What Made Robin Williams a Uniquely Expressive Actor: A Video Essay Explores a Subtle Dimension of His Comic Genius

“He had admir­ers but no imi­ta­tors,” writes Dave Itzkoff in Robin, his new biog­ra­phy of Robin Williams. “No one com­bined the pre­cise set of tal­ents he had in the same alchem­i­cal pro­por­tions.” Though Itzkof­f’s book has received a great deal of acclaim, many fans may still feel that impor­tant ele­ments of Williams’ par­tic­u­lar genius remain less than ful­ly under­stood. Schol­ars of com­e­dy will sure­ly con­tin­ue to scru­ti­nize the beloved comic’s per­sona for decades to come, just as they have over the past four years since his death. The cin­e­ma-ana­lyz­ing video essay series Every Frame a Paint­ing pro­duced one of the first such exam­i­na­tions of Williams’ tech­nique, “Robin Williams — In Motion,” and its insight still holds up today.

“Few actors could express them­selves as well through motion,” nar­ra­tor Tony Zhou says of Williams, “whether that motion was big or small. Even when he was doing the same move­ment in two dif­fer­ent scenes, you could see the sub­tle vari­a­tions he brought to the arc of the char­ac­ter.” This goes for Williams’ man­ic, impres­sion laden per­for­mances as well as his low-key, slow-burn­ing ones. “To watch his work,” Zhou says over a mon­tage of enter­tain­ing exam­ples, “is to see the sub­tle thing that an actor can do with his hands, his mouth, his right leg, and his facepalm. Robin Williams’ work is an ency­clo­pe­dia of ways that an actor can express him­self through move­ment, and he was for­tu­nate to work with film­mak­ers who used his tal­ents to their fullest.”

Those film­mak­ers includ­ed Bar­ry Levin­son (Good Morn­ing Viet­namToysMan of the Year), Peter Weir (Dead Poets Soci­ety), Ter­ry Gilliam (The Adven­tures of Baron Mun­chausenThe Fish­er King), and Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunt­ing). Zhou cred­its them and oth­ers with let­ting Williams “play it straight through” rather than adher­ing to the more com­mon stop-start shoot­ing method that only per­mits a few sec­onds of act­ing at a time; they gave him “some­thing phys­i­cal to do,” with­out which his skill with motion could­n’t come through in the first place; they used “block­ing,” mean­ing the arrange­ment of the actors in the space of the scene, “to tell their sto­ry visu­al­ly”; they “let him lis­ten,” a lit­tle-acknowl­edged but nonethe­less impor­tant part of a per­for­mance, espe­cial­ly a Williams per­for­mance.

Final­ly, these direc­tors “did­n’t let per­fec­tion get in the way of inspi­ra­tion.” While the qual­i­ty of the indi­vid­ual works in Williams’ impres­sive­ly large fil­mog­ra­phy may vary, his per­for­mances in them are almost all unfail­ing­ly com­pelling. Even dur­ing his life­time Williams was described as a com­ic genius, and he showed us that com­ic genius­es have to take risks. And even though every risk he took might not have paid off, his body of work, tak­en as a whole, teach­es us a les­son: “Be open. This was a man who impro­vised many of his most icon­ic moments. Maybe he was on to some­thing.” Or as Williams him­self put it on an Inside the Actors Stu­dio inter­view, “When the stuff real­ly hits you, it’s usu­al­ly some­thing that hap­pened, and it hap­pened then. That’s what film is about: cap­tur­ing a moment.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Robin Williams Uses His Stand-Up Com­e­dy Genius to Deliv­er a 1983 Com­mence­ment Speech

Steve Mar­tin & Robin Williams Riff on Math, Physics, Ein­stein & Picas­so in a Heady Com­e­dy Rou­tine (2002)

Robin Williams & Bob­by McFer­rin Sing Fun Cov­er of The Bea­t­les’ “Come Togeth­er”

A Salute to Every Frame a Paint­ing: Watch All 28 Episodes of the Fine­ly-Craft­ed (and Now Con­clud­ed) Video Essay Series on Cin­e­ma

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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