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8/11/14

ROBIN WILLIAMS (1951-2014)


Today we lost not only a Hollywood and comedy icon but an inspiration.

I can't speak for everyone but, for me personally, Robin Williams was more than just another actor: his work was a huge part of my childhood and, in a way, he helped shape who I am. After all, it's no accident that my very first published movie review would end up being One Hour Photo many years later, the actor's impact still going strong even after I'd grown up.

Williams was not only a comedy genius with his own unique, instantly recognisable style but a damn fine actor as well and an anarchic stand-up very few comedians could match in terms of sheer tornado-like creativity.

Like many who grew up in the late 80's/early 90's, I was introduced to Williams through more kid-friendly movies and it's only much later that I'd see him pop up in shows like Larry Sanders, Friends or even his very own off-beat classic Mork & Mindy.


Aladdin blew my mind as a kid. 

Visually, I was hypnotised, I could quote the entire thing from start to finish, and musically, I was addicted to the songs and the score even. It soon became my favourite Disney film and so it remains to this day. Funnily enough, growing up in France, I didn't actually hear Robin Williams steal the show as that fast-talking Genie until seeing the movie on an English TV years later.

Hook was also big one for me.


This story of an older Peter Pan was not exactly the traditional way to tell that story and, watching it for the first time, it was hard to guess that by the end of the film you'd be totally sold on this idea of Robin Williams as the boy who never grew up and yet I totally bought it. Every kid in the world pretty much did! Williams' slow transformation from a serious, workaholic dad into a flying pirate-fighting hero was masterfully handled by the actor who brought his own magic to the role.

Similarly, Williams brought his own magic to Mrs Doubtfire, a film which dealt with an, at its core, quite sad notion: a father so desperate to see his kids after a harsh divorce that he would literally do anything to just spend time with them. Williams not only brought laughs aplenty and some brilliant physical comedy throughout the film but a humanity to his character. Every so often we'd get a quiet but powerful reminder that this silly character was a tragic figure as well as a fun, humorous one.


Another important one was Jumanji.

Gosh I loved that movie growing up and, you know what, re-watching it reminded me why. Here was a genuinely exciting, well made kids' film with tons of imagination and a genius premise which didn't talk down to its young audience. There's a great build-up to Robin Williams' first appearance in the film and, again, there's tragedy to his character which the actor could convey so well with a single look.


It's this sadness which so many of Williams' characters would possess which would make you feel for those characters instantly and identify with them. We all have a downbeat version of ourselves tucked away inside and Williams was one of those actors who could always put aside his hyper, jokey personality and find that little gem which would make his characters feel three dimensional and human, if only for a moment. But that moment would make all the difference.

Should we really feel all that bad for Sy Parrish at the end of One Hour Photo after he basically kidnaps and threatens a dude he barely knows? Probably not but Williams' depiction of this guy's minimalist, surreal lifestyle and the intense loneliness shaping his every move made you feel for him regardless.


It was around the time where I would start going to the movies by myself and really started falling in love with cinema that I saw One Hour Photo and Williams' impressively restrained performance. Finally a film had managed to take that little piece of sadness at the heart of many of his characters and let it consume that character until it became something dark and genuinely unsettling. This honestly should have been an Oscar in the bag for Williams.

Flubber was the first Robin Williams film I saw in the cinema in English, however, and it's one of those moments at the movies I feel very nostalgic about. I remember being so happy, having so much fun watching that movie that it doesn't matter if I still have no idea why the flubber started dancing at one point. Williams' absent-minded professor was so enjoyably manic that nothing else mattered: I chewed happily on my popcorn, drank my Virgin Cola (yeah, that existed) with a smile on my face and left the cinema satisfied.


The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen was one of those movies I saw quite young and, even though I had basically no idea what was going on, I just knew I loved it. The amount of creativity that went into it was simply spellbinding and you really felt as if you were watching one of Terry Gilliam's craziest dreams. One of the most surreal parts of the film involved Robin Williams as the floating head of the demented Moon king. Needless to say that this was a striking yet still kinda creepy image. 

Of course, I later saw The Fisher King and got to see Williams playing yet another flawed character I really didn't want to see anything bad happen to. There was something so damn charming about the guy so when he played a vulnerable, fragile character like that, you kept hoping that he'd be ok in the end.


