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Tuesday, 5 June 2018

The Robin Williams Movie Retrospective Decades: The 1980s (Part 1)

By Waiching Liu

'From Popeye The Sailorman To Good Morning, Vietnam Breakthrough Glory'

From the moment he set foot in Hollywood, Chicago-born & Julliard protege Robin Williams managed to not only endear the world, America and his fans in making them laugh with his amusing antics on TV sitcom, Mork & Mindy and through his stand-up routines, he also succeeded in being a convincing dramatic movie actor and in doing so with ease, efficiency and charm through his dramatic efforts.

Then relatively fresh-faced Robin Williams's first major film role, which was initially filmed back in 1979, was as the spinach-eating children's character, Popeye in the self-titled 1980 Robert Altman musical of the E.C Segar comic strip, in-between his starring role on ABC's Mork & Mindy. The movie premiered in the U.S in 1980. Yet the film's commercial disappointment was not blamed on his role. His Popeye voice, however, had to be re-dubbed twice, as it was inaudible to some people who couldn't clearly make out what he was saying. Williams followed it up with the onscreen adaptation of the novel by John Irving, The World According To Garp as literary writer-to-be, T.S Garp & the illegitimate son of Jenny Fields: a feminist who seduced a dying soldier so she could have a child, & with that Garp was born. But as he grows up, Garp harbours ambitions as a writer. Released in 1982, it came off the back of Mork & Mindy which ended in May, two months after the show was cancelled. It was his second movie role after Popeye and his first major drama-based onscreen role. His performance as Garp won rave reviews, despite the immeasurably dense plot, as well as it gave viewers a first real glimpse of what Williams could ultimately achieve as a dramatic actor.

Williams' movie career up until the mid-1980s had been coming and going and fluctuating in places, whilst his array of film choices were as totally varied and different as they came, as he embarked upon various phases that have been met with both box office and critical disappointment. 

In addition to The World According To Garp (which I thought was okay), he received praise for his amicable turn as a Russian immigrant saxophonist trying to make it big in New York in 1984's Moscow on The Hudson (which, as a film, didn't do much for me, personally). Notably, he was nominated for a Golden Globe in Best Actor for that film. But he was savaged for his comedies (Popeye, The Survivors, The Best of Times, Club Paradise). When it came to his comedy films, critics and professional movie cynics, who still didn't warm up to his light-hearted shenanigans, were ready to pounce on and mock anything Robin Williams did, which wasn't a drama and whereby he undertook a less serious role. 1983's The Survivors was Williams's first major comedy film and second whimsical project after Mork & Mindy & whilst it didn't set his career alight, I found it to be an enjoyable satire and Black comedy-style romp. In the vein of a buddy comedy, The Survivors also sought to highlight several social and socio-economic themes of the 1980s that included unemployment and job loss, Reaganomics, the brandishing of firearms, fear of crime and the denouncement of firearms. Alongside Walter Matthau, Williams played a young yuppie in Donald Quinelle, who is given the boot at his firm & later on, the pairing rely upon one another in the unlikeliest of circumstances as they find themselves on the run from a robber in Jack (comedian Jerry Reed). 

In regards to the box office bombs of 1986 in The Best of Times & Club Paradise, he'd mentioned he took on those films, believing they would showcase his talents to the full: ''I got suckered into a couple of films like that - The Best of Times & Club Paradise. I thought, 'well, they'll give me the freedom to do my thing', but they didn't'' (Rolling Stone). 

