For the last day, all I have been able to think about is Robin Williams. A childhood favorite who influenced my formative years in profound ways while growing up in the 1990s, Williams’ presence felt as monumental in my household as a beloved family friend. It was many years before I realized the Peter Pan, Mrs. Doubtfire, and that irrepressible Genie from Aladdin was also a profoundly moving actor who earned his Oscar for Good Will Hunting a million times over in a lifetime of revelatory performances. Universally described as warm and inspiring as his screen persona, Williams has induced a communal trip down memory lane for millions of film lovers to revisit his unforgettable dramatic works like Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society—roles that were filled with the boundless empathy associated with the actor.
Yet, as I have gone through the last 24 hours reflecting on this rich filmography—with a dizzying variety of other heartwarming characters from Williams’ Mork from Ork to even his brief flirtation with Shakespeare in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet—it seems the actor’s later work has gone overlooked. Most especially is his consistently underrated and radically inimitable output from 2002, which saw the legendary entertainer turn all that warmth and goodwill from audiences on its head with a series of subversive showstoppers. In 2002, Williams produced three films that inversed his image with Insomnia, Death to Smoochy, and One Hour Photo. They were so perfectly executed that they chilled and even repelled audiences 12 years ago, but they should be embraced now for their luminescent quality in Williams’ remarkable career.
Death to Smoochy
When Danny DeVito’s blacker-than-funeral-shroud dark comedy Death to Smoochy opened in theaters, the film’s mean-spirited “exposé” on the seedy side of kids’ entertainment hit audiences like a punch to the gut. And no aspect landed more brutally than Robin Williams’ tour de force performance of narcissistic dysfunction in the form of Rainbow Randolph, a children’s entertainer who was the centerpiece of a multi-million dollar media empire before he got caught taking bribes to put “booger-eaters” in front of the camera for desperate parents. By the end of Williams’ opening musical number, he is crying, “I’m Rainbow fucking Randolph, kids love me!” And it’s only downhill from there for the character.
Upon its release, Death to Smoochy received harsh reviews and anemic box office returns of just over $8 million. Critic Emanuel Levy wrote, “Considering that it’s meant to be a comedy about a TV children’s show, DeVito’s picture is particularly irritating, nasty, and mean-spirited.”
And that was the beauty of the film, not to mention Williams’ overwhelmingly ironic presence. After decades of playing to all-audiences on one side of his career (beginning with Mork & Mindy and Popeye, and continuing all the way to Patch Adams and Flubber) and to a more adult-skewing demographic in his stand-up and in films like The Birdcage and The Fisher King, the two sides of the movie star’s career converged (or collided) in an intentionally grisly pile-up, as orchestrated by DeVito. The supposed similarities between Rainbow Randolph and Williams’ earlier beloved protagonists is even knowingly winked at when Robert Prosky makes a surprise and uncredited cameo as the network head that fired Rainbow Randolph in Smoochy. Prosky previously appeared as the big-hearted TV executive who saw Williams’ joyfulness so clearly in Mrs. Doubtfire that he didn’t mind that Williams’ protagonist wanted to host a children’s show in drag. But in Smoochy? His major line is that he wants someone “squeaky fucking clean!”
The role is understandably dark and potentially difficult to view in lieu of Williams’ death, as Rainbow Randolph is shown to suffer from a variety of mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder and possibly schizophrenia, in addition to being an alcoholic who likes to threaten he’ll murder the titular nice guy Smoochy (Edward Norton), and then goes about planning to do just that along with schemes involving Neo Nazis. But for those willing to see Williams distort his family persona and create a lovably grotesque funhouse inversion of it, Death to Smoochy is a bizarre wonderland of hilarious horrors to behold.
In what is likely the least well-known Christopher Nolan film, Robin Williams once went tête-à-tête with Al Pacino. But the most unexpected thing about this confrontation is that Williams was the far more intimidating and haunting presence.
In Insomnia, Robin Williams suppresses every fiber of kindness and affection in his beloved persona to create something wholly alien from any other performance in his career: he became the coldest personification of evil. Playing up his image as a “nice guy,” Williams starred as Walter Finch, a moderately famous author who came to Alaska to clear his head of all things, which includes guilt or shame after he murders a young teenage girl that has no romantic interest in him. In that vacuum of regret, he bubbles with pride and seething defiance in his monotone performance—quietly basking in the glory of his perfect crime that he almost got away with if not for Pacino’s sleep-deprived machinations as a visiting detective. But as the sun refuses to set on the landscape, Williams’ insidious malevolence remains undaunted and even grows more audacious in its arrogance as he snares Pacino in his web via blackmail.
Nolan would end the decade by tapping into the most elemental fears of destruction, chaos, and the vilest sides of the human condition while masquerading in comic book drag (and with some big help from Heath Ledger and Tom Hardy). But years before he became a blockbuster filmmaker, he already unearthed the grimmest regions of humanity in this slick, perpetually sunlit noir where Williams’ own iconic smile for once caused loathing instead of laughter.
One Hour Photo
Nonetheless, Williams crafted one last searing performance that saw a 2002 release, and it was far creepier because this character didn’t intend to be malignant. In fact, he thought he was the most family-friendly guy in the world, especially when he followed those families home.
In One Hour Photo, Williams plays the unnervingly harmless Seymour Parrish, aka Sey the Photo Guy. Treating his work as a one-hour photo developer at a Wal-Mart styled institution as if he were an archdeacon preaching the good word, Sey loved his job in a profession that was all but dead by 2002. And Williams plays this lonely soul with such an acute understanding and awareness about the darkest pits of despair that his unspoken misery rings throughout with an uncomfortable honesty to this day. Thus, it is completely understandable when Harlan Jacobson of USA Today called it “Robin Williams’ finest hour.”
The film from director Mark Romanek initially seems like a rote thriller in which Sey becomes obsessed with a frequent family of customers, making duplicates of all their photos for himself, and becoming enraged when the father’s mistress brings their private photos in to also be developed. However, the film’s gingerly pace to the cataclysmic third act creates genuine terror that feels more like tragedy than Hollywood formulae. The crux of all this is Williams, who never more bluntly exposed the saddest and most unknowable provinces of his genius. Again, recent events can make this a challenge to watch, but as a monument to the artist, it is inescapable.
Robin Williams left more than a footprint on filmmaking or pop culture; he touched the hearts, minds, and souls of generations of moviegoers that were in awe of his hilarity and his tangible sweetness that pervaded nearly all of his work. But in 2002, he subverted that larger-than-life image in three singular roles whose combined oddness makes them that much more revealing and important. But as with the rest of his career, these movies remain as testaments to Williams’ boundless talent that will long last for movie lovers now and for generations to come. We have lost a star, an icon, and for many, the closest countenance of a loved one that a screen actor can enjoy. For all these gifts that he has left, I can only say that I’m extraordinarily grateful. Nanu, Nanu, old friend.
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