We have gone through 51 editions of Make the Case without talking about the best Robin Williams movies. That was most certainly deliberate. Like most of you reading this, the death of Williams in 2015 from suicide, likely brought on by a disease known as Lewy Body Dementia, hit me with the blunt shock that I generally only feel with the loss of a loved one. As far as a lot of people are concerned, particularly people my age, or older, that isn’t a ridiculous thing to say.
Williams’ unexpected death wasn’t just the loss of a celebrity. It somehow went even deeper than the loss of someone whose open-heart and relentless desire to entertain made him a crucial figure to tens of thousands of childhoods. Robin Williams communicated to millions the idea that people could make their biggest contributions in the supposed trivialities of the everyday. He seemed to believe that if you could make things a little brighter for at least one person, then your time was well spent.
You can certainly see that element of his personality in many of the characters he played. Whether they existed in or outside of decent society, many of Robin Williams’ best movies featured people who wanted to make the world better for those around them.
At the same time, it’s important to remember, more than ever, that Williams could play a wide range of characters and roles. He played malcontents of the highest order. He played sick men compelled to do evil things, or desperate men with the blunt force trauma of a hideous execution. Some of his characters were anarchists to one degree or another. It isn’t surprising that Williams won an Oscar in 1998 for Good Will Hunting. What surprises me is that he was only nominated four times. Good Will Hunting was his last.
To be sure, as we once again celebrate a fascinating, multifaceted career, there are many more examples of the best Robin Williams than four nominated performances.
There are many more than the five we will cover here, come to think of it.
1. Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
Director: Paul Mazursky
By 1984, Williams was one of the hottest standup comics in the world. Mork and Mindy was behind him. At this point, despite good performances in films like The Survivors and The World According to Garp, Williams had not quite found his footing as an actor. Or at least, he had not yet become known as an actor who could do more than improv at three hundred miles per hour.
Moscow on the Hudson would be Williams’ strongest, most complex performance at this point in time. The story of a Russian circus musician gave Williams the chance to dive deep into one of his best accents, while playing a truly human character. The movie’s approach to immigration is a little simplified, but Williams showcases such compassion, wonder, and charm, it hardly matters.
2. Awakenings (1990)
Director: Penny Marshall
One of Robert De Niro’s best, as well, Awakenings is proof that Williams was consistently in control of his energy as an actor. A manic, fast-paced performance here, as a doctor who discovers a possible treatment for lifelong catatonics, would have doomed the movie. Williams had supernatural instincts on stage, and he could apply that with nuance and soul to a wide array of characters.
Williams’ scenes with De Niro are some of the finest of his career. The same can be said for scenes with Julie Kavner, in one of her strongest roles. Fair warning: If you’ve never seen Awakenings, steel yourself for one of the most depressing movies ever made. Awakenings is about patience and moral victories, among other things. Williams should have won an Oscar here, but that would come later.
3. The Fisher King (1991)
Director: Terry Gilliam
At this point, Williams’ career was a couple of years away from heading into the stratosphere. Directed by Terry Gilliam, The Fisher King represents one of the very best examples of Robin Williams’ unique talents. Playing a homeless man whose madness and personality touch a disaffected, borderline nihilistic talk radio host (Jeff Bridges), Williams takes on a central character in one of director Gilliam’s most spiritually ambitious films to date.
The Fisher King is one of the most original comedies ever made. Calling it a comedy isn’t even really accurate. It is a stunning, endlessly surprising journey for the heart and soul. That sounds a little ridiculous, but the movie celebrates then notion of absurdity with such grace and beauty, you can’t help but fall for everything the film has to offer. Despite the presence of an excellent all-around cast, Williams is the biggest tangible expression of this movie’s singular tone.
4. Death to Smoochy (2002)
Director: Danny DeVito
The downside to only being able to discuss the 5 best Robin Williams’ movies are the gaps we have to contend with. Virtually every Robin Williams film performance between 1991 and 2002 is worth at least a look. In 2002 alone, arguably at the height of his powers as an actor, Williams did Insomnia with Al Pacino and Christopher Nolan, One Hour Photo with Mark Romanek, and Death to Smoochy with Danny DeVito. I defy you to find an actor who played three more diverse characters who are so distinctly the product of a single actor.
Famously shredded by critics upon release, with the added blow of being a massive box-office failure, Death to Smoochy has since gained a small cult following. I’m surprised it’s not larger, although I’ve met very few people who have seen this, and didn’t like it. DeVito runs through Adam Resnick’s blistering satire of celebrity culture and children’s programming with his usual enthusiasm for dark, exaggerated comedy. As a disgraced kiddie show host named Rainbow Randolph, particularly in scenes with the just-about-fucking-perfect Catherine Keener, Williams is at the absolute top of his game.
5. World’s Greatest Dad (2009)
Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Williams increasingly worked in darker comedies, as he got older, and as his mental health unexpectedly, especially to him, took a turn for the worse. World’s Greatest Dad teamed Williams with friend Bobcat Goldthwait, who has directed several excellent films at this point. It put Williams in one of the saddest of the sad sack roles. Watching his failure of a teacher, writer, and father shuffle through the movie’s opening moments is almost painful.
The movie is dependent upon us being able to buy Williams’ pitiful state, and then being able to buy Williams’ character’s journey, after he discovers his wretched teenage son (Spy Kids’ Daryl Sabara) has died of autoerotic asphyxiation (this was before David Carradine did the method actor version). World’s Greatest Dad takes a number of understated risks, particularly in trusting us to believe Williams’ character is headed towards significant in his life. The movie delivers on that, while Williams gives yet another pitch-perfect performance in a comedy with varied ebbs and flows.
Williams would pass away just a few years later. Despite his age, latter films like World’s Greatest Dad and the lovely, heartbreaking Boulevard still made as feel as though we had lost Mr. Williams far too soon.