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The 16 Best Robin Williams Movie Performances

Photo: Maya Robinson

For some of us, the tragic death of Robin Williams yesterday brought into sharper relief the darkness that was often lurking at the edges of his work — even some of his most beloved comedies. Sometimes these movies veered into sentiment; sometimes they became classics. (Sometimes they managed to do both.) There have been many remembrances, and it’s true that at times his stand-up and his TV appearances displayed an edge and a raucousness that his film career didn’t always capture. But the fact is that Williams leaves behind a cinematic legacy that we’ll still be talking about many decades from now. Here are 16 of his best performances.

16. Moscow on the Hudson (1984)

In the late Paul Mazursky’s lovely comedy about a Soviet saxophonist who defects to New York, Williams isn’t in full wildman mode. Rather, he’s playing a stranger in a strange land, letting the absurdity around him do the comic heavy lifting. And he’s so touching here, you just want to give him a hug. (And, as is so often the case with Williams, you want him to hug you back.) Native speakers will to this day swear by his accent in the scenes he has to speak Russian — apparently, it’s one of the best examples of a non-Russian actor speaking the language. That Williams had to learn it in a crash course right before filming speaks to his craft and dedication.

15. What Dreams May Come (1998)

A profoundly earnest and troubled film that’s rather reviled by many, Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come was seen at the time as another example of Williams doing absurdly sentimental fare that didn’t properly utilize his talents and further dulled his edge. But this is a haunting, and haunted, film: It’s about a man who finds himself in Heaven and then tries to save his beloved wife from Hell after he finds out she committed suicide. (That’s not even the half of it: He needs help from the spirits of his dead kids to do so.) The film was tampered with in post, and it shows. But it’s also full of moments of stunning sadness and beauty, and if you manage to get on its wavelength, you’ll find that Williams is quite heartbreaking in it.

14. The World According to Garp (1982)

It’s kind of a miracle that John Irving’s serio-comic novel about the endless series of misfortunes (and occasional joys) that befall one man somehow managed to make it to the screen without turning into a bleak recitation of tragedy. At least some of that credit goes to Williams, who as the lead brings just the right amount of quizzical innocence to the part. As the actor became more and more of a comic persona, his observant, somewhat passive performance in this film seemed like more and more of an anomaly. But watch it again, and you’ll see sadness and levity intertwined in a way that informed so much of his career.

13. The Birdcage (1996)

Mike Nichols and Elaine May’s adaptation of La Cage aux Folles, about a gay nightclub owner (Williams) and his partner (Nathan Lane) who have to pretend to be straight when his son becomes engaged to the daughter of a conservative politician, is a surprisingly sly movie. You think at first that it’s going to be a (potentially offensive) movie that overdoes the flamboyance, that’s all about mocking the broad affectations of gayness. But watch the performances, particularly Williams’s, closely: This movie is as much about the affectations of straightness and the flamboyance of macho, about the fact that the concept of a “real man” is just as much a performance as anything else. Don’t believe me? Check this scene out. “Men … smeeear.”

12. Insomnia (2002)

David Edelstein quoted his review of this film in his touching remembrance of Williams yesterday. I can’t do any better: “The key is what [Williams] doesn’t do: Those rubber features remain rigid, that madcap energy harnessed. The sour little curl of Williams’s mouth reminds me of Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer — all the paranoid alertness of a stand-up comic with none of the genial pandering. There is nothing so despairing — or potentially so lethal — as a clown who has given up hope of making us laugh but wants to have an impact on us anyway.

11. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

Cogito ergo es. I think, therefore you is.” Williams’s generosity as an actor and person can be seen in the fact that he was willing, at the height of his fame, to do this cameo appearance in Terry Gilliam’s expensive, magical epic. Williams plays the King of the Moon, in a wild part that has his disembodied head talking about his high-minded powers of creation before realizing that the rest of his body is off elsewhere trying to do the Queen of the Moon. It’s a short but memorable performance: Divorced from the needs of his more family-friendly starring roles, Williams lets loose with a deranged riff on the mind-body divide.

10. Hook (1991)

Don’t even start. Steven Spielberg’s Peter Pan sequel, in which Williams plays a Pan who has grown up and become a neglectful yuppie named Peter Banning, has gotten a lot of grief over the years. But not on this list, and not right now. It was positioned as a kiddie adventure, but what we got was something else: an intensely personal psychological session about responsibility and fatherhood. The film even mimics the structure of a Freudian therapy session, ultimately uncovering layers of memories to reach Peter’s earliest memory, when he willed himself to escape as a baby from a mother who was making plans for his future. Spielberg, the creator of sci-fi fantasies, was in the process of going from making films about childhood to making films about parenthood — Hook is the fulcrum on which his career turns. And who better than Williams to portray the Boy Who Won’t Grow Up Who Grew Up? (The early sight of an aged Wendy seeing him and whispering, “Hello, boy …” gives me goose-bumps every time.) When Banning finally becomes Pan again, it’s not with the carefree abandon of newfound youth. If Williams seems out of place scampering around with the other Lost Boys, that’s because he’s supposed to be; he’s an adult trapped in a kids’ world who has to understand he’s “a daddy” in order to gain his full powers back. Hook is about one final go-round as a child before finally saying good-bye to it forever. It’s an elegy, but it’s also a kind of exorcism. And, sorry, but it’s wonderful.

