After playing the sweetly fearsome film tech in One Hour Photo, Robin Williams talked about his character in both humane and expansive terms, explaining that “the things [Sy] says are painfully true–like, my favorite line is… ‘photographs are your own personal stand against time. That someone cared enough about me to take my picture means that I existed.’ I was at an old flea market the other day and looked at this box of old photographs, and you realize that most of these people are dead. There’s a moment in time that you really get to see someone.”
Sy the Photo Guy is also rummaging through old pictures when he says those words, and shortly afterward he daydreams about being a welcomed fixture in the home of the family whose blissful images he’s become attached to. It’s a deeply intimate yet one-sided relationship that exposes a simple, desperate need for connection. For someone to think he’s worth enough to make temporarily immortal. Sy is a paparazzo who doesn’t need to take his own pictures; the neighborhood celebrities he worships freely give their personal moments over to him to manipulate.
Williams’ portrayal and the understanding he displayed in that quote are what gave breath to a character who could have otherwise been labeled a flat villain, a shifty-eyed presence meant solely to unsettle. Instead, he played an insecure stalker with a touch of childlike frailty. This is the same man who squeezed into tights as a middle aged Peter Pan doing his best rooster impression, the same man who lit his breasts hilariously on fire while cross-dressing, the same man who donned a red nose to add wackiness to a hospital. It’s easy to look at Williams and only see Mork from Ork — all Red Bull in his veins and top-speed catch phrases flying from his mouth — but his power as an actor was a range hidden in plain sight. In that sense, it’s easy to resign ourselves to pigeonholing him specifically because it’s so difficult to wrap our minds around how vast a performer he was. Some go zero to sixty, some impress by standing still, but Williams could do both.
At the core of his dramatic performances was the same fierce intellect he used to endlessly riff out comic lightning matched with an emotional acuity that allowed him to find pathos in the darkness. He was an actor capable of looking beyond bad motives to motivational pain, and to see pain as a vulnerable human condition the deserves reverence.
It was that capability (and his unshackled, often truly fucked up sense of humor) that made him one of the only people that could handle starring in World’s Greatest Dad — the Bobcat Goldthwait film where a pissant high school teacher covers up his son’s accidental auto-erotic death by faking a suicide note. Far from an act of generosity, it’s the first step in exploiting tragedy and public sympathy to manufacture the acclaim and popularity he’s always desired.
Goldthwait said Williams “thought it was funny to do the polar opposite of [Dead Poets Society]”
Front and center in both, it’s also impossible to miss the recurring theme of suicide in Williams’ work. In World’s Greatest Dad it’s staged to erase embarrassment and utilized for stardom; in Dead Poets Society it’s a young man loosened from a father’s grip who kills himself when that grip tightens again; in What Dreams May Come it’s a wife trapped in a self-made (and literal) Hell who ends her life after losing the husband who ends up traveling beyond Heaven to protect her.
Williams explored suicide in stories again and again, but it’s his partnership with Terry Gilliam that made the deepest impact. The Fisher King is about a radio DJ named Jack Lucas (played by a ponytailed Jeff Bridges) whose arrogance and on-air prodding convinces a man to commit mass murder. Broken completely by the incident’s fallout, Jack gets wasted, fashions himself some cement block shoes and stands listlessly at the rocky edge of the Hudson. Before he can kill himself, he’s attacked by two thugs looking to set a homeless man on fire and is saved when a hobo Don Quixote named Parry (Williams) intervenes.
The plot paths are as dense as Jack’s road back up from despair, but the key point is that Parry lost his livelihood and sanity as a direct result of seeing his wife die during the mass murder Jack incited. He saves the man responsible for his loss and condition, and Jack begins to see Parry as a source of salvation for himself. The rest of the film is an exhaustive hunt for genuine reasons to live in a world where evil all too often triumphs over good.
