Thursday, August 21, 2014

The melancholy dynamo: Deceased Artiste Robin Williams (Part 2 of two)

Before I sink into Williams’ best performances, let me briefly touch on the beginning of his career on TV and two of the more memorable recent appearances of what seemed to be “the real Robin.”

Williams appeared on two short-lived NBC variety series in 1977. The most notable is The Richard Pryor Show, which was notoriously censored by the network and then canceled. The other one-season wonder was the resurrection of Laugh-In. This little chunk of the show includes Frank Sinatra and Jilly, Cindy Williams, Flip Wilson, and the new cast of zanies (featuring both Robin *and* the equally frenzied Lenny Schultz!).

Another nugget of Robin as a comic actor, this time on the absolutely brilliant America 2-Night (1978). Here he plays a small-town gigolo interviewed by Barth Gimble (Martin Mull) and Jerry Hubbard (Fred Willard).

The contrast between early and “later” (read: recent) Williams is, of course, incredibly sad, since, as was noted in the Guardian piece that I linked to in part one of this entry, when he was revealing his inner self to interviewers he would get very quiet and incredibly serious. His sense of humor was still there, but it was a grimmer kind of humor, in which he tended to laugh at himself or at the inevitability of certain situations.

This was most prevalent in his interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast. The interviewer was a very important one for Maron, as Williams was his biggest-name guest to that date and the episode cemented Marc’s role as a seeming “therapist” figure in his interviews (albeit a therapist who mentions his own addictions and problems at length). The result is a very touching and genuine interview that did indeed introduce us to the “real” Robin.

The most moving instance of this same quiet, reflective Robin appeared in the recent (2012) episode of Louie in which he and Louis CK (both playing themselves) meet at the funeral of a much-loathed comedy-club owner — a funeral at which they are the only attendees. It is a beautiful piece of work that is a testament to both LCK’s writing/directing and Robin’s acting:


But now, onto Williams’ film work, the crème de la crème in my estimation. Setting aside a bit part in the sketch comedy film Can I Do It ‘Till I Need Glasses? (1977) — which was of course rereleased when he became a TV star Williams started at the top, as the star of Robert Altman’s large-scale, big-budget, ultra-imaginative (and often utterly crazy) Popeye (1980).

The film was trashed by critics when it came out and was reported to have been a flop at box office (although Altman’s obits noted it did quite well, rating as his second highest-grossing film behind M*A*S*H). In recent years it has been reappraised and now has a cult following, which includes Paul Thomas Anderson, who used a Popeye song from the film in Punch Drunk Love.

My take on the film is that it is a visual marvel that is also two-thirds of a great picture. I am a major Altman worshipper, but Popeye is one of that small group of his films that peter out in the last third — A Perfect Couple is the best example of this “almost perfect” type of film.

The last third of the picture devolves into a chase scenario (and then a fight, and then shtick with an octopus) — a chase at the end of a farce nearly always being a sign that a scripter gave up. In this case the scripter was the great Jules Feiffer, and the “descent” into endless frenzy was reportedly the result of the wild mood on the set (which was located on the island of Malta and was populated by well-medicated individuals); if I remember correctly, it’s been noted that the production ran out of money to get the end of the script shot.

When the film is working, it’s a cartoon come to life that benefits not only Altman’s unerring eye for casting — Shelley Duvall was the one and only choice for Olive Oyl — but his love of depicting unusual communities in his films. The other sublime aspect is the collection of songs by Harry Nilsson, which perfectly establishes the light and lively tone of the film.

Robin does a wonderful job as Popeye, naturally reveling in the character’s tossed-off asides and unique mode of cursing.

After Popeye came Williams’ first lead dramatic role, as T.S. Garp in the excellent movie adaptation of World According to Garp (1982). Robin incarnates Garp with depth and nuance — a far cry from his everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-too approach to comedy.

As I noted in the first part of this piece, the film works beautifully because it points the viewer back to the book. Like Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), it’s an example of George Roy Hill tackling an episodic novel and producing an excellent film (without Slaughterhouse’s only flaw — a really flat lead actor).

The ensemble cast is all terrific — Glenn Close was never better and John Lithgow injected the perfect note of sincerity to his eccentric role. But, in the final analysis, the film rests on Williams. And, as often happens when an artist or entertainer dies, certain moments from their work acquire an added poignancy.