Then there were times when Williams would pinpoint the tragedy of his character but find the humour in it, usually when his character wasn't that good of a dude. If you've never seen Death To Smoochy, then you've missed out on what is quite probably Robin Williams' straight-up funniest performance in a movie. He's not the main character technically but he pops up here and there as a shady, embittered children's entertainer-turned desperate down-and-out loser and every time he delivers some of the most perfectly timed lines and slapstick moments he's ever put on film. The Rainbow Randolph freak-outs is really what you wait for throughout the whole movie and, luckily, they never disappoint.


Popeye was one of the actor's earliest movies and it was one I'd always wanted to see as it kept popping up as a trailer in some of my old Disney tapes. Yet I had to wait many years to finally watch it properly once I finally got my hands on a VHS of it. What I found was an underrated kids movie with a lot going for it and a Williams on top form. Again, here was a charming kids movie that would have mesmerised me had I seen it as a kid.

Same goes for Toys, though that one was a bit too long and surreal to keep kids' attentions the whole way through. The visuals in that movie, however, always fascinated me: it's a unique movie to say the least.


Of course, I also fell in love with some of Robin Williams' more serious works.

Dead Poets Society I remember seeing for the first time late at night in my room with the volume turned down really low so my parents wouldn't know I was watching TV past my bed time. It wasn't exactly my kind of movie but Robin Williams was in it and by God I was gonna sit there watch it. Never expected to get attached to these characters or get all that involved with the story but man did I want to stand on my own table by the end of the movie. Williams was the inspirational teacher we all dreamed of having and, for an aspiring filmmaker like myself, he sort of was. 

Good Morning Vietnam was another good one and, of course, What Dreams May Come, a movie so strange, so dark and so dramatic that, whether it's good or not, whether you like it or not, it's an experience well worth sitting through. I'd never seen a movie like that before and this was a descent into hell just as scary and bizarre as you'd expect. Several films including Awakenings and Good Will Hunting showed just how good Williams could be and even those more misguided efforts (Bicentennial Man, Jack, Patch Adams) were still made watchable by the ever-reliable Williams who would never short-change the filmmakers he was working with, always giving it his all no matter what.

Hell, even in Nine Months he gave 110% and that film was SO not worth his time and effort.


Other comedies I really enjoy going back to every so often include Father's Day and The Birdcage, both cheesy but sweet American remakes of French comedies, The Big White, a hugely underrated black comedy I have a lot of affection for and the recent World's Greatest Dad, which was the last Robin Williams film I saw in the cinema prior to his passing and which I really enjoyed a lot. Another underrated gem, in my opinion. Robots was also a fun animated film in which Williams did some fab voice work and I do recommend that one, especially if you're an Aladdin fan.


Also, let's not forget Williams' chilling performance in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia. Playing completely against type, Williams is probably seen in the film for like 10 minutes but he's creepy enough that he drives Al Pacino's cop nuts in a matter of seconds. Another darker effort was The Night Listener, a little film for sure, but one which leaves you feeling odd to say the least. This time, Williams isn't the creepy one but you fear for him as there's the constant sense that someone is tricking him and leading him into a trap.

I became a fan of Woody Allen's movies as a teenager and beyond so when Williams popped up in Deconstructing Harry, one of the director's best and arguably his last masterpiece, as a guy literally off focus I was very happy indeed. I even sat through all four hours of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet just to see Williams' two minute cameo appearance so I was pretty dedicated.


Alright, so I could go on forever about how great Williams was as an actor and how good his films were. Suffice it to say that without him and these movies, I would not have had the childhood I had. Being an only child, I relied on cinema to offer me a certain form of magic which would either entertain the hell out of me, take me into a brand new world I could have never imagined or bring forward some interesting ideas to my attention, teach me the language of film.

Without Hook, without Aladdin, without Jumanji, without Robin Williams I can't imagine being the same person I am today and I'll always be grateful to this great actor, this great artist for making a good portion of my life so much fun to live.

In the week leading up to the man's tragic passing, I not only bonded with a new friend over his hilarious impression of Mrs Doubtfire but I had a random conversation with a complete stranger about The Birdcage, had a long chat about Flubber with another friend who revisited it recently, I even got to do my not-award-winning Robin Williams impression to someone.

So, although this man, this inspiration I never wanted to leave us has now left us much, much too early, he was always with me and will remain so forever.

Rainbow Randolph's damage is done in terms of who I am and I couldn't thank him enough for that.

I'll sure miss him.    

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