It was a role that allowed Williams safe passage to revel in frantic comedic energy without creating laughter, and to explore a raw nerve only salved by forgiveness. Parry is a normal man turned botched and bungled by a universe beyond his control. One day he’s happy, the next his world is on fire.
It’s also probably the finest acting Williams has done. He ricochets from soulful terror to emphatic glee, slides from bashfulness into nostalgic grief and molds a person introduced to us as a sweaty-toothed madman into an infinitely complex person and wondrous symbol of redemption.
Gilliam, unsurprisingly, provided an excellent remembrance for his daring knight:
“Robin Williams, the most astonishingly funny, brilliant, profound and silly miracle of mind and spirit, has left the planet. He was a giant heart, a fireball friend, a wondrous gift from the gods. Now the selfish bastards have taken him back. Fuck ’em!”
Blocked by the crowning achievement of his stand-up comedy singularity, it’s easy to forget that Williams was nominated for acting Oscars four times and won once. In other words, Sean Penn only has one more nomination than Williams did. He was a potent dramatic actor who was only rarely given the platform to prove himself on that front, and when he did, he unfortunately often excelled in front of a minuscule audience.
On the other hand, his talent was obviously recognized by the best of the industry. Watching his clown act of whirlwind pop culture impressions (see: Aladdin) obscures the fact that he was an actor who worked with Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Peter Weir, Robert Altman, Barry Levinson, Harold Ramis, Paul Mazursky, George Roy Hill, Terry Gilliam, Penny Marshall, Kenneth Branagh, Mike Nichols and Mark Romanek. When you think about it, his resume is ridiculous. It’s a cattle call of the respected, award-worthy and legendary.
Yet it’s also easy to see that Hollywood was never sure of how to treat his talent. His usual roles were neither manically funny nor hauntingly dramatic, landing somewhere in between where middlebrow naturalism allowed him to be a leading everyman and Proud Father type (the kind that doesn’t re-stage his son’s deadly masturbation accident).
Dead Poets Society is the best example. Playing mildly rebellious (if we’re being honest) poetry teacher John Keating offered him a captive and impressionable audience of students on the verge of escape. His sole purpose for almost the entire movie is to appear, inspire with skit-like control of the room and disappear again. He’s a tweed-clad Socrates corrupting the youth before being professionally assassinated for it. Ripping out book pages and standing on desks are small deviations that became revolutionary for his students, and without being wacky or untameable (as we tend to envision him), Williams thrived in that dramedy sweet spot.
For a performer who seemed so anxious to own the spotlight, he was also incredibly generous when it came to letting the focus be on his co-stars. He emboldened Matt Damon, gave Jeff Bridges’ silence breathing room and even played straight man (sorry) to Nathan Lane’s diva-tastic yawps. Through his entire career, he knew when to rev the engine and when to let it quietly run.
Which brings us back to his against-type type in One Hour Photo and Insomnia. In Christopher Nolan’s thriller, Williams plays an Alaska-cold pragmatist murderer who first shows up halfway through the story as the voice on a phone. He tells Al Pacino’s detective that “I’m not who you think I am,” (a pleading line he’ll repeat several more times). If Nolan was looking for an actor to play a killer whose first action is to ask for our understanding, he absolutely chose the right person in Williams. He acts strikingly normal, letting our knowledge that he’s a killer do all the crazy work for him.
Even when he describes in detail how he beat a teenage girl to death, you can feel the rhythmic patter of his stand-up routine style painted black. Williams was able to make us tear up from laughter or from ripping our hearts out because, no matter the content, he was tremendously skilled at delivering a story.
Which is why viewing him as a comedian — even one of the best of the past half-century — is far too limiting. He began his film career as a cartoon, but his very next film was The World According to Garp, a sprawling fictional biography. He defied what should have been the path for Popeye, the same path that we assume is the standard even now. He refused to be reduced even at the beginning of his cinematic career and he maintained that shape shifting ability through decades in an industry that is parodic in its reliance on shorthand and stereotype — the very same pigeonholing Williams surpassed.