A lot of the movie comedies Robin starred in missed the mark. One that is half a good movie is The Survivors (1983). Michael Ritchie functioned as a sort of mini-Robert Altman in the Seventies, making perceptive films about the American Dream that were excellent time capsules that also happened to explore timeless issues — The Candidate, Smile, and Semi-Tough being the three best examples. 

The Survivors finds William teaming with Walter Matthau in a satire on the survivalist movement. The film makes very good points about America’s obsession with guns and militarism, until it basically becomes just a kooky, crazy comedy about Robin’s character’s personal war against a crook (Jerry Reed).

One of Robin's finest performances is in a film that most have overlooked, a PBS production based on a Saul Bellow novel called Seize the Day (1986). He plays a completely normal guy, a down-on-his-luck salesman in Fifties NYC. He needs dough for his wife and kids (and his mistress, who wants him to marry her). As the film moves on, he descends in a downward spiral that ends with a very memorable finale.

The film is one of those perfect “small movies” that evokes a place and time while also showcasing a great ensemble of actors. Director Fielder Cook reproduces the Fifties in beautiful detail — not that big a surprise, as he spent that period directing landmark TV dramas like Rod Serling's “Patterns.”

The incredible supporting includes Joseph Wiseman (as Williams' dad, another classic portrait from Wiseman of an old-fashioned Jewish gentleman), Jerry Stiller (in a scene-stealing role as a con artist), Tony Roberts, John Fiedler, William Hickey, Jo Van Fleet, and Fyvush Finkel.

The film qualifies as a great discovery for those who like Williams as an actor, but have only seen him in mainstream Hollywood fodder.

Awakenings (1990) was a happy convergence of compelling subject matter, two great lead performances, and surprisingly subtle direction by Penny Marshall. The oddest thing about the film, trivia-wise, is that it starred the two men who hung out with John Belushi on the night of his overdose and was directed by the woman he briefly left his wife for.

De Niro is in the spotlight giving the more broadly drawn performance (this being the time when every De Niro performance was still worth seeing — before the dry rot and the countless bad movies came along), but Williams matches him perfectly, playing the button down real-life doctor/author Oliver Sacks. Here is a wonderful scene featuring Williams, from the end of the movie.

The Fisher King (1991) is possibly Williams' best work on-screen. The film remains for me one of Terry Gilliam's best films, although it is not a traditional “Terry Gilliam film” (read: a project he instigated and/or co-scripted). It contains a beautiful fusion of everyday reality and the kind of lyrical imagery that Gilliam produces at his best.

The entire cast is terrific, with Jeff Bridges giving a characteristically terrific lead performance and Mercedes Ruehl stealing the film as his very down-to-earth girlfriend (she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here). Each piece of the puzzle fits perfectly, with Williams being perfectly cast as a professor who went insane and became homeless when his wife was killed in front of him.

The palpable sense of tragedy that Robin was able to conjure is central to his character, but Fisher King is not a flat-out drama — his character actually belongs more to the “charming mental patient” portrait gallery that appeared in the Sixties and early Seventies (with Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment and King of Hearts being prime examples). The film is both a character study and a memorable love story.

Here Williams' character meets his object of obsession, an incredibly mousy young woman played to perfection by Amanda Plummer:

A disturbing and touching breakdown scene in which Robin's character loses it entirely as Bridges tries to talk to him about his real identity, and his enemy, “the Red Knight” appears in Central Park:

One of the film's most memorable and gorgeous scenes occurs when Williams pursues Plummer through Grand Central Station. Oddly, I had remembered this as a piece done in period costume. It isn't, but it is a slice of everyday reality transformed into radiant romantic fantasy by Gilliam:

Another unfairly overlooked film starring Williams is Being Human (1994), directed by Scottish director Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl, Local Hero). It's an incredibly ambitious film that tracks one character throughout different historical eras, five in all.

It's a bumpy ride that seems without a destination when the film finds Robin as a slave in Imperial Rome and as a Scottish traveler in Italy. By the fifth and final episode, though, it all becomes clear: his character is just an Everyman looking for a pair of comfortable shoes and trying to figure out how to reclaim the women and children he kept abandoning in his previous lives. His interactions with his children in a long beach scene at the end of the picture seem wholly genuine and very moving.

