Feature: Remembering Robin Williams via his 5 best serious roles

good will hunting

Originally published on The National Student on 11/08/15. 

On 11th August 2014, beloved comedy actor Robin Williams was found dead at his home in California, aged 63 – the result of an apparent suicide.

One year on, the world still mourns the loss of one of its most important and talented entertainers, a man who had come to master every emotion in the cinematic arsenal. Whilst it is understandably his comedic roles which earned Williams the most praise, he also left behind a wealth of more serious, human performances that are often forgotten due to his generally hilarious nature.

An Oscar winner and frequent nominee, Williams certainly left his mark on the dramatic side of the cinematic spectrum. So without much further ado, here are the five roles which showcased his most thoughtful performances:

1. Insomnia (2002)

Before the billion-dollar days of Batman and his sci-fi empire, Christopher Nolan directed this low-key murder mystery remake and cast none other than Robin Williams as the film’s antagonist – the mentally disturbed crime writer Walter Finch. Despite a seriously haunting performance from Al Pacino’s lead, it was in fact Williams’ role as the softly-spoken murderer which turned the most heads, showing off a far more restrained and thoughtful side to his acting abilities. Insomnia is often forgotten as a relatively standard thriller in the wake of Nolan’s later success, but for Williams alone this one is worthy of your time.

2. Awakenings (1990)

Swiftly following his second Academy Award nomination, Williams starred opposite the legendary Robert DeNiro in this heavy-hitting medical drama based loosely on the memoirs of famed British neurologist Oliver Sacks. Williams stars as a fictionalized American version of Sacks, a dedicated physician looking to help cure a number of catatonic patients through the use of an experimental drug. Awakenings is certainly a more grounded role for Williams, but it is his chemistry with DeNiro’s ‘awakened’ patient Leonard that really marks this one as a must-see for fans of his work.

3. One Hour Photo (2002)

A definite departure from his usual persona, Mark Romanek’s psychological thriller stars Williams as lonely photo-lab technician Sy, a mild-mannered workaholic who gradually develops an obsession with a local family whom he frequently prints photos for. The film’s plot leaves Sy gradually spiralling out of control mentally and gives Williams a definitive platform for presenting the more sinister side to his abilities. It’s certainly not for the faint hearted, but One Hour Photo is a truly excellent glimpse at a completely different style of performance from Williams.

4. Dead Poets Society (1989)

Arguably one of his most famous roles, this 1950s set boarding-school drama finds Williams as inspirational English teacher John Keating, an educational maverick who encourages his students to make their lives extraordinary through some rather unconventional teaching methods. Although referenced and parodied time and time again, the underlying messages held within Dead Poets Society still ring unbelievably true, and that’s almost entirely down to Williams’ sheer heartfelt charisma within the role. There’s no escaping his relentless enthusiasm for well and truly seizing the day.

5. Good Will Hunting (1997)

This multi-Oscar winning dramatic treat from the creative minds of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck plays host to possibly Williams’ finest performance of all. As the wise and sensationally witty therapist to Damon’s troubled youth, Williams leans on his more sensitive side, creating a warm, honest and truly unforgettable character who teaches both Damon and indeed us, the power of both personal choice and true love. Much like his turn in Dead Poets Society, it’s nearly impossible to leave this film having not been truly touched by Williams’ kind spirit and incredible acting ability.


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