It’s curious that the mediocre or the complacent had been allowed to outweigh the nutty and the inspired in the general perception of Robin Williams’s acting career. Now that Williams is gone—he died yesterday aged 63—there must be an extra element of sadness among those of us who permitted our impression of him to be shaped by his mistakes rather than his triumphs.
Perhaps the likes of Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man, Fathers’ Day and Flubber, came to define him because they felt like a selling-out of his livewire gifts—the sort of skills on display in underrated early-1980s films such as Popeye, The Survivors and Moscow on the Hudson, or in Good Morning, Vietnam or arguably his best picture, Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. (He was realistic about his errors. “You have to make fun of Fathers’ Day or Bicentennial Man,” he said. “Popeye I stand by.”) But then his particular shtick always teetered on the edge of being cloying—there’s no mistaking his neediness, even in his most frenetic stand-up routines. Sometimes he tipped over the edge, into the vat of syrup waiting beneath. Sometimes he made it all the way across the tightrope to the other side to rapturous applause.
Gilliam knew as much. It was a masterstroke to cast Williams as Parry, the innocent homeless man whose fantasy life is revealed to have emerged after he witnessed the murder of his wife. But it was wise of the director to put Jeff Bridges, a straighter and saner presence, opposite him as the DJ who played an inadvertent role in Parry’s bereavement. “All through the making of the film, I was on edge,” said Gilliam,
because I didn’t want to be sentimental and yet we were dealing with very sentimental material … One of the key things was to get someone as solid as Jeff Bridges, because Robin can be mawkish and so over-the-top and silly that I was quite likely to lose it with him, because I’m very vulnerable to these things too … What Jeff did was make sure that Robin and I didn’t take off on flights of silliness. He always pulled back and anchored Robin, which worked a treat.
Williams was a powerhouse performer but he needed precisely those restrictions and boundaries to flourish in film; he was best going against the grain. So a movie like Vincent Ward’s admittedly rapturous What Dreams May Come was all wrong for him; his tendency toward emotional incontinence could only be amplified tenfold in a work so lavish and unrestrained. But in the right circumstances, his wildness could feel rampant, even naughty. One of the high-points of his career was his voice performance as the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. He was pure id.
He did his best to remake himself in a string of darker projects in the early 2000s (Insomnia, Death to Smoochy, One Hour Photo) and in the 2009 black comedy, World’s Greatest Dad. He could also be excellent in small doses—he was always up for a curious cameo, as demonstrated by his work as an out-of-focus man in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, or his small and sinister turn in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Conrad’s The Secret Agent. But it is chiefly for The Fisher King that he should be treasured. In that movie he was not clipped or compromised exactly, but he found the ideal soil and conditions in which his talents could blossom.