“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” – Robin Williams
A comedic genius with a knack for improv, slapstick comedy and humour, Robin Williams’ vast spectrum of talent leaves one amazed and entertained. Known for his unfathomable on-stage energy and infectious stage presence, Williams’ honesty during his comedy routines was awe-inspiring and was one of his greatest contributions to pop culture. A prodigy in comedy, he was also acclaimed for bringing manic energy to the films he starred in. His roles reeked of eclectic style and will forever be the “national treasure” to the entertainment industry.
Williams was born to a somewhat affluent family and spent his formative years in a huge, lonely mansion with his maid. During this period, he came up with characters and conversations in his isolated state. He was bullied relentlessly at school for being overweight; these tormented years and hardships had a deep-seated impact on his life, culminating in depression which stayed with him until the very end. Williams resorted to comedy, using it as a defence mechanism. His mother was known to be sharp-witted and sarcastic and Williams would strive to make her laugh by being funny which helped him forge a connection with his mother who was otherwise distant and workaholic.
Having relocated to California, Williams found himself stumbling upon drugs, the sexual revolution and a freeing counterculture wherein he dabbled with drugs and found himself accepted. Having perfected his comedic front, he ventured into drama and found his calling in improv performance. His drama classes helped him perfect his improv comedy veneer and soon ventured into comedy. His early stand-ups were inspired by the likes of Jonathan Winters and Lenny Bruce; manic energy, quick-fire humour and exceptional ad-libs as well as his knack for physical comedy helped solidify his prowess as an exceptional comic. Behind his rambunctious facade, he was incredibly shy and used alcohol and drugs to prevent burnouts as well as his coping mechanism to steady his nerves.
Known for his ability to emulate voices and loved by aplenty for his fearless ability to weave the personal into his standup, Williams’ filmography is impressive as well, with his roles being a reflection of his fun-loving personality. A recipient of an Academy Award, two Emmys, five Grammys, six Golden Globes and two SAGs, Williams first starred in the 1980 film Popeye as the titular lead. Having frequented smaller roles, his breakthrough role was in the 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam by Barry Levinson where he played a quirky radio jockey whose humour and sarcasm helped the soldiers maintain sanity. It was for this film that Williams received his first Academy Award nomination and was soon seen in larger and meatier roles.
As mentioned, Robin Williams had trouble grappling with depression and resorted to alcoholism and cocaine which further fuelled his inner demons. His untimely demise was a result of him taking his own life which left a huge blow to the industry. His vast legion of fans and admirers were shocked to know that their beloved comic was no more. Haunted by his demons, Williams’ final days saw him mirthless, stumbling, stuttering over lines and struggling with improv. He left behind hundreds and thousands of bereaved admirers as well as a profound legacy that continues to inspire multitudes.
On what would have been his 70th birthday today, we pay tribute to this wonderful fireball of energy by taking a look at some of his best films streaming on Netflix:
The 10 best Robin Williams films streaming on Netflix:
10. RV (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2006)
An ambitious executive Bob Munro is caught between appeasing his evil boss and going on a trip with his dysfunctional family to help forge a bond among themselves. Instead of taking his family to Hawaii, he merges the business trip with the family and embarks on a road trip in a recreational vehicle where Bob conceals the truth from his family and sneaks out to attend company meetings, narrowly escaping being discovered. However, as pressure from both ends begins to increase, Bob loses a grip over himself and succumbs to it.
A family movie through and through, RV can be predictable yet guffaw-inducingly funny with Munro being at crossroads over whom to please. Robin Williams is amusing and quick-witted, bringing a natural charm to this film. Silly and lively, the characters slowly grow closer over time and Sonnenfeld’s slapstick take on the ‘RV’ lifestyle is indeed interesting.
“We watch TV in four separate rooms and IM each other when dinner is ready.”
9. Patch Adams (Tom Shadyac, 1998)
Depressed, Patch Adams contemplates suicide and admits himself into a medical institution where he chances upon humour as the most effective tool in treating psychological illnesses. As the oldest medical student at Medical College of Virginia, Patch is determined to propagate his views and his unconventional methods of using compassion, humour, kindness and friendship to treat patients do not sit well with the seniors. However, he encourages his fellow peers to indulge in such activities for the overall well-being of the patients which prove to be effective, helping Patch find true purpose in his life.
