Robin Williams would have turned 65 today, and it’s forever a reminder of the talent lost and the amount of love we as a collective film family held for the man and his spirit. A universal force of sheer joy, embodying any and all characters of his with a mischievous glint in his eye and a warm heart, few will ever touch Williams’s tangible spirit.
Even when the quality of his films dwindled, his performances never lost that certain, “it factor” spark that made him such a captivating presence. Be it strictly dramatic fair, farcical physical comedy or somewhere in between, his sweet spirit, his performances could draw in both old viewers and new. He had a magnetic touch. Think back to his family films that so instantly captured young viewers. His turn in Mrs. Doubtfire could have simply been a “put a man in a dress and make em’ laugh” gag, but instead he instilled a soul into the wacky housekeeper. He was welcoming to all and while the film may not live up to the standards we placed on it at as children (and so few films do), his performance has never faltered, to the point where the older you grow the more attached you become.
Similarly, his performances as the Genie in Aladdin was all but a game-changer for animation and voice performances, bringing a certain skill set and level of commitment that made the character iconic. The directors could have simply stuck Williams in a booth and let him riff, but while the comedy is apparent (especially his own personal touches), there’s also quite a lot of wisdom that comes from the character, and a lot of pure unfiltered affection for the character Aladdin that bleeds through onto the screen.
Even his more straightforward comic turns could become something titanic, as was the case in Mike Nichols’s The Birdcage, a film that could (and some may argue might still) be worthy of critiques of clichés. Armand is the “straight man” character between himself and the more theatrical Albert (an equally fantastic Nathan Lane), but that never makes him the boring or dull one. Instead, he strikes a superb balancing act that gives the pairing the push-and-pull dynamic they need that helps build the chemistry that they have.
To see the dynamic performances he was able to muster, just look to his more daring works that weren’t always a hit with the critics. Even one of his last films, Boulevard, showcased the actor at his most internal, quietly conveying the pain of a closeted man grappling with his marriage and affair with a younger man. Hook (another film that shines in the rose color tint of our childhood) was by all means a disaster for Steven Spielberg, but can you imagine anyone more perfect to play the older version of a character who in his youth had never wanted to grow old? Jumanji, another childhood victim (sigh), again captures the boyishness that he embodied so well but also is contrasted by a sense of world-weariness.
One Hour Photo was Williams at his most sinister, What Dreams May Come at his most heart-achingly moving, and Good Morning Vietnam was a superb display on the many facets of his performance, from his manic energy to heart.
But, of course, there’s a reason Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society are so revered and it’s because both capture the essence of Williams perfectly. His light on his feet comic touches, his ability to share chemistry with any onscreen partner and his manner of opening up his soul for all to see on display. He made them imperfectly human to the point where those films are nearly synonymous with his name.
His was a talent that could never be forgotten. While it may be a sobering realizing to realize he’s still gone as the tragedy of it all remains, he will live on through his films, through his heart, spirit and humor.