1986's offbeat sports comedy, The Best of Times accomplished one thing if anything... And that is by showing off Williams's gridiron and American football skills that he obtained back in his High School days as a young player. Whereas for Club Paradise, little good can be said for the Harold Ramis directed Caribbean-based offering, which saw Robin Williams in a much-subdued role that was originally written for Bill Murray, amongst the cast of SCTV members such as comedian, Eugene Levy. Williams played an injured and retired Chicago fireman who uses his disability pay to move to St Nicolas and to open up his own Mediterranean-style resort called ''Club Paradise''. Yet here with this offering, the comedy was just, flat and the film also landed several Razzie nominations. The TV indie movie, Seize The Day that charted the fall of a salesman, Tommy Wilhelm was just about elevated by Williams's great and unexpected turn; his performance was the difference in the film being a tad watchable. This particular version was produced by Learning in Focus & was screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 1986. Broadcasted on PBS's Great Performances in 1987, it was subsequently released on home video and DVD. Time Magazine's Richard Zoglin praised Seize The day for its ''unrelenting bleakness'' & its vivid portrayal of the title character (Connelly, 169, 170).

Williams did state in a Rolling Stone interview back in 1988 that he had the odd habit of choosing films that were left-field and the opposite of himself, and sometimes this was to the detriment to his talents and potential as a movie actor. He was also asked as to why it took him 8 years for Good Morning, Vietnam to finally be that film that would eventually propel him to stardom right into the 1990s and up to the early 2000s: 'well I made other choices. I wanted to go against what I was doing on TV - not just with Mork & Mindy but the cable stuff as well. I was saying, in effect, ''I'll act. I'll show you I can act''' (Rolling Stone). He experimented with different characters, story-lines and wanted to show what he was capable, as well as not capable of doing & achieving. 

But it was Williams's incredible comedic and dramatic portrayal as DJ airman Adrian Cronauer in the loosely- based Barry Levinson war dramedy, Good Morning, Vietnam that not only became a crucial turning point for Williams and one that propelled him to Hollywood stardom and helped surge his popularity at last - that same performance also netted Williams a Golden Globe nomination & win for best actor whereby he went about his role by ad-libbing and improvising his lines, without relying on the script. In the film, Cronauer arrives in Saigon to work as a disc jockey for Armed Forces Radio Service when his irreverent style catches the eyes of not only his compatriots & the local Vietnamese, but also, in turn, clashes with and infuriates his superiors. Good Morning, Vietnam also became the fourth highest-grossing film of 1987, with one critic even declaring it as ''the best military comedy since M.A.S.H''. Finally, after several attempts, Robin Williams secured a huge hit, one that was the breakout hit and one that he desperately needed to boost his career and further enhance his chances of success. 

Two years after, he followed up his stellar one-man turn in Good Morning, Vietnam and wrapped up the 1980s - if arguably not one better, personally speaking, by starring in the 1989 drama, Dead Poets Society about an English teacher in a conservative all-boys school, who uses poetry to help inspire his students. The film also spawned the Latin phrase ''Carp Diem'' meaning seize the day, which is also the title of Robin Williams's 1986 movie. 

In rewatching Robin's earlier films before Good Morning, Vietnam, it's rather interesting to see how different each one of them are & how they fare, not just compared to Mork & Mindy but Robin's latter & more commercially successful movies of the 1990s especially. They were a world away from what we have come to see in Mrs Doubtfire, Aladdin, Jumanji and Hook and they lacked that extra something to make them popular and successful. During this period, it felt as if he was still trying to move away from the TV stuff, but with every film that was released up until Good Morning, Vietnam, these offerings never went as far as to showing Robin's true worth as a movie star. In all, it has been a rocky journey for Robin Williams throughout the 1980s, with several mishaps along the way, but thankfully, perhaps luckily and most importantly, being the hits that they were in Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, these were also hugely instrumental in leading Williams's revivification in his career and in breathing newfound confidence into it. If it hadn't been for those films, then arguably, he wouldn't have gone on to have the career that he eventually ended up with. 

As he entered the 1990s, no one, and probably Robin himself, could have predicted & foreseen his career would go the way it did, as he soared to newfound heights...

Notable Favourites: Good Morning, Vietnam, The Survivors, Seize The Day, The World According To Garp

Notable Non-Favourites: The Best Of Times, Popeye, Club Paradise 


Robin Williams, The Rolling Stone Interview, 1988

Robin Williams Biography

Robin Williams - Wikipedia 

Saul Bellow: A Literary Companion - Mark Connelly, 2016 

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