The whole film can be found here; this is the trailer:

As the Nineties moved on, I began to “detach” as a fan of Robin's work as an actor just as I had from his comedy in the early Eighties. This was the result of having seen Hook, Flubber, Toys, and Jumanji — all perfectly crafted kiddie movies that didn't do a damned thing for me. Williams continued to star in many, many features, make unbilled cameos in other movies, and do voices for cartoons.

Thus I wound up stupidly avoiding What Dreams May Come (1998), one of the best-loved of Williams' dramas, a kind of “Twilight Zone” afterlife saga based on a novel by iconic “Zone” scribe Richard Matheson. The picture is a heavy tearjerker that somehow never gets too Spielbergian (read: shamelessly mawkish) because there is an overload of imagination at work throughout.

The plot can best be summarized as “Orpheus in reverse,” as Robin's character dies, then tries to find his wife in the afterlife after she commits suicide (to make matters even more heavily, heavily dramatic, their kids died years before them). On paper I would run far, far away from this kind of plotline — especially with the added incentive of “state-of-the-art CGI effects” (state of the art for '98, that is) — but Dreams examines notions about death and “where we go” in a way that satisfies even a nonbeliever like myself.

For one of the most memorable scenes is when Williams finds himself in an afterlife that is actually a newly done oil painting, with the presumption being that art really is the stuff of life. The other notion that the picture explores — which of course acquired another level of sadness after Robin killed himself — is the idea that suicides are banished to hell. Here the notion is that good people who commit suicide (in this case Williams' wife, played by Annabella Sciorra) wind up in Hell because they can't forgive themselves.

The film is a bit uneven, but as with Being Human, its sheer crazy ambition makes it worth watching, especially for those looking for a mostly sad, but ultimately hopeful, love story (with a very odd cameo by Werner Herzog at 1:50 here). A favorite scene:

2002 might have been the most interesting year in Williams' movie career, for in that one year he starred in three films in which he played the villain — and he was a damned good villain.

The first of the trio is One Hour Photo (2002), a “small movie” that has elements of a crime thriller, but is ultimately a super-low-key character study. Robin is incredibly good as the lead character, a psychotic photo developer who has developed an obsession with a local family. We are both sympathetic to, and creeped out by, his character throughout the picture, and it's a very lonely, lonely piece:

Death to Smoochy (2002) is a very dark comedy directed by Danny DeVito that is (again!) half of a great movie. The first half sketches the characters — most importantly a moronically naïve children's entertainer (Edward Norton) and the man he replaces, a foul-mouthed, completely nasty kiddie show host played by Robin.

The script was written by Adam Resnick, the co-creator of the brilliant Chris Elliott show Get a Life and the only Elliott vehicle, the sublimely silly Cabin Boy. Here the characters are similarly brusque and cartoonish, but the picture sadly loses it in the second half and resolves with a race against time — the usual sign (see above, re: Popeye) that a comedy has hit the wall. Still in all, Williams is great as the seriously nasty “Rainbow Randolph.”

The final 2002 film in which Williams played the villain is Insomnia (2002), a cat-and-mouse crime thriller that finds L.A. cop Al Pacino in a small Alaskan town trying to apprehend psycho-killer Robin.

Director by Christopher Nolan (he of the “thinking man's action thrillers”), the film is extremely long and contains a very mannered performance by Pacino as “the drowsy detective” (see, this cop ain't used to the sun being out all night, so he never gets any sleep and just keeps moving around like he's in a dream or somethin'....).

Williams is very menacing, perhaps because he plays the character in such a laidback fashion. We don't see him in person until the film's second half, and even there he is mostly present in two-character scenes with Pacino, wherein he outshines our sleepy-boy by simply underplaying his part. Robin brings to mind Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, but with a sweeter voice and demeanor — making him all the more scary.

Fun trivia fact: one of the Alaskan cops is played by Paul Dooley, who was of course Wimpy to Robin's Popeye in the Altman film.

In many of his interviews, Robin noted that he fell off the wagon in 2003. He went into rehab in 2006, had heart surgery in 2009, and challenged himself with his first starring role on Broadway in 2011 (I do wish I had seen that). A few weeks before his death he checked himself back into rehab for what he called a “tune-up.” It's interesting to note that his filmography during this period is still as vigorous as it ever was, but the films were mostly pretty awful.
One major exception is Bobcat Goldthwait's pitch-black comedy World’s Greatest Dad (2009). Williams plays the father of, to put it plainly (and to quote the film’s dialogue) a teenage “douchebag” who dies of auto-erotic asphyxiation. He cleans up the boy's body, and in an echo of Robin's own death, makes the death scene look as if his son hanged himself. He also writes a tortured suicide note and later a diary, making his son into a persecuted but big-hearted humanitarian.

