Welcome to a new series here on Cinematical where we select an actor or actress and the role we think is their all time best.
There is a widely believed theory that says anytime Robin Williams grows a beard for a film, that film will be good. Or, at least his performance will be. The idea is mostly accepted on the evidence of Williams' terrific dramatic appearances in Moscow on the Hudson, Awakenings, The Fisher King and Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar. But many people like to argue against the theory because the actor shows up bearded in Jumanji, which isn't quite on the level of Williams' best work. Also, the theory holds little weight when we look at all his excellent clean-shaven turns, such as those in One Hour Photo, Good Morning Vietnam, Insomnia, Dead Poets Society, The World According to Garp and, yes, Popeye.
My belief is that the only way to classify Williams' roles and films is to look at the actual performances. Crazy, right? Well, a lot of us like to attempt to create rules for looking at Hollywood careers, and it's more fun to think there's really a beard law when it comes to Williams, or that we can easily presume he's past his prime and will only make broad, lowbrow junk like RV and License to Wed from now on. His most recent movie, Old Dogs, doesn't offer a lot of hope against that presumption, either.
Yet Williams continues to make appearances, whether leading or supporting, in smaller, more interesting films, such as Bobcat Goldthwaite's World's Greatest Dad (which grossed only 0.1% of the current combined take of Williams' two major 2009 releases, Old Dogs and Night at the Museum). And it's choices like these that remind me of Williams' best role and performance: as Parry in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King.
The character, in case you haven't seen the film, is a bit complicated. Once a yuppie-ish college professor, Parry is now a somewhat homeless loon who is both the most benign vigilante and the sweetest stalker living in Manhattan. Obsessive, delusional and spontaneous, he's the clearest embodiment of the word quixotic since Don Quixote himself. As he welcomes his new guilt-ridden friend Jack (Jeff Bridges) into his world of noble quests and urban nudism, the romantic Parry displays a wide array of characteristics and emotions that only an actor with Williams' talent for manic drama could pull off.
The thing about Williams is he got his break through stand-up and the TV sitcom Mork and Mindy, but he's also Juliard-trained, and he began his film career with a healthy balance of drama and comedy. Many people, myself included, can't stand him when he goes strictly for the funny bone, as he's a little too outrageous and hammy, particularly when he's let loose to go to his extreme with improvisation and impersonations. On the other side of the coin, however, I'm also not that into Williams when he gets completely serious.
The Academy would have you believe that Williams is best in Good Will Hunting, and really he is perfect in the role. But as much as I love that film and his performance, I prefer the actor in parts where he can be both serious and funny. Of course, he often finds himself in movies that ruin the balance with too much sappiness, a la Patch Adams and Jacob the Liar. And his boisterousness in other dramas, particularly Good Morning Vietnam, can teeter on the obnoxious side. With Parry, though, he manages his most expert blend of pathos and farce in a display of brilliant showmanship. He's never been more tolerantly spirited, never more believable as a love interest nor as an adventure hero, and given his full-frontal romps, I don't think he's ever been more vulnerable.
Williams earned an Oscar nomination for The Fisher King, his last nod in the Best Actor category. It's for the best that he didn't win, as his loss allowed more attention to be on Mercedes Ruehl, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the film, and who deserved and needed the spotlight more than Williams did (she still deserves and needs more recognition for her talent). I'd love to see Williams give another performance as great as this one, though, so hopefully he realizes that it was indeed his best role.