Blog: The Two Shades of Robin Williams

| August 16, 2014 | 0 Comments


The first time I ever saw Robin Williams was on an episode of “Happy Days.” As Mork from the planet Ork, he bursts into Ritchie Cunningham’s living room like a live wire. I was eight years-old at the time and to a kid that age Robin Williams was comedic gold.

It is sort of fitting that the first time most of us saw Robin Williams, he was playing an alien. We’d never seen anything like him before. Oh, maybe the Marx Brothers, and maybe there’s something of his energy and timing in the work of Buster Keaton . . . that’s right, I’m comparing Robin Williams to Buster Keaton!  The comic brilliance was comparable, but Williams moved with an energy level all his own. When he burst into Ritchie’s living room he did so with a comic zeal that he maintained for the next 35 years.

What is surprising is that while he is one of the funniest people who ever lived, Robin Williams never stopped surprising us. Looking over his film work, I am surprised to find that my favorite performances aren’t his comedic ones. He was a great dramatic actor, which may have come from whatever was stirring inside him. Whatever it was, it worked, and the two sides of his genius are what I remember best.

I’m not going into another sad examination of his final days – there’s been enough of that. Instead I’m going to look into his film work, the arena that I am most familiar with. In looking over his work, I tried to find the two performances out of his arsenal – one comedic, the other dramatic – that defined his work.

From the comedic side there is no doubt that his best work came from the Genie in Aladdin, not the first time that Williams had ever tackled animation, but the first time he had basically been given a character who owned the picture. Robin Williams was the movie (it’s pretty dry without him), as wonderful as it was, he was truly the center of it – a free form presentation of all the great natural gifts that Robin Williams had to offer. The comedian would admit that the animators put him in front of a microphone and cut him loose – two writers began five, five became eight until there were a team of writers just trying to nail down Williams’ character. Williams later recalled that when the recording sessions were done, there was at least 16 hours of material from which to create the Genie.

The Genie was perfect for Williams, whose character transforms and bends and twists into, reportedly, 52 different characters. It allowed him to open up and throw all of his gifts into a character that wasn’t pinned down by the terra firma of the real world. This was Robin Williams Unplugged.  His performance was so magical that there was even talk about smudging The Uncanny Valley so that Williams could get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  Had there been any justice in the world, it would have happened.

Yet, while I am partial to The Genie as my favorite of his comedic characters, I must admit that his single best performance comes from one of the creepiest characters he ever created on film. In Mark Romenek’s blood-curdling drama One Hour Photo, Williams plays Sy Parrish, a bland, smiling salesman at a one hour photomat that occupies the corner of one of those vast Mega-marts where you can buy everything from toothpaste to radial tires. As a human being he’s pretty forgettable. He is just another face mixed into the tapestry of your busy day. You do your business and then he is gone from your mind three seconds after you stuff your receipt in your pocket and walk away.

Looking at Sy, one would assume that he goes home to the wife and kids, but as it turns out, his only family is his beloved photomat. There isn’t anything really distinctive about Sy and as we follow his day, as he goes through the routine of routine we see that a pattern of loneliness has bred routine and resentment and obsession.

One day during the visit by Nina Yorkin (Connie Neilson), a regular customer, Sy carefully notices that there is one picture left on the roll. Holding the camera back he takes a picture of himself. This seemingly innocent gesture is, for Sy, a gesture of recognition. What Nina doesn’t know is that over the years Sy has developed a sort of obsession with the family bliss that shows through in Nina’s photographs. He wants Nina and her family to recognize him and he tries to get their approval in small gestures like giving Nina’s son a free camera and making double prints free of charge.

The Yorkins, Will, Nina and 8 year-old Jake are comfort food for Sy, they contrast sharply with his den of loneliness and routine. Their photos show a pretty family which stands out among the regulars like “The Cat Lady”, a woman who obsessively empties roll after roll of her cats and “The Amatuer Porn Artist”, the shifty guy who keeps taking nude photos of his girlfriend. Sy fantasizes about being part of the Yorkin family and breaking away from his meaningless life as he wanders through their photos of birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, vacations and family bliss.

Then, something happens. A young woman drops off photos of herself being intimate with Will. It is here that Sy’s vision of the Yorkins begins to crack. Attempting to sabotage the affair, Sy “accidentally” drops the photos of Will and his lover into Nina’s photo sleeve hoping that Will gets his comeuppance.

When he doesn’t get the reaction he expects, Sy comes unglued. It would be criminal of me to reveal what happens next except to say that it isn’t what we expect. What I can say is that Romanek balances the routine everyday nature of the first half of the film with an ending that is just as balanced so that everything that happens makes complete sense.

This was the second time in 2002 that Robin Williams had played a psychotic. The first was in Chris Nolan’s Insomia. There, as here, Williams shows portrait of a man whose frustration bubbles slowly under the surface as the irritations of the world begin to invade his private comfort zone. Sy wants to remain in his fantasy and as the fantasy and the reality begin to cave in around him you can see him desperately trying to patch the holes and keep the illusion alive.

Williams’ performance is, at first, understated with quiet passages that allow you to watch his eyes and see that he is always thinking. Sy is the portrait of a man who remains invisible and remains very good at his job because it allows him to keep his illusion going. Routine is a manner of remaining inside his fantasy because he knows that he can never have the life that the Yorkins enjoy.

Robin Williams image will forever be cemented as the wacky nut that we saw on The Tonight Show, yet as film historians assess (especially in the wake of his tragic death) this contribution to film, his dramatic work seems to be just as important as his comedic work. Sy is an original creation from a source that we don’t expect. Sy emerges as a man who smiles pleasantly while managing routines that feed his own mania.

In a way Sy reminds us of Travis Bickle, the tortured soul of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, another meaningless soul who goes unnoticed and fixates on an obsession. Bickle wanted to be the savior for Iris, the teen prostitute. Sy wants to live the idea of an idyllic fantasy that is different from the hundreds of meaningless photos that pass through his hands day after day. The difference is that Sy wants to remain in his fantasy. He is a damaged man who hides in his ordinariness, and is best left inside his delusion.

It can be speculated that some of Robin Williams’ inner turmoil may have been present in the guise of Sy Parish. I have no idea. He was a man who never stopped surprising us. A man who never stopped making us laugh. As tragic as his death is, it’s all the wonderful things that he has left us with that I’ll remember most.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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