9. Seize the Day (1986)

Years before he turned “Seize the day” into a national catchphrase with Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams starred in this small adaptation of Saul Bellow’s classic novella, as a loser salesman trying (and failing) to piece back his life and reconnect with his father. This was another early indication that Williams, for all his prodigious comic gifts, also had an ability to grasp the essence of these darker, more vulnerable and reserved characters. An underseen movie that deserves to be rediscovered.

8. Popeye (1980)

Allow me to get very personal here: When I first arrived in the U.S. at the age of 7, the first thing I made my mom do was take me to see this, Robert Altman’s crazy reimagining of the classic cartoon, despite the fact that I didn’t speak a lick of English. I didn’t do it because I particularly loved Popeye the character. And I had no idea who the hell Robert Altman was at the time. I did it because Mork and Mindy was one of the very few American shows I could see in Turkey, and I wanted to see Robin Williams as Popeye. The film was regarded as a flop at the time, and Williams’s starring debut almost seemed to end his film career before it even began. But the years have been kinder to it, and it’s gained a well-deserved cult following. As a kid, I loved it for its zany, loopy sense of fun — that it was full of cheap effects seemed to make it that much more special. As an adult, I rediscovered it as a genuinely surreal (and still very funny) blend of Altman-esque chaos and cartoonish frenzy.

7. One Hour Photo (2002)

Mark Romanek’s grim little psychological thriller was seen as a very conscious departure for Williams after a long string of glossy, sentimental comedies and dramas. Here, he played a mysterious, disturbed, and shy photo-store clerk for whom photography and what it represented had become a kind of obsession. As a character of almost catatonic reserve, Williams is weirdly transfixing. But what was held up as an almost villainlike part in a genre movie is eventually revealed to be something rather different — another example of Williams portraying a broken soul who has been led down an odd path because of a torment gnawing away inside him.

6. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Here’s another Robin Williams part that, in the years since its debut, has come to seem like something more. When Mrs. Doubtfire first came out, it seemed like a bit of a lower-brow, kid-friendly Tootsie ripoff. Turns out, there’s nothing actually wrong with that. The kids of that era who were charmed by the movie have now grown up, and to them, it’s a meaningful part of their childhoods. That’s largely due to Williams’s boisterous, hilarious performance, which also used his prodigious gift for physical comedy to go alongside his talent for impressions and rapid-fire delivery.

5. Aladdin (1992)

Williams didn’t want to voice the genie for this Disney classic at first, and was only brought around after being shown an animation test reel set to his stand-up routine. Then, during his recording sessions, he asked if he could put aside the script and ad-lib some lines. And thus, Williams improvised something like 50-plus characters as Genie and created one of the most indelible characters in animation history. He reportedly improvised so much that the film was denied a chance at a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination because of it. Williams’s initial skepticism would turn into a kind of love for the part. He told Little White Lies in 2010: “I once watched Aladdin, I snuck into the back of a family screening of that and it was kind of like that moment in Sullivan’s Travels where I saw parents just laughing with their kids and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of sweet.’ I’m proud of that.”

4. Good Will Hunting (1997)

I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell.” Williams won his first and only Oscar playing the kindly psychiatrist who tries to get to the heart of the hurt and rage that’s troubling Matt Damon’s titular character. At the time, the award, while certainly worthy, was seen by some as a bit of a make-up prize; the actor had been denied it for some beloved earlier performances. But the role has gained in stature since, as another example of the actor’s big-heartedness shining through to his onscreen persona. At the same time, it’s a strange part for Williams: A very quiet character who is very much not the center of attention. But that’s also kind of the point. He’s holding back for most of the movie. So at first, he has to do a lot of responding, and a lot of reacting, and then he lets loose with one of the more touching cinematic monologues you’ll come across — one whose resonance was deeply felt by many yesterday. And Williams’s tragic passing will add an extra element of sadness to a film that’s already haunted by the voice of the late Elliot Smith.

3. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

This is often seen as Robin Williams’s breakout role, in part because it’s the first film that got him nominated for an Oscar, and also because it was a runaway hit. The part of radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, whose irreverent, madcap style enlivens and shakes things up at the height of the Vietnam War became a showcase for the actor’s improvisatory style. It also was an early example of what would become a template for some of Williams’s trademark performances — the man who brings laughter amid great tragedy. A template that, frankly, would start to feel a bit tired after a certain point. But here, in its fullest, earliest expression, it felt fresh and wonderful and new. It still does.

2. Dead Poets Society (1989)

What’s left to say about this marvelously powerful film? As the inspirational teacher at a stuffy 1950s prep school who teaches his students to “seize the day” and that poetry still has a lot of life lessons to impart, Williams is again in earnest mode, though he certainly has his freestyling comic moments. Not everybody loves this, true — to some, it’s a mockery of what the study of serious literature is supposed to be about. To them, I say: Pretend you’re a teenager starting to fall in love with books; now try to resist this movie. I’m not sure it can be done. Also, given what transpires in the plot of this movie, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to view it in the same way ever again.

1. The Fisher King (1991)

Could this be Williams’s greatest performance? As noted, so much of his work — both comic and serious — seemed to center on characters who were holding back the darkness (be it an internal or external darkness). Here, he plays a mad homeless man who used to be an academic who went off the deep end after his wife was brutally murdered. And, matched with the wit and vision of director Terry Gilliam, another funny man whose comic work dances with the horrors of the world, Williams delivers one of the most perfectly calibrated performances of his career: freewheeling in that way we know and love, but also speaking to a deep sense of loss. It’s the comic as inspired madman, as wounded warrior.

The 16 Best Robin Williams Movie Performances