The late film critic Andrew Sarris once said, “When great actors die, people are sad. When the great clowns die, people grieve.” He was talking about Charlie Chaplin. But Sarris could have been describing the audience’s reaction to the death of Robin Williams, who died Monday of an apparent suicide.
Starting out as a stand-up comic and the becoming one of the most sublimely silly men on TV, Williams was best-known as as a fixture in beloved, big budget comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji. Still, some of Williams’s finest work came in his under-seen films. Whether it was in the 1986 football flick, The Best of Times, where he portrayed a banker who can’t get over a catch he dropped in the big game, or as the brilliantly bland, increasingly creepy stalker in Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo, Williams soaked up his roles.
He told Duane Dudek of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1999 that he “consulted with a psychiatrist to prepare for One Hour Photo and “‘watched some interviews with serial killers. But basically, it was using the material and extrapolating from there.'” Williams also said at the time, “The moment they shaved my hair with the weed whacker and made it blonde (and dressed him in) all those clothes that Target would throw out,” he knew how to play the freaky photo developer who gets way too close to a family, whose pictures he develops.
Here are a handful of Williams’ less-seen roles. Today, we are grieving.
Club Paradise, 1986:
Need a vacation but can’t afford to leave the house? Here’s the ticket. Directed by Harold Ramis, this funny film stars Williams as an former firefighter who decides to run a low-rent, Club Med, with the help of charmingly drunken Peter O’Toole. Throw in Eugene Levy and Rick Moranis as two would-be studs trying to score women and dope (and get “totally demented”) and you have a better-constructed, Caribbean-set Caddyshack. Williams is the calm center here. Telling a guest who’s trying to go naked, “It’s much more tantalizing to conceal than reveal.” For The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote of Club‘s’ unforced funniness. Need a better recommendation?
Deconstructing Harry, 1997:
One of Woody Allen’s darkest, most inventive comedies, this film was was savaged by everyone at the time: Jews, women, Jewish women, critics and Jewish critics — the crowds stayed away in droves. Tough shit. This bleak portrait of a blocked, foul-mouthed, pill-popping writer had one brilliant vignette after another. None better than the section with Williams, who plays an actor who feels he’s losing focus. Soon enough, he looks blurry too. The situation is finally resolved when Williams gets his wife and kids to wear glasses that make him look clear and normal again. Freaky, funny, probably too complex for Freud, this film, and Williams’s work in it, will endure.
One Hour Photo, 2002:
No one expected video director Romanek to make anything more than a good-looking series of pictures with this film. Add Robin Williams, way out of his comfort zone, a Mark Romanek script and that added to the skepticism. Most people came out of the theater true believers, chuckling to chill out their anxiety. As “Sy,” Williams, in his blue SavMart vest and bright white shirt, is as colorful and lonely as a planet you’ve just discovered through your telescope. With his rigid body and his unconvincing friendliness, he’s a middle-aged Travis Bickle, working a straight job. Sy watches a family develop in the store’s film lab and starts to feel they’re his. Williams is unfortunately forced to explain why he’s such a weirdo in the movie’s one unconvincing scene. It’s not only a brilliant, quiet performance, it freed him to later play a series of unhinged anti-heroes.
Moscow On The Hudson, 1984:
He had the ear of Miles Davis and the barely-contained sadness of our greatest clowns. Which may be why ace filmmaker, Paul Mazursky, chose Williams to play Vladimir Ivanoff, a Russian circus performer, who tells a Bloomingdale’s salesperson, “I defect.” As a clown who moves to New York City, he takes a series of jobs and tries hard to keep a smile on that melancholy mush of a face. Despite a few plot problems, it’s a gem. It’s one of Williams’s loveliest performances.
More than likely Francis Coppola’s screen goodbye to his late son, Gian-Carlo, Williams, plays a kid born with an extreme form of Werner syndrome. The rapidly-aging Williams breaks your heart with his lack of self-pity. Watch his high school graduation speech as an old man and hear him say, “Make your life spectacular,” without tearing up. And getting back to your bucket list.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 12, 2014