January 2000
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

Dear Robin Williams,

Shut up!

Nothing like a little hate to start off The Naughties (or The Oughties, or The Zeros, or whatever you prefer). I'm sorry. I'll apologize in advance to those of you that think Robin was such a "genius" in The Birdcage and "Oh so precious" in Awakenings, but I've had a growing Hate On for the man for many years now. Like that baby alligator I got in my Christmas stocking, I thought he was very cute at first. But now he's grown into a big scaly thing that gives me the creeps and keeps chewing up the scenery.

Like most of you, I was far too young or hadn't been born yet in 1962 when little ten year old Robin McLaurim Williams brought his precocious charm to capture the heart of The Tonight Show's host Johnny Carson. Johnny was still new at the job and would go along with nonsense like that back then. But I was only 2, so if I did see his appearance I was far too small to change the channel on our mammoth new Zenith (it was one of the first models with remote control, but I broke it the week we got it).

That earlier exposure to audience appreciation stuck with the youngster. Though Williams studied political science at college, he soon gave it up when he found himself bitten by the acting bug, and when he ran out of jokes involving the term "political science". He found that he could make people laugh, and that laughter served to fill a hungry, evil void within his psyche. He quickly gained attention in the now-dead art form known as "stand-up comedy".

I probably also missed Williams' early TV appearances, and was still too young to get thrown out of night clubs, so I was probably first officially annoyed by him when he debuted as Mork from the planet Ork on the TV sitcom Happy Days. The '70s was such a vapid, tasteless decade that the general public decided to ignore things for the most part and concentrate as much as they could on '50s nostalgia, so it was relatively easy for a manic character like Williams to make an impression. The equally hateful Garry Marshall is credited for discovering Williams. Marshall directed Beaches, Dear God, and many episodes of Me and the Chimp, so you know he's got taste.

The Mork character made enough of an impression that the coked-up heads of ABC television decided to give him his own show, this time pairing him with Pam Dawber instead of Ronnie Howard, mostly because Dawber could look cuter saying "Oh, Mork!" when exasperated by the alien's antics. Hey - he drinks with his finger! How funny!

Mork and Mindy was wildly successful - so successful that it was awarded the '70s highest honor, a poorly-animated Saturday morning version called The Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour. This success was fueled by Williams' seemingly endless supply of ad lib gags, which was in turn fed by an army of stand-up comics that he was stealing material from. Well all's fair in love and comedy, so whoever can remember the most jokes and spit 'em out fastest to the biggest audience wins. Williams ultimately became so successful as Mork that he destroyed the entire structure of the show, bringing in his pals to play other wacky characters. Thus, instead of a show about the clash of a wacky alien with human culture, the show came to be about a wacky alien among a bunch of other wacky characters, and Mork was cancelled in 1982.

By this time, Williams had already starred in his first film, Robert Altman's awkward musical Popeye. While studying at Juilliard, John Houseman told him to quit trying to be an actor and concentrate on being funny. Unfortunately, like many comedians who've had a bit too much success for their own good, Williams has repeatedly ignored this good advice. His second starring role was in The World According to Garp, where he was still green enough to be sufficiently controlled by director George Roy Hill. But the damage was done - Williams made a sufficient impression in a dramatic role that he'd never again settle for mere comedy, and would herein divide his time between dramatic roles and "meaningful" comic parts. One rule in choosing roles would be adhered to: the part must afford him the most screen time possible.

Maximizing this idea, he also returned to stand-up, beginning a series of concert films, most of which consisted of baby stories about his son Zach that would lead one to believe that Williams was the first man ever to father a child. You know your ego is up there with the greats when the best title you can come up with for your performance is "An Evening with...". Since Williams was now a huge star, like Jerry Lewis and many other stars before him, he required a suitable charity to assuage any feelings of guilt he'd built up over his good fortune. And so he became one of the hosts of the worthy cause benefiting homeless families, Comic Relief. This has made it possible for Robin to make as many adolescent dick jokes as possible while Whoopi Goldberg tries to make a speech.

Speaking of Jerry Lewis - I've heard from many that have known him that the acknowledged comic genius could be an unchecked egomaniac and unconscionable monster in his personal life, but even Lewis disowned a film called The Day the Clown Cried, which featured Jerry as a death camp clown entertaining children on the way to their executions. In 1987, Williams made Good Morning, Viet Nam, playing a wacky radio deejay entertaining doomed troops going off to battle in the jungles of Southeast Asia. In Jakob the Liar he played a wacky deejay entertaining doomed Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. In Patch Adams, he played a wacky doctor entertaining doomed cancer patients. In Dead Poets Society, he played a wacky English professor entertaining doomed literature students. These films, loosely based on real people, all illustrate Williams in Saint Mode - the lone voice of humanity speaking out against the squares who care more about numbers than providing shoes for lost house pets, or whatever his crusade is at the time.

Good Morning, Viet Nam got Williams a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Now there was no stopping him. He was 35 and on top of the world - the sort of circumstances that often lead a man to dump his wife and kid and run off with the nanny. He created another mode: Robin Williams as Special Guest Star, showing up in small uncredited parts in a number of films as a "favor" to the filmmakers and a surprise "gift" to the audience. He also began to grow an alarming amount of body hair which became the only serious threat to his amount of screen time as it now sometimes obscures him from view entirely.

Around this time I was told that Williams attended an elaborate and expensive party in Hollywood. The evenings' planned activities weren't good enough for his tastes, so he proceeded to "entertain" the guests with some of his shtick. Well enough, but to the horror of the hosts and guests, he continued to "treat" this polite audience for the next three hours until folks gave up and started to leave.

Starting a second family inspired Williams to go into Family Mode, doing voice work in cartoons and making family films like Hook and Jumanji. He got such great reviews for voicing the Genie in Aladdin that he got into a tiff with Disney over the amount of cash and credit he deserved and refused to do the direct-to-video sequel. However, he returned to the role for the second sequel after nobody noticed his absence. His parts in family films continue in films like the abominable Flubber (which only served to make one realize just how good Fred MacMurray was), but his films for children came to a culmination with Jack, in which he played a child himself, to great public and critical disapproval. No doubt he was trying to teach Martin Short a lesson after seeing Clifford.

Concurrently with Family Mode, Williams created another to offset it. He appeared in several films in which he was in drag, gay, or both. I call this Robin's Fabulous Mode, and have no idea what to make of it. His phallic obsession was already well known by this time through his stand-up work, but where there's smoke is there also Fire Island? Who knows?

Despite all my gripes, Robin Williams has become a much beloved mainstream, white bread, suburban favorite and showbiz institution. However, lately his films have been either commercial pap like Fathers Day or insufferably melodramatic like What Dreams May Come, and even the public is beginning to turn away. I heard a lot of people predicting disaster for his latest film after seeing the ads, which show us Robin Williams as a kooky robot.

This is a great shame because I actually like Bicentennial Man a lot. True, I would probably like it just as much with another actor in the lead, but there's no denying he does a fine job in the part. The reason for this is because Williams plays a robot, and we don't see his real face until late in the film - and even then, he's still reined in by the robot role. Also, the strengths of Isaac Asimov's original story have been retained, and everything in the film works in service of that story. This shows off Robin Williams at his best - that is, it's a movie that Williams plays in, but it's not a Robin Williams Movie. As such, it may be his best film ever. A lot of people might pass it by because they'll think of it as a follow-up to Williams' last collaboration with Chris Columbus, the numbing hit Mrs. Doubtfire. This puts me in the awkward position of urging folks to see a Robin Williams movie when many of them have the same apprehensions that I would have and tends to make me look like a dork.

Bicentennial Man may point to some kind of redemption for Robin Williams, in my eyes at least. If he continues to appear in films in which he simply endeavors to serve the project in any way he can - instead of the other way around - I may even become a fan. If not, maybe the future will bring the ultimate Robin Williams film - a 4-hour close-up of Robin Williams, talking and talking and talking until I have to repeat my little love note:

Shut up!



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