Confession time. The comedic roles of Robin Williams are like nails on a chalk board to me. If someone wanted to to torture me, just a few minutes of Good Morning, Vietnam, Mork & Mindy, RV, or any of his stand-up routines would do the trick. The only exception to this would be Mrs. Doubtfire, a movie that just works. Having said that, I do appreciate the joy and laughter that Williams' manic persona brought to so many people.
For me, I loved Robin Williams the serious man. Here's where I think he sits atop the mountains of greatness, along with Brando, Stewart, Finch, DiCaprio, Braugher, Hanks and many others who were or are masters of their craft. In a serious role, I found Williams to be riveting. He won an Oscar (for 1997's Good Will Hunting), but could have been nominated (and won) for many more performances. He was that good.
Consider what was perhaps Williams' best, darkest role, that of suspected murderer Walter Finch in the American version of Insomnia. His co-star, Al Pacino, is a giant of the dramatic arts, yet it was Williams who stole the show. Solemn, creepy, terrifying. He owned that movie. What of Dr. Malcolm Sayer in Awakenings? The physician who helps bring catatonic patients out of their stupors, only to see them return to them later on, he was so depressingly brilliant in that role.
Last night, I re-watched Williams in the 1994 Bop Gun episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, wherein his on-screen wife is shot by a random thug. A young Jake Gyllenhaal plays his son. Williams plays the part to perfection, showcasing stages of shock, grief, anger and guilt. Kenneth Branagh even cast Robin in his superb adaptation of Hamlet. And he was perfect as Dr. Know, providing somber narration for Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
In The Birdcage, Robin Williams was the straight man (no pun intended) to Nathan Lane's over-the-top antics. Lane's character was in-your-face and most memorable, but it was Williams' uptight, serious character who compelled us more. The actor -- known for his comedy -- managed to convey so much, often with such subtleness, about the beleaguered Armand Goldman.
Obviously, I did not know Robin Williams, yet I feel as though we were seeing more of the real him (if such a a statement can be made without sounding assumptive) in these serious roles, the side of him that didn't feel the need to make you laugh every second. I've always been drawn to that side of a person, the part of them that is, perhaps, the most vulnerable.