By John H. Foote
Was there any doubt as to his comedic gifts? None.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Williams six times through the 1990’s and 2000’s and he was truly hysterically funny. If you did not guide the interview you might find yourself watching a standup act being born in front of your eyes. Fortunately, he liked me, or at least he seemed too. Maybe he was a far greater actor than I knew, but I do not think you could act the kind of compassion, goodness, and decency I saw in Robin Williams.
Strangely, cinema never really found a way to deal with his explosive talents as a comic, only Aladdin (1992) came close. Allowing Williams to improvise was both genius and dangerous as his brilliant off-the-cuff comments might surpass what the writer had written for him. When he won his Academy Award on his fourth and final nomination as the kindly psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting (1997), was it a surprise it came for a dramatic role? Not for me, as Williams had shone so bright in dramatic roles. Never forget he was a classically trained actor, at Juilliard, a classmate and lifelong friend of Christopher Reeve, so he knew his way around drama.
The finest performance I saw Williams give was as a gentle doctor, based on Dr. Oliver Saks, in the superb medical film Awakenings (1990). As Dr. Malcolm Sayer, Williams portrays a man happiest in a research lab, but finds himself working with living human beings in a hospital in Brooklyn, New York in 1969. Quiet, painfully shy, his greatest joy is coming home at night to a massive book on plants delivered to his home, where he will spend his night reading the book, learning, taking it all in. Yet Dr. Sayer finds it difficult to make a human connection, happier with plants, mould, and his experiments.
Treating catatonic patients, he comes to realize their reflexes suggest they are not catatonic at all, but aware of everything around them. Sayer comes to believe that the drug L-DOPA might benefit some patients he believes are frozen, trapped in their bodies for 30 or more years. Sure enough, some emerge from their long sleep to see extraordinary changes in the world and themselves. Sayer befriends one in particular, Leonard (Robert De Niro), and shares the joy of awakening the man, just as he shares the tragedy of a Leonard reversing, and again entering his catatonic state.
Williams is exceptional, very quietly becoming the soul of the film with his hope and sharing that hope with others. Dedicated but lonely, he sits sadly eating his lunch surrounded by greenery in a greenhouse, sadly in his solitude. His haunted realization of what the lives of his patients have been while frozen is heartbreaking, as they are more like his beloved plants than he realized. Alive, but vegetative. He watches with barely contained glee as they explode to life, but then sadly sees them revert to their frozen state.
Dr. Sayer is a true friend to Leonard, even when the patient sinks into dangerous paranoia, trusting no one. The good doctor learns from Leonard too, finally asking the nurse with a crush on him, portrayed to perfection by Julie Kavner, out for coffee.
Nothing manic, nothing fast paced, no riffing, nothing remotely forced, the actor slips under the skin of the kind and decent man to bring to life a compassionate doctor who truly cares for his patients.
Great acting, the greatest performances are those most truthful, those that reflect life and society. Williams captured that to startling perfection in Awakenings, and richly deserved the Academy Award for Best Actor. This was his finest screen performance in a career filled with great work.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.