During this journey through Robin Williams’ filmography, I have uncovered things about the actor I never knew and meanwhile have discovered things about myself as well. Something remarkable about the presence of Williams is the way he carries these emotional moments in a film with a delicate hand. He lies in a fuzzy area of absurd and sentimental. No two films I think better show Williams’ depth more than Terry Gilliam’s 1991 The Fisher King and Ron Clements and John Musker’s 1992 Disney animated film, Aladdin. In these films, Williams’ talents and power as an artist are at their best: mesmerizing and provocative. A strange and obscure 1990’s Gilliam film and a Disney animation may not on the surface be all that similar, but they both were places for Williams to explore the human existence, to try to figure out others, all while figuring out himself.
Williams has already flexed his range as an actor, from serious roles in Good Will Hunting to his sillier and looser one in Flubber; it was no surprise to me as to the depth Williams went in his roles here. The Fisher King, an adaptation on the myth of the same name, shows Williams playing Parry, a homeless man reeling from a traumatic accident that saw the death of his wife. Throughout the film, Parry deals with withdraws and PTSD, but it isn’t until his romance with Lydia (Amanda Plummer) grows and blossoms that he begins to find himself. In this relationship, The Fisher King reaches its most touching and strange moment among its myriad of strange scenes and moments. Delicate and humane, the four main characters share a real and touching dinner together where love is not only seen but is felt.
Williams ties so many of these moments together through his actions or inactions. He operates as a facilitator for change for other characters, but as much as he is a facilitator for change for Jack or even Aladdin, he is a character in need of just as much change. Parry goes through something specific that we may not have experienced, but it is this drive and determination for love and his task of aiding Jack Lucas in his own redemption that touches you.
As for Aladdin, the levels and ways in which Williams’ humanity is displayed is more complicated. A role that is already complicated by disputes between Disney and Williams, it is challenging to find comfort like in other roles, but the Genie in Aladdin may be one of Williams’ most comforting characters. Certainly, one of the highlights of the film, the fact Williams is able to achieve the same kinds of success through just his voice, shows his power as an actor.
Additionally, The Genie is just as much a catalyst for change as Parry in The Fisher King. Aladdin is clouded by his insecurity around his poverty, and it is through and only through The Genie that he is able to overcome this. What is most effective about Williams’ performance is actually his own need for change. Like Aladdin, The Genie is trapped in his life. Bound to the lamp, The Genie dreams of freedom, the same way Parry, bound to his PTSD, dreams of being with Lydia.
I don’t think it is any mistake that these characters reflect similar traits and personalities. It is especially helpful in knowing these two films came out a year apart. Williams’ draw to roles like The Genie and Parry certainly reflects the issues and problems he wanted to explore as an artist at the time: the comfort and helping of others and himself. I think like any art form, acting just as much works as a medium which can be used as a form of therapy for the self. I know that writing for me can be a way of healing for myself and exploring Williams’ filmography has been one of my favorite writing projects. Exploring Williams’ films, especially in a time and world where things seem so dark and grim, has helped me in seeing a light and better side of the world. Williams has that powerful of an effect. He truly is a comfort actor and one who has a real and meaningful impact on his audience.
Thank you for your post, really interesting! It’s always nice to read about such a great actor, and in this case you mentioned one movie that was very important for me as I grew up (and Williams’ character is the key for the rhythm and the enjoyment of the movie), and one real masterpiece directed by Terry Gilliam! I wrote about The fisher king here, if you want to have a look: