Imagination Unlimited: Remembering Robin Williams
A Tribute by Jarrod Emerson
During a sweet moment early in the 1982 film The World According to Garp, aspiring writer T.S. Garp engages in a flirtatious conversation with his crush, Helen. After an amusing verbal gaffe, Garp attempts to take his foot out of his mouth by telling her, “I spend a lot of time imagining things…” For me, it was but one of many bittersweet moments as I looked back at the nearly 40-year career of the late Robin Williams.
Glancing at my phone’s screen, the shocking words, “Robin Williams killed himself!” burned into my brain. Hoping it was just a tasteless hoax, I hit the refresh button on his Wiki page and other news sites over and over again. Soon enough, I was convinced that it was real – he really had committed suicide. Shocked and saddened—and maybe a little angry—I felt as if I had lost a friend. Fortunately, a number of heartfelt, moving tributes from fellow entertainers appeared, reminding us all how much Williams meant to peers and audiences alike. Upon his death, Williams’s comedic turns in Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin seemed among his most consistently referenced roles. Though undeniably skilled as a comedian, this was only one of Williams’s many talents. Williams was just as capable of playing subtle, warm—and as he later proved—dark and villainous characters. He even utilized his over-the-top manic persona in some roles to hide a more complex, sometimes sinister side. But always, always, his genius shined through in each role.
Which brings me back to T.S. Garp’s remark about his imagination. Like the Garp character, Robin Williams possessed one hell of an imagination, which he spent his four-decade career exploring to the fullest. Through television, stage, and most extensively, cinema, Williams gave the world the great gift of his ingenuity, which fortunately, lives forever.
The following five films perfectly capture the scope of Robin Williams’s artistic genius:
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP (1982): Fiercely independent WWII nurse Jenny Fields (Glenn Close) longs for a child – but without the constraints of a husband. While caring for severely brain-damaged technical Sergeant Garp, nurse Jenny seizes an opportunity and rapes the comatose ball-turret gunner, thus conceiving her son T.S. Garp (Robin Williams)! Such an audacious beginning is followed by merging storylines and lives filled with imagination, love, illustrations on tolerance/intolerance – as well as bizarre and, sometimes, dangerous events. We watch as Garp struggles to become a serious writer. He also marries his high school sweetheart, Helen (Mary Beth Hurt), and becomes a fiercely over-protective husband and parent. We observe Garp’s astonishment as his mother becomes a feminist icon and a bestselling author—thanks to her unusual-for-the-times outlook on life. A look at the world through Garp’s eyes is an unforgettable one.
It grieves me to say this underrated adaptation from George Roy Hill is out-of-print, as the film shows Williams blossoming both comically and dramatically. (Hopefully you can find it at your local library or independent video store.) The World According to Garp is a well-crafted juxtaposition of dark comedy and drama – with the occasional imaginative lapse into fantasy. While Garp was a relatively early role in Williams’s film career, it’s one he was born to play. Williams’s comic abilities and wide range of expressions prove perfect for Garp’s numerous misadventures.
Surrounding Williams is an impressive, supportive cast. The young Glenn Close is perfect as Garp’s mother. Jenny refuses to live life on anyone else’s terms but her own. Her journey to becoming a feminist icon in a turbulent political climate is fascinating to watch. Together she and Williams create a unique, but believable mother/son dynamic. While the two characters differ in many ways, their shared stubbornness and determination make the two a believable mother/son pair. John Lithgow delivers a memorable performance as Roberta Muldoon, a transgender, ex-football player who befriends Garp. The late, great Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn also appear in hilarious cameos as Jenny’s parents in the film’s humorous opening. Overall, The World According To Garp is a unique portrait of life and the unexpected places it can take us.
MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON (1984): Life for circus saxophonist Vladimir Ivanoff in Cold War Russia is anything but easy. He waits endlessly in long lines for toilet paper or black market gasoline, and he must meet his lover in secrecy. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when the circus is sent on a government-sponsored trip to perform in New York City. Inspired by his beloved grandfather’s anti-Soviet sentiments as well as fellow performer Anatoly, Vladimir seizes the moment and boldly defects in Bloomingdale’s department store. With the help of security guard Lionel (Cleavant Derricks) and immigration lawyer Orlando Ramirez (Alejandro Rey), Vladimir starts a whole new life in the Big Apple. He also begins a romance with a beautiful Italian immigrant, Lucia (Maria Conchita Alonso). However, Vladimir soon discovers that his new western life presents a whole new set of difficulties.
Based on the immigration experiences of director Paul Mazursky’s own grandfather, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Moscow On The Hudson. I expected a dated, lightweight, cold-war comedy. What I experienced was drama/comedy/romance all seamlessly woven together into a heartwarming, fish-out-of-water story. Moscow On The Hudson may depict a defection, but the film is really about the challenges that come with starting over. After a brief intro in the present, we flash back to Vladimir’s former life in cold war Moscow. Crammed into a tiny apartment with his large family and facing constant scrutiny from government officials, Vladimir is surviving, but is very unhappy. Director Mazursky impressively chose to fill this 30-minute portion of the film with Williams and a supporting cast of Eastern-European actors speaking subtitled Russian, adding to the film’s authenticity. Both Mazursky and Williams do a wonderful job of helping us empathize with Vladimir every step of the way.
Williams is simply terrific as the jaded, and yet optimistic, immigrant protagonist. Although widely known for his cartoonish vocal talents, Williams’s turn as Vladimir is anything but a caricature. Having vigorously studied Russian for the film, Williams pulls off the spoken language with such fluency I forgot I was watching a Chicago native! However, Williams doesn’t stop with the accent. Working from Mazursky’s and Leon Capetanos’s well-written script, Williams gives us an incredibly sympathetic hero in Vladimir. Like anyone beginning a new life, he is simultaneously thrilled and scared as he navigates unforeseen bumps in the road.
The film also sports a likable supporting cast of well-developed characters. These include Cleavant Derricks as Vladimir’s host and friend Lionel Witherspoon, who serves a great ally in assisting Vladimir in coping with New York. Originally from Alabama, Lionel is a fellow fish-out-of-water, and he and Vladimir exchange advice and insight regarding culture and family. The beautiful Maria Conchita Alonso turns in a good performance as Vladimir’s love interest, Lucia. Together, she and Williams pull off a very real and un-fairytale-like romance. A charming film with a timeless message, I think Moscow On The Hudson is one of Williams’s most overlooked efforts.
THE FISHER KING (1991): As one of New York City’s hottest shock jocks, self-absorbed Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) took pleasure in humiliating on-air callers with hate-fueled rants. But that was three years ago. Plagued by guilt after one of his tirades incites an unstable caller to shoot up a popular nightclub, Jack now wallows in a booze-soaked depression. One night, as an inebriated Jack prepares to drown himself in the Hudson, a crazed homeless man named Parry (Robin Williams) comes to the rescue. Jack soon learns that Parry is actually Henry Sagan, a former professor of medieval mythology, whose late wife was among the casualties of the nightclub incident. Broken by grief, Henry now lives out the very mythology he once lectured on, believing himself to be on a quest for the Holy Grail. Seeing an opportunity for redemption, Jack is determined to help Parry/Henry and soon finds himself thrust further into Parry’s world than he ever imagined. Neither man’s life will ever be the same.
Released in 1991, The Fisher King saw Terry Gilliam step outside of his comfort zone by choosing to film a screenplay by someone other than himself. Writer Richard LaGravenese effectively incorporates drama with surreal mythological themes to tell a heartbreaking story of redemption through friendship. Gilliam deserves credit for assembling one helluva creative crew, including the late production designer Mel Bourne, veteran cinematographer Roger Pratt, and the musical talents of George Fenton. All succeeded spectacularly in bringing this unique story to life.
However, The Fisher King’s real triumph lies in its amazing cast. The character of Parry, played by Williams, is rich and multi-layered, and he gives his all in this Academy Award nominated performance. While there are many humorous moments filled with that famous maniacal energy, Williams also takes us down a rabbit hole of pain as we watch Parry’s suffering gradually surface. The persona Parry presents is but a mask that hides the paralyzing emotional trauma that he has suffered since the death of his wife. The always-reliable Jeff Bridges gives one of his many great performances as Jack Lucas, a lost and aimless wanderer seeking redemption for a horrible mistake. Bridges does a fine job taking us through Jack’s transformation from a selfish, narcissistic man consumed by arrogance to a caring, empathetic individual.
Not to be forgotten here are Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer as Jack and Parry’s respective love-interests. In her Academy-Award winning role as Anne, Reuhl gives us a smart, headstrong woman. Though supportive of Jack, Anne indisputably wears the pants. Nobody’s fool, she gives Jack tough love, pushing him to lift himself up. Plummer meanwhile, proves perfect for the role of clumsy, awkward Lydia, the object of Parry’s affection. Like Parry, Lydia is in a world of her own, stumbling through life. Plummer and Williams share a memorable, unconventional romantic chemistry. It is a true delight watching the two fumble Chinese food, and to see Parry profess his love on Lydia’s doorstep. Rich on both character-development and visuals, The Fisher King holds up as a heartbreaking, yet uplifting story, and stands as one of William’s finest, most complex roles.
GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997): M.I.T. Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) posts a complex mathematical problem on a hallway chalkboard, challenging his students to solve it. The following morning Lambeau finds the problem is solved, but none of the students will take credit for the feat. A few days later the professor discovers that it wasn’t a student at all, but a gifted and troubled 20-year old janitor named Will Hunting (Matt Damon). An orphan, Will was bounced from foster home to foster home, and now faces jail time for attacking someone who had beaten him up years before. Recognizing the genius in the boy, Lambeau intervenes, negotiating Will’s release—on the conditions that he studies mathematics and completes a cycle of therapy. After several celebrated therapists fail at cracking the wall around Will, a desperate Lambeau turns to his estranged friend, a psychologist turned community college professor, Sean MaGuire (Robin Williams). MaGuire, undaunted by Will’s defense mechanisms and despite having his own set of issues, also sees the good in Will and is determined to help him.
Showered with critical praise, Good Will Hunting took home two Academy-Awards, one of which was for Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s terrific screenplay. Originally conceived as a thriller about a young genius pursued relentlessly by the FBI for his intellect, Affleck and Damon re-tooled the story into a powerful coming-of-age tale. The film effectively fleshes out all aspects of Will Hunting’s life: his painful past, misadventures with his childhood friends, and the budding romance he embarks upon with Skylar (Minnie Driver). The latter presents a whole new challenge for Will, and may require him to reveal more about himself than he is comfortable with. Thankfully, Sean is there to guide him, and perhaps learn something from Will along the way.
The second Academy Award went to Williams for his portrayal of Sean MaGuire. While Williams was no stranger to dramatic territory, Sean MaGuire is the possibly the best-written dramatic character Williams ever took on. Sean is a broken man, seemingly unable to move on after the death of his wife. However, with beautifully written monologues and some terrific improvisational moments, Williams succeeds magnificently in portraying a man who manages to accept advice as well as give it, and in doing so is able to begin a healing process of his own.
In my opinion, this is one movie that will hold up for years to come. With its well-connected storylines, three-dimensional characters, and smart dialogue, Good Will Hunting delivers.
INSOMNIA (2002): Los Angeles Detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are dispatched to the small Alaskan town of Nightmute, to assist an old colleague in investigating the murder of 17-year-old Kay Connell. After a failed plan to lure the as-yet-unknown murderer back to the scene of the crime, the police end up pursuing the suspect to a foggy beach. In the midst of the fog, Dormer fires at a figure, realizing too late he has actually shot Eckhart. Eckhart dies, but not before accusing Dormer of doing it on purpose—particularly as Eckhart had agreed to testify against him in an Internal Affairs probe. Panicked, Dormer blames Eckhart’s death on the escaped suspect and tampers with evidence to cover up his involvement. Meanwhile, as it is summertime in Alaska and there is almost constant daylight, the guilt-ridden Dormer cannot sleep. As insomnia blurs his thinking, he receives anonymous calls from Kay’s killer. Claiming to have witnessed Eckhart’s shooting, the suspect uses this as leverage to throw police suspicion off himself. Dormer eventually identifies the man as a local author, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), of whom Kay was a great admirer. During a face-to-face meeting, Finch insists Kay’s death was an accident, urging Dormer to cooperate with him. Dormer finds himself reluctantly conspiring with Finch. But what are Finch’s true intentions? Who will gain the upper hand?
While I typically groan at the endless wave of unnecessary Hollywood remakes, Christopher Nolan’s reworking of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Norwegian existential thriller emerges with its own strengths. Nolan may be most associated with his epic Batman trilogy and high concept films, but this un-clichéd psychological thriller ranks among his very best. For this version, Nolan and screenwriter Hillary Seitz wisely don’t attempt to replicate the previous film. As gray as the skies of Nightmute, our two leads are anything but your standard good and bad guys. Though a decorated officer, Will Dormer is not a hero. He harbors skeletons in his closet that are about to be exposed. His accidental killing of Detective Eckhart further exacerbates this, and while he is consumed by guilt, he begins to wonder if he feels relief that a man who was cooperating to testify against him is now out of the way. Is he any different from the very criminals he’s spent decades putting away? This inner conflict—along with Alaska’s seasonal 24-hour daylight—act like kryptonite to Dormer, as they gradually strip him of his sanity.
Which brings us to the character of Walter Finch. Who better to take on the role of an unconventional antagonist than an equally unconventional actor like Robin Williams? Insomnia sees Williams in one of his darkest roles with nary a sign of his trademark over-the-top energy. Instead, he is a villain who is calm and collected, having convinced himself that his crime was merely a horrible accident. In a chilling, well-edited flashback, Finch candidly recounts Kay’s murder to Dormer over a phone conversation. Kay had rejected his romantic advances, angering him and leading him to beat her to death. I found Williams’s portrayal of Finch to be subtle and unsettling – the kind of performance that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Few have managed to evocatively reach the audience Robin Williams did. With the power of his imagination, he entertained, touched and inspired many individuals, and while he has left us, his legacy is going nowhere.
© Jarrod Emerson (10/30/15) FF2 Media