Robin Williams appeared in his first feature film the year I was born. I only bring this up to illustrate that Robin Williams has been a force in movies literally for an entire lifetime. Setting aside for a millisecond his phenomenal likability, his elemental talent, and the shock of his exit, that helps to explain why so many of us, including myself, are in such pain over this loss. Robin Williams is such a familiar face to so many people my age, younger, older: We’ve probably spent more time watching his face than watching the faces of many of our own family members. Intellectually it may seem strange to grieve for a person most of us have never met, but emotionally it makes perfect sense. This man resides in our collective imaginations, and has done so for as long as many of us have been alive. He is a part of our American psyche, and now, too suddenly, he’s gone.
His first leading role was in 1980, in Robert Altman’s POPEYE, which was then maligned but is happily, now beloved by cooler people everywhere. It’s the first movie I saw him in. I think it was a beautiful introduction. Who else could commit that thoroughly to portraying one of the most cartoonish of cartoon characters? Popeye is the most notorious mutterer in all of popular culture, and on top of his unintelligible speech, he only has full use of half his face, meaning by definition his expressions are limited, yet somehow, in that movie, Robin Williams as Popeye convinces. You entirely believe he lovesk his Olivesk and he lovesk his Swee’Pea. POPEYE is a purposefully chaotic film, a swooning, careening jumble — it makes you feel like a drunken sailor on the deck of a rickety ship in choppy seas — but Robin Williams is its anchor of odd sincerity. Turns out this would be the thematic template for just about every performance he gave since: Whether the project turned out to be excellent or otherwise, if the dialogue was great or if it wasn’t, if the jokes were brilliant or corny, no matter how far off the page he himself may have gone, you always had the sense Robin Williams meant what he was saying. He was always sincere. In my eyes, there’s no higher compliment to pay an artist.
Daily Grindhouse is primarily a film website, so I won’t get into his television work or his stand-up comedy career, which is admittedly omitting half the story, since that’s where his success began and where so many of his greatest triumphs happened. (He was unforgettable in appearances on shows as different as Homicide and Sesame Street.) But there’s already more than enough to consider when it comes to Robin Williams’ work in film. He’s a household name — internationally. Many of his films are among the most well-known and widely-admired of the past three decades. Some of them deserve to be more widely known. And some of them are not admired at all. But about that: As I have gone through Robin Williams’ filmography, item by item, in the preparation of this article, I have realized that the list itself, in its entirety, tells a story. As spectators and fans we like to look at movies as a product designed and engineered for our enjoyment, like pancakes, and as critics and intellectuals we like to think film should have intelligence in the construction and artistic merit in the results. Both of these aspects are true, but every film career is also a life.
Looked at holistically, Robin Williams’ filmography tells the story of a man dead set on entertaining as many people as possible, while also making time to experiment artistically at every allowable juncture. This is evident from the first to the last. There are plenty of movies he made that he didn’t have to — there are plenty of movies he got made that might not otherwise have been, off the strength of his name and popularity. This is a person who was well-liked, as shown by his repeated collaborations with many of the same fellow actors and filmmakers, many of them massive talents like Barry Levinson, Robert De Niro, Steven Spielberg, and Terry Gilliam. It’s very easy for critically-minded types to assess various end results and find them wanting, as surely I myself have done at times, but too often we forget to consider factors and motives such as ambition, loyalty, and graciousness — for example, BICENTENNIAL MAN is a film that hasn’t fared well in any of the mentions it’s received this week, being cited as evidence of supposedly misguided choices. But it’s an adaptation of a story by Isaac Asimov, one of the most prominent and thoughtful of all science-fiction authors, and it re-teamed Williams with Chris Columbus, director of MRS. DOUBTFIRE, a massive hit for both of them. Williams did a cameo in Columbus’ film NINE MONTHS in between. He did cameos in a lot of films, large and small. He’s probably done more cameo roles than most stars have. Now, we can interpret this a couple of ways: We can interpret this cynically, seeing him as a person who wants the work, or we can interpret this optimistically, which is that Robin Williams is a generous friend who likes acting and entertaining. As more and more tributes from notable friends and associates continue to pour in, it seems clear that the latter is the case.
Faced with the entirety of Robin Williams’ film performances, for such a purpose as attempting an obituary, I am unavoidably assailed with memories of all the moments this very funny man stirred up major emotions. It’s easy to remember all the over-the-top slapstick of MRS. DOUBTFIRE, whether you love the movie or not, but I’ve always been struck by the final courtroom scene, towards the end, those pleading sounds of protest he makes when the judge rules against him and he’s afraid he won’t get to see his children again — that’s real acting, emotion from a real place, captured on screen and nearly unbearable. The movie smartly cuts away without dwelling there. For such an adept comedian, few could be so legitimately affecting in a dramatic context. In his comic appearances too, for that matter, regardless of how antic and heightened the pitch, no matter how high he took you, something in Robin Williams’ manner always pulled you back down to earth. It was in his face, I think, when you studied it — those eyes, prone to squinting, that down-turned nose, that sharp circumflex of a mouth — it always looked to me like he was holding back tears.
When a beloved celebrity dies, it’s only natural to rush to revisit their work. Personally, the last thing I want to watch right now is a Robin Williams movie. It’s too much right now. The reasons why are probably too personal for this space. The closest I could get was to go through his filmography and put together a poster gallery of every appearance he made on film, so that all of you can get that same big picture I was talking about. (I think I got everything but if I missed anything, let me know!) Please scroll all the way down to get the full effect, and if you happen to see an old favorite you decide to revisit, or if you discover an intriguing B-side you never heard of before, by all means, share with us your impressions. At a mournful time it would be a great solace to us here to have somehow pointed someone towards a new discovery, or a happy re-discovery.
A quick, oblique, but very sincere word about the manner in which Robin Williams died: I’ve seen far too many uninformed opinions thrown around in the past 48 hours as if they have weight. Listen: Everyone has opinions. Everyone has the right to their opinions. But not everyone has experience. Not everyone has compassion. And not everyone needs to shout out their opinions about everything all the time. Just because one can, does not mean one should. My own opinion, and this one is more like an unwavering conviction, is that if a person’s immediate response to this sad news isn’t solely an expression of love, that person’s opinion is not valuable. In a time of loss, only love matters.
Our loving thoughts and best wishes are with the family and friends of this remarkable performer. Robin Williams brought so much happiness to humanity. The very least humanity can do now is to show respect to those who loved him the most.
BACK TO NEVERLAND (1989)
THE TIMEKEEPER (1992)
MERRY FRIGGIN’ CHRISTMAS (DUE NOVEMBER 2014)
ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING (2014)
[He plays the dog.]
And take a look at these other tributes from
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