Every generation seems to have those movies that they hold dear to their heart, the ones that unanimously bring back memories of childhood. Those magical family films that not only opened up the possibilities of cinematic storytelling, but inspired genuine warmth and joy, likely because we all remember watching them for the very first time with our parents, our siblings, our childhood friends. For many of our own generation, Robin Williams, who died yesterday at the age of 63, was an oddly consistent presence through many of them, with a hot-streak of ’90s kids classics that included Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Flubber, Hook and his voiceover work as the Genie in Aladdin.
In a lot of ways, Williams’ on-screen persona seemed to frequently fit our own childhood perspectives on the world. Here was a man completely devoid of vanity, the rare actor unafraid of expressing the very extremes of emotion that we often exhibit as young children. His manic, rubber-faced energy was always pitched to eleven, alternatively the sombre humanity beneath much of it was so aching, genuine and free of artifice. He never played the stoic superhero or the one-note caricature familiar to kiddie movies, nor the kind of ‘wish-fulfilment’ protagonists that exist as a cinematic surrogate for us at home. Instead Williams would always try and source that emotional honesty, the kind that would make us laugh as long as it would also make us cry.
His Daniel Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire wasn’t just a man who dressed up as an elderly Scottish nanny for the sake of a laugh; he was also a wounded father striving to reunite with the family that he once took for granted. The Genie in Aladdin isn’t just comic relief; he’s a creature wishing to be free. He always walked that fine line between expressing gargantuan comedy, and illuminating the tears of a clown beneath the surface, a tone evident in so many of his famed performances. These were characters that taught us morals and lessons, driving home that you too shouldn’t be afraid to feel something, even emotions that maybe aren’t so easy to express or understand.
Yet it is a mystifying Hollywood irony that this kind of range, the eagerness to so readily turn the volume up and down all in the space of one performance, also made Williams something of a red flag much of the time. In an industry that should theoretically worship acting chameleons, his go-for-broke extremes instead made him a polarizing figure, his name usually associated with flamboyant comedy accents or a mawkishness that clashed with a cinematic age of jaded irony and snark. But the fact that Williams went there so often in spite of how uncool it regularly was, in earnest weepies like Patch Adams or What Dreams May Come, or hair-brained farce like The Birdcage, at least speaks to his dare and determination to be more than the one-note comedian to which Hollywood presumably had him earmarked. Who else could follow the infamously cloying robot train-wreck Bicentennial Man with the one-two punch of Insomnia and One Hour Photo? These are performances that brought Williams’ trademark manipulation of the human psyche to characters that weren’t so much relatable and endearing as they were murderous and terrifying.
Robin Williams leaves behind a vast legacy of iconic performances, from his early days in TV with the sci-fi sitcom Mork & Mindy, to an intimidatingly diverse filmography that included The World According to Garp, Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, and the aforementioned family classics that we’ve all likely watched over and over again since our childhoods. He was an acclaimed stand-up comedian and Hollywood superstar, but for those of us in our age bracket, he was also something of a prototypical father figure – the type who would read you a breathless epic of a story right before bedtime, capture your attention through funny voices and eager, relentless enthusiasm, but ultimately tug on your heartstrings at the moments that matter most. It’s the type of magnetism every actor should strive for, and only proves how special this guy really was.