Based on a real-life story, the film stars heavyweights such as Robin Williams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Monica Potter, Daniel London and more. As Patch, Williams is funny, gentle and warm. With his kind and giving personality, he ventures into a chartered territory in which he thrives despite the film being an overall failure. If you are a fan of Robin Williams and enjoy moving stories where laughter is the best therapy, this film is made for you.
“You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.”
8. Night at the Museum franchise (Shawn Levy, 2006, 2009, 2014)
Larry is unemployed and divorced- a classic New Yorker slacker who soon gets recruited as the night watchman at the Museum of Natural History replacing the three old guards. Soon, Larry realises that the statues come to life following sunset and the ominous museum has more to it than meets the eye. Amidst utter chaos and mayhem, Larry ends up befriending some of the statues and enlists their help in various ways to restore order and peace as well as while embarking on various adventures and quests over the course of three films.
The entire franchise is a feel-good, family-friendly watch where the well-constructed characters add laughter to the chaotic atmosphere of the museum which abounds in an amicable dinosaur that loves causing rampage, haughty figurines, rambunctious statues and scary characters. Williams reprises his role as the wax figure of Theodore Roosevelt, the friendly Teddy, whom Ben Stiller’s Larry befriends and enlists help from. While Roosevelt was known to have a squeaky voice, Williams’ deep baritone, as Teddy explains in the film, is a result of him being a wax model. Williams as Roosevelt is gentle, kind, fun-loving and overall a very likeable character.
“I’m made of wax, Larry. What are you made of?”
7. The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013)
A sharecropper’s son Cecil Gaines had escaped a white master who destroyed his family and taken a job as a trained hotel valet. Cecil was celebrated for his efficiency and honesty and soon became a butler in the White House where he began serving various Presidents over decades, being a passive bystander to the evolving history of the Civil Rights Movement. As this gains momentum, tension starts brewing in his family where his wife Gloria feels neglected and resorts to alcoholism while his eldest son Louis is inspired to seek justice for himself and his brethren while his youngest son enlists in the military.
Bearing historical importance and accuracy, the film dealt with a delicate and emotionally charged subject. Stellar performances from the cast, especially Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker and more, helped elevate the overall atmosphere of the film. Williams, who played Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th US President, described his character as a “fascinating guy and he has kind of a quiet ego among large egos that was his whole role during World War II” and admitted that it was a “tough job” for him. This also marked Williams and Whitaker’s reunion after nearly 26 years following their collaboration in Good Morning, Vietnam.
“Good. We have no tolerance for politics at the White House.”
6. Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2002)
In a small Alaskan fishing town, 17-year-old Kay Connell is found brutally murdered and her death is investigated by LAPD detectives Will Dormer and Hap Eckhart. A sudden mishap alters the course of Dormer’slife who starts suffering from insomnia due to overexposure to the midnight sun as well as the overarching guilt in his mind that adds to his delusion. The murderer soon contacts Dormer and they engage in a dangerous game of mind games that culminates into a mutually giving relationship where they conceal each other’s secrets to prevent themselves from getting arrested.
Nolan’s film boasts of an exemplary cast comprising Robin Williams and Al Pacino. The symbiotic relationship between Williams and Pacino’s character adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the film. Top performances and wonderful cinematography add a feeling of the sinister making it a gripping watch. While Pacino’s character suffers from titular insomnia, Williams as the conniving Walter Finch is scary and ominous. Nolan, being a broad-minded director, allowed his leads to be experimental and work freely around each other to feel at ease. However, Williams attributed his drinking relapse to this film, blaming the months of isolation in Alaska to have fuelled it.
“You and I share a secret. We know how easy it is to kill someone. That ultimate taboo. It doesn’t exist outside our own minds.”
5. Aladdin (John Musker, Rob Clements, 1992)
A popular children’s tale, Aladdin features an eponymous street urchin and his pet monkey Abu coming in contact with a magic lamp within which resides a blue gentle giant – AKA Genie – who is amicable, naughty, fun-loving and quickly befriends Aladdin. While Aladdin falls in love with Jasmine, the Princess of Agrabah, the Genie helps him woo the Princess who is instantly bowled over by Aladdin’s sweet and charming antics. However, the evil Vizier, Jafar stands in the way of their happiness and will stop at nothing to woo the Princess’ hand in marriage.
