.” In another role nobody else could have possibly played better, Williams breathes life into Dr. Sean Maguire. He’s a college professor who has been saddled with the task of helping Will Hunting, a brilliant mind with repressed issues holding him back from greatness. We’ve seen Williams play wise mentor characters like this before. What makes Sean Maguire more interesting that somebody like John Keating, though, is the fact that he’s far from perfect. Yes, he’s knowledgeable and understands how life works, but at the same time is harboring a significant deal of loss and pain. This makes him the perfect person to guide Will, amounting to not only one of the finest performances in all film, but one of the best friendships too. Williams embodies the kind of friend and teacher we would all love to have in our lives, somebody who often knows the right thing to say and when to say it while also leaving room for you to think for yourself. Based on his stand-up and public appearances, Williams himself seemed like a person who always knew the right thing to say. Given how his life ended, however, it would seem that Williams was finally at a loss for words. Now everyone has been left speechless, not knowing what to make of this tragedy. All that really can be said is that we’ve lost a juggernaut of talent who won’t be forgotten any time soon, especially because of performances like this.
On another note, I just realized that the last time we see Williams on screen and the last time we see Mickey Rooney on screen will be in the third “Night at the Museum” movie. Don’t know how to feel about that...
• Ahwatukee native and Arizona State University graduate Nick Spake has been working as a film critic for nine years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com.