Robin Williams was that rare comic actor that could successfully do comedy and drama, and even frighten his audiences in thrillers. A manic and individual talent, Williams often performed like a one-man improve show, tapping into the vast and diverse population that lived in his brain. When allowed to riff, the comedian was able to tap into a free-association, stream of conscience form of comedy that demanded an agile attention from his audiences. Seemingly able to create comedy out of thin air, any subject presented to the man would often result in a few minutes of rapid fire comedy that would mine culture, history, pop culture, and politics.
As an actor, Williams strengthened his thespian muscles, going back and forth choosing comedic vehicles, but also testing his dramatic acting chops with more subdued fare. One he attained the kind of mainstream superstardom, he would often find himself in family-friendly pabulum that did nothing to challenge him as an artist. His later work was that of the sort of indulgent, money-making product that Williams sleepwalked through. Below is a list of Williams’ best performances – some of the films may not have been classics, but Williams still gave worthy turns. Even at his most pedestrian, Robin Williams was still a distinct voice in film comedy.
The World According to Garp (1982, dir. George Ray Hill) – based on John Irving’s eccentric and sad novel, this early feature film was a surprise for Robin Williams fans used to seeing the guy in Mork & Mindy. It’s a dark and unsettling film, with a moving performance by a young Williams, on the cusp of megastardom.
Moscow on the Hudson (1984, dir. Paul Mazursky) – the 1980s was a decade that was rife with stories of the impending end of the Cold War. With shades of Yakov Shmirnoff, Williams plays Vladimir Ivanoff, a Russian musician who defects to the United States. Back when Maria Conchita Alonso was a bankable star, the era was rife with anti-Soviet fears, and Moscow on the Hudson worked as a pro-West bit of propaganda. With elements of drama, this fish-out-of-water comedy exploited Williams’ wonderful gifts of mirth and pathos.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987, dir. Barry Levinson) – Williams earned his first Oscar nomination in this war dramedy about a radio DJ who spins oldies for Armed Forces Radio Service during the Vietnam War. The setting is very heavy and could have tipped the film into mawkishness, but Williams strengths as a performer save the film.
Dead Poets Society (1989, dir. Peter Weir) – Williams got another Oscar nod, this time stepping into a teacher drama. Rife with clichés, but Williams’ performance as the unorthodox English teacher of a prep school proves that the actor is able to transcend mere sketch comedy and give full-bodied turns. Williams’ expressive face – always seemingly on the verge of crumbling in sorrow – carried his acting.
Awakenings (1990, dir. Penny Marshall) – Though costar Robert DeNiro was given the majority of the critical laurels, Williams proved to be wonderful opposite the legendary actor. As a dedicated and brilliant doctor, Williams doesn’t dominate with his usual busy acting, but remains a strong presence and never fades into the background.
The Fisher King (1991, dir. Terry Gilliam) – Another Oscar nod, this time for playing a variation on the wise and twinkly homeless man. Again, despite the film’s constricting clichéd boundaries, Williams overcomes all these limitations with a truly splendid performance, moving and heartbreaking. With The Fisher King the actor cemented his status as cinema’s premier crying clown.
Aladdin (1992, dirs. Ron Clements and John Musker) – One of Disney’s biggest animated hits, Aladdin was essentially a cartoon version of Williams’ concert work. As the Genie, a frantic, wisecracking blue genie, Williams particular gift for free form stand up comedy has been successfully transferred onto cartoon form. The movie’s got some of its own charms, but when Williams’ Genie is on screen, it has moments when it transcends mere corporate Disney.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993, dir. Chris Columbus) – Another family-friendly vehicle, but clever because of its surprisingly frank treatment of divorce. Williams stars as single dad Daniel Hillard who dons drag and gets a job as a nanny so that he can see his kids. Like his most popular comedic roles, Mrs. Doubtfire is a great excuse to let Williams riff. In one particularly funny sequence he joins Harvey Fierstein in a montage of various drag outfits. It’s a funny film, but there’s some great, unflinching look at the consequences of divorce.
Jack (1996, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) – a strange little film with Williams starring as the title character, a little kid who is rapidly aging. Teamed with fellow comic powerhouses Bill Cosby and Fran Drescher, Jack is a syrupy melodrama, but Williams’ performance as a 10-year-old is lived in in its authenticity.
The Birdcage (1996, dir. Mike Nichols) – long before marriage equality was on everyone’s mind, Mike Nichols’ remake of the French comedy, La cage aux folles is a surprisingly sweet comedy. Teamed with Nathan Lane as a gay couple, Williams takes on the rare straight man role and emerges with the most impressive performance. Lane takes on the flamboyantly effeminate role, while Williams gives a more sedate, subtle turn, avoiding gay clichés and stereotypes.
Good Will Hunting (1997, dir. Gus Van Sant) – Williams won an Oscar for his turn as the widowed college professor who inspires Matt Damon’s genius savant. Not a great film and somewhat overrated since its release, Williams still manages to rise above the ho-hum proceedings of the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck script.
Insomnia (2002, dir. Christopher Nolan) – As good as Williams was in comedy and drama, he also surprised audiences with successfully thrilling in neo-noir. In Insomnia, Williams stars as the suspect and seriously creepy writer in the Alaskan wilderness who is harboring the solution to a horrible rape and murder case. Shrugging off any of his adorableness, Williams normally beseeching face takes on a sinister cast.
One Hour Photo (2002, dir. Mark Romanek) – As he proved in Insomnia, William was a find in the thriller genre. Freed from his family-friendly yoke, he allows for the uglier side of his talents to shine. Like many of his characters, photo technician, Sy Parrish is a bottomless pit of need – but instead of reacting with his impish humor, he’s glassy-eyed and desperate.