One of Disney’s most popular films, the ensemble cast was illuminated by the prowess of Robin Williams as the comedic Genie who complies with all his Master’s demands; Williams agreed to “be part of this animated tradition” as he wanted “something for [my] children”. Musker and Clements had specifically written the role for Williams, basing many of the character’s antics on the actor’s stand up routines. Williams’ role as the Genie proved to be an important point of transition wherein mainstream actors started lending their voices to animated film characters. Despite a wonderful performance laden with improv comedy and gaining acclaim for his role, Williams had a severe fallout with the studio and vowed to never work with Disney again as the latter had used his voice in various commercials and advertisements without the actor’s prior knowledge and despite the forbidding. Williams stated that though “the image is theirs”, “the voice, I gave them myself” and was appalled by such uncalled for actions.
“I’m free. I’m free. Quick. Quick. Wish for something outrageous. Say, “I, I want the Nile.” Wish for the Nile. Try that!”
4. The Birdcage (Mike Nichols, 1996)
Armand Goldman is the owner of an extremely popular drag club in Miami with his long-time boyfriend Albert who is one of the most popular drag queens in the club. Their beloved son Val returns home from college bearing good news about his engagement to Barbara, the daughter of a US Senator. The Keeleys, especially Kevin Keeley, is homophobic and is on their way to meet Val’s parents which leads to a hilarious and chaotic situation where Armand and Albert desperately try to cover up their tracks.
Williams, who was initially cast as Albert, decided to decline the role as he was tired of flamboyant roles. He played the collected Armand instead who loved Val a lot and agreed to change his identity for his son’s happiness. Both Nathan Lane and Robin Williams who were known for their improv abilities were beseeched by Nichols to shoot a scripted scene before adding their own improv lines. Even 25 years after its release, the film is a relevant LGBTQ+ film with a strong and profound premise where the quirky jokes help convey a poignant message.
“Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle-aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.”
3. Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997)
A janitor at MIT named Will Hunting has an innate talent in mathematics and catches the eye of a mathematics professor named Gerald Lambeau when he manages to solve an extremely difficult problem. Lambeau beseeches his friend Sean Maguire, a psychotherapist, to take Will under his wing and help him fight his inner demons. These sessions with Sean helps Will gain a perspective about his meandering ways, his relationship with his friends and peers as well as the girl he likes.
This predictable yet emotionally charged drama about a wayward man finding his way in life under the guidance of a kind psychotherapist is moving. The drama is complemented by powerful performances from the likes of Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck and more. Affleck and Damon were starstruck by their co-stars who were renowned acting veterans. Williams, known for his ad-libs, had apparently left Damon in splits while talking about his wife’s farting in one of the scenes. Williams’ wonderful performance as Dr Maguire helped him win an Oscar for his supporting role at the 70th Academy Awards.
“You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren’t paying attention to.”
2. Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989)
The film is set in the prestigious and conservative Welton Academy where an English teacher John Keating and his innovative and groundbreaking ideas go beyond the status quo. He urges the students to “make [your] lives extraordinary … carpe diem”. He cultivates their minds and inspires them to think beyond what is being taught. The heartfelt rendition of Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” towards the end of the film adds a poetic charm to this awe-inspiring film.
Dead Poets Society can be seen as a one-man show where Robin Williams as the extraordinary English teacher appreciates his student’s ideas and thoughts. He is at odds with the old-school thoughts the students inculcate at the school and is the epitome of hope and imagination in the film. Williams admitted that Keating was the kind of teacher he wished he had in school and declared this film to be one of his favourites. It is indeed refreshing to watch a revolutionary teacher and his band of minions defying the order to mark the beginning of something new.
“There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”
1. Mrs. Doubtfire (Chris Columbus, 1993)
Struggling voice actor Daniel Hillard infuriates his wife Miranda when he throws an outrageous birthday party for his son. Miranda divorces Daniel due to his unstable lifestyle and he is restricted to seeing the kids just once a week which does not sit well with him. Daniel assumes the persona of Mrs. Doubtfire a strict British nanny who grows close to the kids and becomes indispensable to Miranda. However, his true identity clashes with his persona and he soon finds himself amidst a set of hilarious misunderstandings.
Only an actor of robin Williams’ stature can effortlessly pull off such distinct roles in one particular film with conviction. Williams won a Golden Globe for his wonderful performance. Clad in prosthetics, he was so compelling in his disguise that even his own son was unable to recognise him. With a wonderful and moving premise about a father’s relentless efforts to stay close to his children, the film was a testament to the veteran actor’s incredible improvisations that added to the overall quirks of the film.
“Did you ever wish you could sometimes freeze-frame a moment in your day, look at it and say “this is not my life”?”