FYNFRC: Robin Williams
Last week would have been Robin Williams’ 70th birthday. Like many of my generation, I grew up watching and admiring the man: my childhood hearing his voice-work in “Aladdin” and “Ferngully”, my teenage years enjoying his talk show appearances and raunchy stand-up, and my adult years discovering his more serious fare such as “Good Will Hunting” and “Dead Poets Society”. From his high energy comedy to his subtle dramatic chops, and everything in between, Robin Williams left his mark on the world, and I am one of many who miss him immeasurably.
For someone so ingrained in our popular culture, it’s amazing that Robin Williams doesn’t have a single movie on the National Film Registry. Here are a few of Robin Williams’ more significant movies that I feel would fit right in on this list of noteworthy American films:
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987): Yes, there’s “Popeye” and “The World According to Garp” if you want an early Robin appearance, but “Vietnam” is when Robin Williams went from stand-up/sitcom actor trying to be in the movies to bona-fide movie star. Playing real life Armed Forces DJ Adrian Cronauer, Williams is offered the perfect vehicle to display his rapid-fire comedy style on the big screen. Plus, an NFR designation for “Vietnam” would serve as representation for director Barry Levinson, also conspicuously absent from the list (and God help us all if “Rain Man” makes the cut)
Dead Poets Society (1989): This is where all that Julliard training comes in handy. With “Dead Poets Society”, Williams still gets to do funny voices and era-appropriate impressions (at last, an excuse for his Brando in “Julius Caesar”), but he also effectively highlights his dramatic skills as an unorthodox professor who inspires a group of prep school students, including Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Josh Charles. “Dead Poets Society” still resonates with anyone who ever had a great teacher, and “carpe diem” is the only Latin most people will ever know.
Aladdin (1992): While not quite at the same level of “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Lion King“, “Aladdin” is still an undeniable classic from the Disney Renaissance of the early ’90s, and a lot of that credit goes to Robin Williams. The marriage of Williams’ energetic voice-over and Eric Goldberg’s Hirschfeld-inspired animation is truly one of the holiest matrimonies, and makes this movie a rewatchable experience for multiple generations, even if your kids don’t know who William F. Buckley was.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993): The last of the truly great classic drag comedies, “Mrs. Doubtfire” is another great showcase for Robin Williams, this time as a divorced, unemployed voice-over actor who poses as an elderly Scottish woman and gets a job as his kids’ nanny. Williams’ improvisational energy carries over to the rest of this strong ensemble (even the usually serious Sally Field is hilarious), and “Doubtfire” is still one of the funniest, and most quotable, movies ever made. And if that weren’t enough, at its core “Doubtfire” is also a genuinely sweet movie that destigmatizes the impact divorce has on a family.
The Birdcage (1996): Like “Doubtfire”, “Birdcage” is an instantly quotable comedy classic (“Sweetie, you’re wasting your gum.”). Unlike “Doubtfire”, it takes the drag comedy to its next evolutionary step, where the drag isn’t a comic device, but rather a way of life for these characters. The film is a plea of tolerance for our LGBTQ+ community, and while Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria have the showier parts, Williams is the straight man (if you will) in the center keeping it all together. With a sharp script from Elaine May, “Birdcage” may not be the most nuanced take on homosexuality in American film, but it is an important (and hilarious) stepping stone.
Good Will Hunting (1997): You like apples? How about the movie that finally nabbed Robin Williams his Oscar, made overnight stars of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and gave Gus Van Zant the confidence to remake “Psycho”? How do you like them apples?
Other Robin Williams movies I would consider NFR worthy, but only after the above movies make the cut:
- The World According to Garp (1982)
- Awakenings (1990)
- Hook (1991)
NFR worthy movies that Robin Williams appears in, but that I wouldn’t label a “Robin Williams Movie”:
- To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)**
- A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
- The Aristocrats (2005)
Bonus Consideration: Equally shocking, Robin Williams isn’t on the National Recording Registry either! In a list that includes stand-up recordings from Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Steve Martin, any of Williams’ albums would feel right at home in the NRR. His 1979 debut album “Reality…What a Concept” is a natural choice, and I have a fondness for his “Live 2002” recording, but 1986’s “A Night at the Met” is the definitive Robin Williams stand-up performance.
As always, you – yes YOU – can be the change you want to see in this scenario. It is your God-given right as a human with internet access to submit movies for National Film Registry consideration (as well as the National Recording Registry). Once you’ve submitted all of Robin’s great work, check out this list of notable movies not yet on the list and see if any of your other favorite stars could use some representation. As Robin Williams once said, “God gave men a brain and a penis, and only enough blood to run one at a time.” I know that has nothing to do with any of this; I just really like that line.
** “To Wong Foo” actually predates “The Birdcage” in its appreciation of drag culture, but for our purposes here “Birdcage” works better as a Robin Williams NFR contender.