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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