Friday, December 19, 2014

Robin Williams, Some of His Best

Robin Williams Live On Broadway. I saw this when it first came out more than a decade ago. I just watched it again tonight in the wake of Robin William's death last week. Right before watching this, I watched his Weapons of Mass Destruction show. Both were done for HBO live before an audience. Much as I enjoyed the WEAPONS show, this one is probably his masterpiece. For one, he is eight years younger, 50, and he is still in good health. In fact, he moves like a thirty year old. He moves almost like an acrobat or a dancer. He owns the stage and the audience. He holds us rapt for two hours, no intermission, and that is just about unheard of in stand up. It would be hard to pick a piece I liked best because I loved it all. I hate sports in general and I even loved his sports routines, especially the golf one. Some reviewers comment upon parts of the show are blue humor. I don't think Williams was ever known for absolutely clean comedy like Jerry Seinfeld. Few stand up comics are able to pull off completely clean stand up. So if this is something you require, stick with Seinfeld. But Jerry Seinfeld, much as I enjoy him, is no Robin Williams. This is a stand up comedian at the peak of his powers and no one, absolutely no one, could touch him for sheer talent.

Robin Williams Inside the Actors' Studio  This was an actual teaching session. The people in the audience were studying to be actors, directors and the like. Williams chose to show not tell when he was asked most questions. The interviewer, Lipton, had these little blue cards to ask him the standard questions. Williams was polite about that but he didn't let those stand in his way. It would just take a second or two and he would take that question and create something on the spot with it. One question was whether he was really an introvert. His whole face and demeanor changed into that of an withdrawn, shy, introverted person. He expanded it some so we saw a little bit of torture. Then he abruptly dropped the whole thing, turned back into a person being interviewed and said, "Yes." He did the entire show in this fashion which was to show the students how it is done rather than sitting there and answering questions.

Williams was a lot more ill than previously known. He was experiencing both dementia and paranoia. He had been declining for three years with either Parkinson's or a brain disorder which looked like Parkinson's. This was an amazingly cruel fate for him. To have a brain like his and have it start to attack you as you entered your sixth decade is just so incredibly awful. You see that brain fully operational here and I am glad he is no longer in torment. He does seem to have been an amazingly giving person, especially for someone in show business, judging by how he gave his all for these students.

Good Morning, Vietnam. There are a handful of films for which Robin Williams will always be remembered. This is one of them and the one that many identify most with him. He was nominated for the Oscar for it but did not win.

He played Adrian Cronauer, a radio DJ with the USAF who is sent to DJ for the armed services in Saigon, Vietnam. The problem is that some of his higher ups do not want the servicemen to know some of the worse things going on in country. Almost as bad, they have an antiquated idea of what music they listen to with polkas and Lawrence Welk topping their list. Cronauer brings them rock and roll and the stand up comedic sensibilities of Robin Williams plus tells them the truth. The servicemen adore him.

But this is a serious film too. Cronauer makes friends too, some of them good and some of them on the wrong side but he doesn't know it. But, of course, that is Vietnam; knowing the sides was always murky. Bruno Kirby is absolutely hilarious as this uptight lieutenant who thinks he is funny but is actually hideous as a DJ. In his own way he IS funny because he is just too awful for words. J.T. Walsh also plays a really mean superior officer who would just as rather get his DJ killed by the VC rather than listen to him another day.

There are some very good Vietnamese roles too, most of them beginning with Adrian taking over the English class for the Vietnamese, teaching them English Robin Williams style. If I had had him as my foreign language teacher, I could speak anything, I swear! Tung Thanh Tran as his best friend Tuan is excellent. Forest Whitaker in a very early role is an aspiring DJ who wants to be the next Adrian Cronauer. This is a not to be missed movie. It is Williams at his peak and that was a very rare and fine talent indeed.

The genius to Mrs. Doubtfire is that it lets Robin Williams play two roles in one film. His first role is as the male character, the Dad, who can't stand being separated from his kids. Before you see him transform into their nanny, Mrs. Doubtfire, he shows his male self who is a voice actor. He is voicing an animation as we open. This means every time we see Williams in the male role he has got the opportunity to do all of his comedic riffing and voices. When his brother (Harvey Fierstein), a makeup man, is making him into a woman Williams even gets a chance to mimic famous women in drag. His Barbra Streisand is magnificent.

When he transforms into Mrs. Doubtfire, he becomes an aged Englishwoman who nevertheless has a wicked streak to her, especially when it comes to Pierce Brosnan, his ex-wife's new boyfriend. As Doubtfire, he sabotages the boyfriend left and right plus hits him with zingers at every turn. Doubtfire also becomes closer to the ex who is played by Sally Field. One mistake the film never makes is that it never turns into a sappy love story b etween Fields and Williams. The accent is that he wants his kids back. There are always doubts about whether the two of them could ever be a successful couple again. For those who were fans of Mork, this is the closest Williams comes to bringing him back in one of his films.

I had never seen Mork & Mindy before and in the wake of Robin Williams' death I decided to give it a try. I really enjoyed it and I especially enjoyed Williams. Although everyone else does a decent job, the show is obviously his vehicle from start to finish. There are very few scenes where Williams is not on camera and rightfully so. One longtime star from sitcoms does show up on this show and that is Tom Poston who plays the downstairs neighbor. He was on both of the Newhart series.

Williams completely nails being an alien come to Earth. His character is very sweet and at times verges on the childlike. Unsurprisingly, he can rif at any moment on anything comedic and does so with different voices. This he did throughout his long career. Some of the things he does here would later appear in new skits on his stand up shows.

There is a surprise guest appearance by a young David Letterman in one episode, apparently trying his luck as an actor for sitcoms. It is a good thing he found Late Night hosting instead as his acting talents were meager.

Some aspect of the show demonstrate it is an older sitcom, made in 1978. Mindy and her family, for example, would seem trite by today's sitcom standards. But Williams more than makes up the difference. There is no question that he was a superstar in the making and that he would be the one person on the show enduring and going on to make feature films.

There is no way of covering his incredible talent in just one blog entry. So I will be doing another entry on him sometime soon as a continuation of his best work. If you haven't seen something on this list though, you are missing some very fine work.

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