What has been remarkable as I revisit older comedies is their contemporary resonance. Films like Sullivan’s Travels or anything by Chaplin still feels so relevant decades later. That is what good films do, they transcend their time and speak to a greater and deeper human truth. They are personal and detailed to their time, yet honest and true to all of life. Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage, released in 1996, feels like a fierce and timely comedy that very easily could have been released just last year. Beneath the social satire, The Birdcage is a touching and intimate family drama that revolves around a complex father-son relationship but doing so with a moving force that is wide-ranging and intimate all at the same time.
Turning then to Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, released just a year after The Birdcage, is a story that feels just as relevant and honest, in its own ways. Exploring interactions between East Coast liberal elites and their lower class rivals—boys from Southie—Good Will Hunting, 21 years later, still feels innovative and beautiful. From sharp directing to jaw-dropping performances, its impact is just as strong as The Birdcage, although achieved in a different way.
Bringing these two surprisingly similar films into the discussion of Robin Williams sheds light on the actor and the roles he wanted to play in the mid to late ’90s. Both Sean from Good Will Hunting and Armand in The Birdcage are played with unsurprising complexity and depth, for Williams, whom I feel many see as a silly character actor. By no means should Williams be disregarded as an acting force. Yes, Good Will Hunting earned the late actor an Oscar win, but his role in The Birdcage was just as, if not even more, profound and deep as Sean.
He was an actor who took his roles very seriously and had a deep thought process when considering a role. Armand is a father who is willing to hide his sexuality to help his son out. He goes as far as nearly destroying his relationship with his partner, Albert, played amazingly by Nathan Lane. The cause and ultimately the failure of it is by no means glamorous. It is excruciating and hard to watch as Williams struggles with trying to contain his real self all for the love of his child, but it is that complexity and intricacy of character that Williams wrestles with in this film that makes the role so stellar.
Good Will Hunting is Williams’ most acclaimed role, and for good reason. The Van Sant film explores its characters in an unflinching light. It focuses on Matt Damon’s Will and Williams’ Sean characters, who need one another, more than any two other characters in a film. We watch this father-son-like relationship grow, struggle, blossom, evolve. The film demonstrates how flawed and real these two men are, reveals the damage each has and the healing needed. They both find, or are on their way to finding, real happiness by the end of the film. We don’t see them achieve anything grand or discover something life-altering, but the story’s purpose is to begin that process. To begin to find your unique purpose.
Williams’ character in each of film tries to comfort and heal his children, biological or not. He helps his loved one overcome grief, an internal flaw, or fight external obstacles. Sean and Armand both use their power to change those around them to try and heal themselves. Williams exercises a deep understanding of himself, in the way he contextualizes these characters into breathing and believable roles on the screen.
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