8. Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2002)
In Nolan’s stylish remake of the Norwegian thriller, Williams taps into his dark side to play Walter Finch, a serial killer who is more unnerving due to his quiet reserve and physical restraint.
In a brilliant touch of ‘against type’ casting, Williams really reigns in all his ticks and quirks to give us a portrayal of quiet, menacing evil in human form. Great work in a rare American remake that works.
7. One Hour Photo (Mark Romanek, 2002)
In his debut feature film, former music video maker Mark Romanek creates a small, deeply unnerving film. Williams plays Seymour Parish, a photograph developer at a local shopping mall. He becomes obsessed with a family for whom he has regular contact with via business.
Completely pulling back and erasing everything you know about him, Williams is quietly electrifying here. His Seymour is a lonely and, at times, desperate man looking to connect with others around him. He is what you call a ‘stalker’, but one that, as a viewer, you feel something approaching empathy and understanding. One of the best things Williams ever did in his career. This is a performance that lifts the film it’s in significantly.
6. Aladdin (Ron Clements & John Musker, 1992)
One of the benchmark animated Disney film, this kicks above its weight class by several notches due to the ballistic and extremely funny voice over work from Williams.
His take on Genie is one for the ages. A whirling dervish of manic energy, the screen lights up any time Genie is on screen due to the passion and energy that Williams puts forward.
5. Good Morning, Vietnam (Barry Levinson, 1987)
This is a truly standout and iconic role for Williams. He plays Armed Forces radio DJ Adrian Crouneur, a total livewire, wildly unpredictable character who constantly gets up the nose of his superiors in his work as a DJ in Vietnam.
Legend has it that director Levinson told Williams to ‘go nuts’ on the monologues that he does between songs as his character. The rants that you hear and see are totally Williams, completely improvised and off the cuff. There is this utterly unpredictable, wild energy that reminds you why this actor is an absolute treasure.
4. The World According To Garp (George Roy Hill, 1982)
An early lead role for Williams, he plays a man that experiences and extraordinary life. Based on a novel by John Irving that was called ‘unfilmable’, this was a brave and ballsy take on some rather ‘out there’ material.
Williams excels as the everyman here, supported by an extraordinary cast including Mary Beth Hurt, Glenn Close and John Lithgow. Even over thirty years later, words can’t quite describe the extraordinary power and quality of this work.
This is a classic example of a film that, when seeing it, the less you know beforehand the better. It really is one that will stay with you.
3. Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997)
This is the film where Williams finally collected his long overdue Oscar, in this case for Best Supporting Actor. In this film, beautifully written by its main stars, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (also Oscar winners for Best Screenplay), Williams plays Sean Maguire, a psychologist helping Damon’s character to find semblance and meaning in his life.
It is an absolute pleasure to see and hear Williams read some long passages of dialogue in this film, infusing every word with grit and meaning. A controlled and modulated performance, this really saw Williams as an artist kick it up a gear.
2. The Fisher King (Terry Gilliam, 1991)
This is my personal favourite Robin Williams performance. There is something about Terry Gilliam’s “The Fisher King” that strikes a very deep chord within. Probably one of the director’s more mainstream works, it is a compelling and affecting look at guilt and redemption. Williams plays Parry, a homeless man that strikes up a friendship with Jack (Jeff Bridges), a somewhat damaged soul.
With some fantastical elements to it, this is, at heart, about how people need each other and the power of friendship, namely its ability to heal and make us better people. In the Williams canon, this is an absolute standout.
1. Dead Poet’s Society (Peter Weir, 1989)
Set in a conservative and stifling prep school for boys in the Fifties, Williams shines here as John Keating, an English Literature teacher that inspires a particular group of students to embrace life on their own terms and rules, rather than the ones enforced upon them.
Beautifully written and acted, this is one of the finest things that Williams ever done in his entire career. Sensitively directed by Peter Weir, it keeps Williams in balance with the story, never letting him run riot at the expense of the film. It also features a remarkable final scene that has made several generations of cinema goers cry like babies.
Never seen any of Williams’ work as an actor? Start here.
Author Bio: Neil is a journalist, labourer, forklift and truck driver. In a previous life, he was a projectionist for ten years. He is a lifelong student of cinema.