A pungent satire of both the gullibility of the American public and the “grief industry,” the film is very funny and extremely nasty towards its targets. Its fit in quite nicely with Bobcat's preceding film, the very funny Sleeping Dogs Lie (2005), another modern American morality play with a sting in its tail, and the absolutely terrific dark comedy God Bless America (2011).

Of course the film received “news” coverage when broadcasters and Net-gossip sites were looking for sequences in Williams' films that involved suicide. The fact that Robin had appeared in a film on this topic was labeled “shocking” in the click-bait write-ups, but the film ends with a sort of fascinating “purification” sequence and has a very simple message: people are who they are, no matter what happens to them. The celebrity-making machinery of the media moves lightning-fast and is often based on nothing more than a bunch of lies.

Fun fact trivia: Bobcat notes in this interview (at 5:20) that he wrote the leading role in the film for Philip Seymour Hoffman and initially asked Robin to appear in a smaller part in the film.


The only way to end this tribute to Robin is to spotlight his relationship with the quick-witted comic genius who made him laugh like crazy, Jonathan Winters. Winters also suffered from depression and was a recovering alcoholic. He never ended his own life, but comparisons of the two men are ultimately faulty, since they both came from different backgrounds, were of different age groups, and used their “madness” in very different ways in their comedy.

Perhaps the best footage of Jonathan cracking up Robin, and then the two trading odd improvs, is this outtake from a 1986 60 Minutes interview. Also wonderful is this goofy little sketch from Winters' 1986 cable special On the Ledge:

And the duo appeared on The Tonight Show back in 1991, with Jon reminding Robin of their time working on Mork and Mindy together: “You had access to more medication in those days....” It is indeed a lovely thing hearing Robin laugh at his hero.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The melancholy dynamo: Deceased Artiste Robin Williams (part 1 of two)

When Robin Williams burst on the scene, I was a young comedy fan who was ready to be blown away by his energy and insane verbal skills. My friends and I made a pilgrimage to the Unique Warehouse on Broadway in the NYU section of the Village (now ever-expanding…) to buy the suspenders that Robin wore on Mork and Mindy — yes, I was that big of a comedy geek and a fan for his frantic, hyper-kinetic mode of standup comedy.

I had two surprises lying in wait: the first was that Mork and Mindy came back for its second season and was really, really unfunny. I’ve only seen a few shows descend in quality that quickly, and in those cases it was because key writers or entire writing staffs were replaced (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; In Living Color). The damned thing just was nearly impossible to sit through. The writing seemed different, but also the “costar” was now the full-out star, new characters were introduced that dragged the show down, and the kooky sense of humor that punctuated the show was now wall-to-wall, except when mawkish messages were being imparted.

The second surprise was the better one, and the reason I’m writing this blog entry. It also led to me retaining an interest in Williams’ work, even when I wasn’t a fan of his standup anymore (by the early Eighties, it had become a mess of coke-fueled hyper-energy that couldn’t help but wear down the viewer).

The surprise was The World According to Garp (1982), in which super-mega-hyper Robin was quiet, gentle, and gave an incredibly moving performance. It didn’t hurt that George Roy Hill was a wildly underrated director whose adaptations of novels made you want to read the books his films were based on — surely a triumph for any director.

It was a revelation to see Williams give such a grounded, rational, human performance in Garp that I realized I’d have to keep track of what he did as an actor in the movies. This was, mind you, just at the point when for me his standup became unendurably manic — there is no trace of it online, but he was nothing less than obnoxious on a 1988 cable special called An All-Star Toast to the Improv.

On that special six comedians sit on stools, and each does his act in turn. Four of the other comedians — Robert Klein, Richard Lewis, Paul Rodriguez, and Billy Crystal — have their sets ruined by Robin, who seems clearly coked outta his brain (I know, I know he said he was clean as a whistle after '83, but he really does seem to be on *something*, if only caffeine, on the Improv special). He does physical humor (he did have a predilection for dick jokes) and shouts out lines while the other comedians are on.

