Film

Robin Williams was on our screens for more than 30 years, but his genius for creative mayhem was quashed in film. By Christos Tsiolkas.

How Robin Williams became lost in Hollywood

Robin Williams in the TV series Mork & Mindy,
Credit: PARAMOUNT TV/THE KOBAL COLLECTION

I was surprised at how genuinely saddened I was to hear of the death of Robin Williams for he had long ceased to be an actor I was interested in watching on screen. There seemed to be two defaults in his performance style: an increasingly mannered hyperactivity in prepubescent comedies that eschewed wit for mania; or sentimentalised mentors or teachers, innervated characters that lacked complexity or shading. His choices had become so uninteresting that often I would find him repellent to watch, offended by his willingness to repress any aggression or hint of virility in wretchedly awful films such as Patch Adams. But hearing he had died gave me a moment of pause, especially as the outpouring of grief by many of his fellow comics and performers strikes me as emphatic and sincere. I believe his was a talent unfulfilled in cinema but that moment of reflection allowed me to remember that once I, too, found him an exciting actor to watch. 

Williams’ entry into popular culture was through his portrayal of Mork, the alien from Ork. The character was introduced through a guest appearance on the sitcom Happy Days, but Williams’ outrageously kinetic performance was so exhilarating, and so widely embraced, that he was given his own television show, Mork & Mindy. The mercenary hastiness of the production was evident in the elementary staging and the rote scripting, but Williams was truly incandescent in the role. The manic glee that would be constant in his performing persona was there in his portrayal of Mork, as was the suggestion of a child’s naivety trapped inside an adult body. Mork was part of a longstanding tradition in American comedy, the innocent abroad. But though it has been a very long time since I have watched an episode, my memory is that there was a real sexiness to his athleticism. It is this tension between innocence and potency that gave his performance a sense of danger. He kept surprising you, transcending the ridiculous plots. That tension is also evident in video footage of his early stand-up performances. As a young comedian, Williams was childlike without being childish, and I think it was precisely this that made him exciting to watch.

In 1980, Robert Altman cast Williams in the title role in Popeye. This audacious folly, an attempt to studiously replicate early Rotoscope animation in three dimensions, would have been a masterpiece if it had run the length of the original cartoons. But stretched over a near two-hour running time it quickly becomes wearying, the beauty and rigour of the conception unable to compensate for the numbing repetition of the story. But the performances are wonderful. Robin Williams remains faithful to Altman’s vision throughout; he is remarkably controlled. Popeye, the original character, was always a simplistic exaggeration of masculinity and Williams doesn’t wink at the audience once, he never steps out of character in order to become more contemporary and hence more likeable. His speech is all mumbles, the character emerging through Popeye’s determination to not give in to his violent urges unless provoked – which, of course, he is all the time – and also through his tender courting of Shelley Duvall’s Olive Oyl. He is terrific in it.

He also gives a lovely and controlled performance as the eponymous character in George Roy Hill’s adaptation of John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It is a film that gives voice to both the aspirations and dreams arising from women’s liberation but also to men’s fears of feminism. Williams’ restrained and bemused Garp manages to convey potency and sensitivity, and he is also a generous performer in the ensemble, allowing Glenn Close and John Lithgow to steal the film. But he never disappears; he remains an anchor throughout. On the evidence of The World According to Garp I remember thinking that Williams could prove himself in dramatic roles but also had the potential to be a wonderful romantic lead, that he had the subtlety, the charisma and attractiveness to appeal to both women and men. His charming performance in a film that followed, Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson, where he played a Soviet musician who defected to the US, seemed further confirmation of that potential.

Alas, Williams was never again to be given a role in which he could play a genuine romantic lead opposite a strong female star. For me, the rot set in with Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society. Weir has a singular talent for desexualising his male leads. He domesticated Harrison Ford in Witness and he did the same thing for Williams in this film. As if desperately wanting to eliminate any suggestion of homoeroticism in this story of boys at an elite school in thrall to their inspiring and charismatic literature teacher, Weir straitjackets Williams in sentimentality, stripping away any hint of the aggression and wildness in Williams’ persona. Not allowed to hint at any danger, the performance becomes histrionic, all manic ticks and narcissistic grandstanding. I found it excruciating to watch this young and exciting actor playing at being an old man but never allowed to express any more complexity or experience than the boys in his care. The real emasculation of Williams’ talent begins with this film.

In the best work of his later career he is partnered with men. The subtlety and generosity I admired in his early work is there in Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage, where he allows Nathan Lane to take centre stage as the key comic presence. He is also very good in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, again playing a father figure, but less sentimental and less winsome than in other roles. He was cast opposite Sally Field in Mrs Doubtfire but there isn’t a trace of sexuality allowed between the characters; the actors are equally infantilised in that film. In Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo he had the opportunity to play a complex and disturbing character. He is very good in it but, again, he is aged before his time. He remains in character, giving an intense and constricted performance as a sexually frustrated man. There is real rage there, and I don’t think it is only in the script. That anger must have been keenly felt by Williams; he must have sensed that for all his success, he was being kept on a leash, perpetually denied his physicality as an actor except when playing a man-child. His best comic performance in later years was as the voice of the Genie in Aladdin. It is a children’s animation but his character is dirty, grown-up and witty. His voice is allowed an expression that his body is being denied.

The neediness of the stand-up comedian, the sometimes desperate challenge to get us to laugh, means that there is often an element of passive-aggression in their performing style. It explains why when we don’t respond to their work, our distaste is so visceral and antagonistic: we can sense their resentment of us in the audience. Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Tina Fey and Louis CK have been able to build successful careers in television by developing shows that explore, mock and draw inspiration from this tension. But Hollywood’s insistence on locking the great comic talents in inane and childish roles betrays the provocation and insult that is part of the stand-up comic’s arsenal, when they say or suggest or perform something so outrageous that our burst of shocked laughter is a bracing release. 

Robin Williams was never a writer or a director, and so did not have the opportunity to develop his own films and projects. His was a unique and charged talent, he had a ferocious energy and the ability to work across comedy and drama. His was also a talent betrayed by the lack of imagination and lack of courage in contemporary Hollywood. That’s where the real sadness lies.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "Lost in Hollywood". Subscribe here.

Christos Tsiolkas
is the author of The Slap and Barracuda. He is The Saturday Paper's film critic.