When I was a kid, precious few things made me as happy as stumbling upon Mrs. Doubtfire on TV. No matter what I was doing or where it was, I would always plop down and watch it til the end; I’ve probably seen the first act twice and the ending 12 or 13 times. And as a kid, I barely knew there were supporting characters in that movie. I didn’t care about the dynamic between the protagonist and Sally Field, wasn’t aware of all the risqué jokes and references (likely because they were edited). All that mattered to me was busting a gut as Robin Williams pelted James Bond with a “run-by fruiting” and tried to change back and forth between men’s and women’s clothes 10 times in one evening.
Somewhere around a decade later, I discovered the film that would define my four years at college more than any other. Good Will Hunting is one of those movies that’s so perfect, you just sit there after your first viewing in awed silence. And while the script is excellent, Matt Damon maybe the best he’s ever been, and the supporting roles well-defined…Robin Williams makes that movie. I’ve talked with multiple close friends about it, and we all agree; he takes the movie to a higher, more original, more moving place.
I bring these two movies up because they represent the opposite ends of the spectrum on which Robin Williams, dead today at 63 of an apparent suicide, excelled. He could make you laugh as well as anyone—not only did he become famous partially on the back of his stand-up shows from the 70s and 80s, but he also headlined comedic classics like Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, and The Birdcage. The first time you hear him riff on the radio during Vietnam is a moment you won’t forget; and if you’re too young to have seen him do stand-up, watch this (NSFW) clip of him discussing golf. I’m still crying from it.
Yet, for as much as Williams became known for his mile-a-minute improvisations, character impersonations, and unpredictable physical mannerisms, I preferred him as a dramatic actor. In movies like Awakenings, Dead Poet’s Society, What Dreams May Come, and Hunting, he had that rare ability to make you feel that you were connecting with him on a human level from your living room. And even in his zaniest roles, he made you feel that there was a real person underneath the comedy, a pathos behind the absurd.
Let’s be honest—movies like Mrs. Doubtfire and Dead Poet’s Society shouldn’t work at all. The former could have easily devolved into an under-thought, over-acted farce, while the latter pushes the boundaries of manipulation and sentimentality. Yet Williams makes them, and so many others, watchable. Whether creepy (One Hour Photo) or heartbreaking (Awakenings), he was frequently better than the movies he was in.
But, for me, it all comes back to Good Will Hunting. As the widowed therapist Sean Maguire, Williams defines the movie through his scenes with Matt Damon. He looks as though he’s swallowed a well of sadness that would fell most men, but he has enough—just enough—resolve to persevere, to get Will’s life on track, to ante up again and play one more hand. It’s an astonishingly poignant performance, and Good Will Hunting wouldn’t be remembered today without it.
Williams ended the movie with that famous remark about Will, who’s “gotta go see about a girl,” stealing his line. In actuality, we’ve all been stealing lines from Robin Williams for decades—and we’d all like a few more.