December 19, 2014
The man who was too much. And then some.
The Washington Post (*)
Robin Williams brought brutal, transparent honesty to his best roles
Robin Williams was too much. For much of his career, the irrepressible Williams forswore subtlety. Ever since bursting into the public consciousness as the manic, rainbow-suspender-wearing TV alien in the sitcom Mork & Mindy, he seemed to be permanently toggling between two points on the emotional dial: wild, hyperkinetic looniness or unabashed sincerity. In more recent years, he seemed to have discovered different, darker corners that allowed him to exhibit some of his most compelling work, not as the one-man purveyor of over-the-top joie de vivre but as a gifted actor unafraid of his own shadows.
For audiences of a certain age, Williams was best known as the man with the motor-mouth persona and constantly shifting alter egos who would jump effortlessly into impersonations during his breathless, scene-stealing appearances on The Tonight Show and other late-night talk programs. Whether he was channelling Popeye with note-perfect malapropisms in the eponymous 1980 movie or portraying the loud, loquacious disc jockey in Good Morning, Vietnam, Williams could be counted on to bring unbridled energy and a near-bottomless supply of ad libs to roles that felt tailored to his singular gifts. When Peter Weir cast him as the inspirational English teacher John Keating in the drama Dead Poets Society, some observers were still sceptical that he could tamp down his natural-born mania long enough to be convincing.
But his performance in that film launched a chapter in Williams’ career that swung — sometimes too easily — from broad comedy and family fare (Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, Happy Feet) to films that, while capitalizing on his eccentricity, made sure not to stint on sensitivity and uplift.
As impressive as Williams was in those roles, it was the smaller films Williams did along the way that seemed to extract his most interesting qualities, the ones he laboured so mightily to keep hidden, whether with hysterically pitched comedy, super-sincere drama or too-cute, begging-to-be-liked turns in such creatively bereft paydays as Patch Adams and Old Dogs.
He never shied from subversive material: he has a cameo in Bobcat Goldthwait’s poisonously funny satire Shakes the Clown, and he went out of his way to dismantle his own sunnily unthreatening public persona as a washed-up, foul-mouthed kids performer in Danny DeVito’s scabrous showbiz parody Death to Smoochy.
But it wasn’t until 2002’s psychological thriller One Hour Photo that Williams seemed to shed the mannerisms and self-conscious quirk completely. In that quiet, unsettling drama, exquisitely directed by Mark Romanek, Williams played a photo-booth clerk who becomes obsessed with a prosperous suburban family whose lives he witnesses through a succession of happy portraits.
Williams’ finely calibrated performance was utterly free of the tics and affectations that are so tempting to someone who has come to count on and crave the audience’s love. Rather than seek his fans’ approval with the actorly equivalent of ingratiating winks, Williams was willing to completely inhabit a character who was somehow terrifying, pathetic, creepy and vulnerable all at once.
Not as many people saw One Hour Photo as did Good Will Hunting or Mrs. Doubtfire — or maybe even Death to Smoochy. But those who did saw a side of Williams that went beyond light or dark. They saw something brutally, transparently honest in an actor who may have made a career out of being too much, but who at his best was capable of knowing what was just enough.