Thankfully, Martin Mull acknowledged the situation directly by saying “I don’t blame you, Robin — I blame the man who gave you the shot backstage.” He also pointed to Robin while he was ad-libbing on his stool and declared “here is where your March of Dimes dollars go, folks….”

So, while Robin’s comedy act was turning aggressive, obnoxious, and — the single best word for a lot of his hyperactive behavior — desperate, his acting showed him to be an artist and entertainer capable of nuance and depth. (His TV interviews found him bouncing between the two poles, but constantly returning to “hyper”-land.)

There were both good and bad films in the Eighties and Nineties, peaks and lows in his work. Since he died, much emphasis has been put on the period in which he was fully sober — 1983–2003 — and I find it interesting that he did a lot of his best work during this period, but fell into a ditch of really lousy movies after he fell off the wagon. He also started making the kind of really mawkish family-friendly dramas that became one of his lamest (and laziest, given his talent) legacies.

Clearly he was a compulsive workaholic who gave everything (including his health and, at times, his sanity) to both his standup and his acting. The problem clearly became that he was working in too many movies — starring in some, doing voices-work for others, and making guest-star appearances in a whole other batch of films.

In one of the most interesting, and saddest, interviews he did back in 2009 for The Guardian, he acknowledged this fact: "In one two-year period I made eight movies. At one point the joke was that there's a movie out without you in it. You have this idea that you'd better keep working otherwise people will forget. And that was dangerous. And then you realize, no, actually if you take a break people might be more interested in you.”

So what I want to do here is celebrate his great movie work, which unfortunately got buried in amongst the bad comedies and dramas, his heart-tugging family stuff, the many cartoons, the guest-starring silliness, and the many, many (many!) movies Robin made over the past three decades.

Unfortunately the 10-15 most brilliant of his films nearly got buried under an avalanche of mediocrities, and the critically lauded films we were supposed love, like Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, and, god forbid, The Birdcage — the first three are very good movies, but have been lionized ad infinitum.


Before I commence in salutin’, I should of course address the nature of his death and how, very sadly, it will color the way his work is viewed from this point on (except to children, who will watch his kiddie stuff without knowing he’s the “sad clown who killed himself”). I discussed the Internet-as-kangaroo-court in my piece on Philip Seymour Hoffman — who coincidentally appeared with Robin in one of the ones I haven’t yet brought myself to watch, Patch Adams (the kind of a film that Jerry Lewis no doubt would’ve died to have made in his “Total Filmmaker” phase).

Reaction to Philip Seymour’s death included a great degree of Internet anger (read: self-righteous indignation from a person who won’t sign his own name) against him for having “abandoned” his kids. Robin, too, had three children he left behind, but perhaps it was that Williams was a constant presence in everyone’s life for three decades (read: his sudden death inspired memories of our youth watching him on TV and onscreen).

Perhaps it was also that Williams’ suicide was indeed a suicide, decisively, and was caused by depression. Whatever the case was, there seemed to be far fewer idiots coming down on him for having done something “bad” — Shephard Smith and Rush Limbaugh being two of the major exceptions.

What links the two together (besides, god fucking forbid, Patch Adams) is that both were haunted men and that fed into their performances. Philip Seymour was a chameleon who could work at any level (starring, supporting, cameo) in a film, whereas Robin began his film career (with Altman's Popeye) as a star performer and stayed at that level for the next three decades — even when he was giving a thoroughly genuine subdued performance, as in Garp or Awakenings, he took centerstage, if only because he had star billing and the lion’s share of screen time.

There also was a rush of surprise surrounding Robin’s death, since most people instantly identified him with his comedy persona: boundless energy, constant invention, different voices for each idea. That side of him did wear me down — as has been the case with every high-energy comedian, it’s a case of love ‘em or leave ‘em.

Those who were familiar with his best moments as an actor immediately flashed on the most touching moments where, inevitably, his characters confronted death, from Garp to What Dreams May Come (1998) to the great dark comedy World’s Greatest Dad (2009). He battled depression for many years, and that came through in his best performances (as with Philip Seymour). To be able to deliver such moments of truth, one has to tap into the saddest parts of one’s existence.

Robin’s utterly eager/somewhat desperate comic persona betrayed some of the sadness (if only because he was constantly trying to make people laugh, almost compulsively), whereas his acting utilized the sadness and then — based on the competence of the scripter in question — overcame it. 

Coming up in part two: a “hit list” of Williams' best performances that does not include the box-office sensations (and the Oscar winner).