Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder
The following essay was published in the souvenir journal for the Museum of the Moving Image's gala salute to Robin Willams on February 23, 1995, at the Waldorf-Astoria.
The scene: a nightclub in San Francisco in 1982. Robin Williams is coming to the end of a breathtakingly free-form act in which he has used hundreds of voices, embarked on countless random digressions, made numerous forays into the audience, and conjured a scatological vision of a skywalking astronaut relieving himself by spelling his name over the entire Soviet Union. During his encore, Williams becomes an amiable, slightly deranged newsboy who fondly quotes Albert Einstein: “My sense of God is my sense of wonder about the universe.”
In this heartfelt moment after a dizzying high-wire performance, Williams has touched back down on Earth by bringing a note of reverence and gravity to his hilarious improvisations. It is the sincerity of his sense of wonder combined with the brilliance of his hyperkinetic imagination that makes Robin Williams one of the most engaging performers of his generation. In more than twenty films to date, and in hundreds of television appearances and live performances, Williams personifies the intellect unbound. At times, his brain seems to be an unlimited energy force with powers as potent as those of a genie released from his lamp.
A journalist once wrote that Williams is “the first performer since Chaplin whose work is equally loved by children and their parents.” The remark is particularly fitting, since Williams manages to simultaneously embody the eternal child and the eternal teacher. His characters are always trying to make connections and to come up with explanations.
Each episode of the phenomenally popular television series Mork & Mindy (which at its height reached sixty million viewers per week) ended with a message by the alien Mork to his home planet, giving Williams a chance to summarize the moral lesson of the episode. And in his films, Williams characters are often teachers (either literally or figuratively), cheerfully rebellious outsiders who urge others to be unconventional and to live according to their passions. Or to echo the words of poetry teacher John Keating to his students in Dead Poets Society, words which would serve as Williams’s motto: carpe diem (“seize the day”).
Starting with his lead performance in Robert Altman’s underrated Popeye (“I yam what I yam”), Williams has given us a memorable gallery of iconoclasts who follow their passions despite their mundane and regimented surroundings: the insubordinate military dis jockey Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam; the unorthodox scientist based on Oliver Sacks in Awakenings; the defecting Soviet musician in Moscow on the Hudson; the former medieval professor turned vagrant in The Fisher King; even the divorced father who becomes an English nanny to spend time with his kids in Mrs. Doubtfire. All of these characters become extraordinary by remaining true to themselves.
Perhaps the most extraordinary of Williams’s transformations has been his rapid growth from zany comedian to sitcom hero to movie actor to major star. With two Oscar nominations (for Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society), an Emmy nomination for his performance on Homicide, and with the staggering success of Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams has become one of Hollywood’s most respected actors and top box-office draws. That he has achieved this transition so deftly may be a surprise even to his fans. For although he was a classically trained actor who studied at Juilliard, Williams initial fame was based on a spontaneous , freewheeling approach to comedy which may have seemed better suited to live performance than to the constraints of television and film.
As Williams himself said, explaining the difference between being a standup comedian and making movies, “Performing and acting? One is hang gliding and the other is oil drilling. Standup is aggressive. Attack! Get the laugh! People always talk about it as a defense mechanism, and it’s usually true. You’re trying to keep the world out by being aggressively funny, or by mocking it, because somewhere along the line, when you let it in, it hurt. In acting, though, you have to take a chance, you’ve got to let things in. Because a lot of it is about being hurt, or being joyous, but letting emotions come in and affect you.”
Williams was remarkably under stated in one of his most affecting and quiet performances, in Penny Marshall’s Awakenings, set in a Bronx mental hospital and based on the writings of neurologist Oliver Sacks. Robert De Niro had the film’s most flamboyant role as Leonard, a longtime mental patient who awakens briefly from his zombie-like stupor to experience a momentary period of joy and freedom. Some writers remarked that the two actors could have switched roles. Perhaps they thought Williams could have gotten more mileage out of Leonard’s exuberant moment of release. But Marshall’s casting choice was perfect: De Niro gave Leonard an electrifying core of anger which would not have rang true for Williams, whose characters are eternally optimistic even when fighting authorities. More importantly, it was not Leonard’s moments of wild behavior as much as the doctor’s sense of wonder at the patient’s transformation that gave the movie its emotional strength. Quietly, and powerfully, Williams expressed this wonder in his eyes.
To return to the San Francisco nightclub performance, and the news-boy’s admiring description of Albert Einstein: “You look at his eyes…the lights are on and somebody is home.” The most powerful film acting comes from within and is expressed through the eyes, through reacting rather than performing. This is the key to Williams’s growth as an actor.
The sheer brilliance of his comic inventiveness will always make him a popular entertainer. This has never been better demonstrated than in his work for Aladdin. Hired to do a few hours of voice work, Williams left the studio with thirty hours of hysterically funny recordings. Disney wisely rebuilt the movie around Williams’s Genie, and Aladdin became their all-time biggest hit. Yet even more than his comic inventiveness, it is his ability in recent movies to express a deep inner life that puts Robin Williams in the top rank of screen actors. He is the youngest person to receive the Museum’s annual salute, and we are pleased both to celebrate his accomplishments and to look forward to his future. He has never failed to surprise us.