In the wake of Robin Williams’ self-inflicted passing on August 11th this year many of us were moved to make some kind of comment in tribute. Indeed, rarely has an outpouring of grief for a superstar of any kind been so sincere and lacking in petty hate. There were no poor-taste jokes about his suicide, no dissenting voices (not that I heard anyway) talking wrongly about how over-rated he was, no cynicism or dismissive sarcasm as there often can be after a celebrity dies.
Instead, most of us were moved to recall our favourite performances. And let’s face it, everyone has one whether it be the crazy fast-talking Genie in Aladdin…
…a grown up Peter Pan in Hook…
…or an imaginatively unorthodox English teacher in Dead Poet’s Society…
I absolutely loved him in all of these films, and what you get in them are three very different performances. Williams is best remembered, and understandably so, for his quick-fire comic wit, a wildly inventive and freewheeling talent for comedy which astounded and amazed. In fact, he was a performer of sweeping range able to create emotionally nuanced characters.
My favourite Williams film displays all of that, and that film is Good Morning, Vietnam.
The original idea for the film came from the original Adrian Cronauer, who had written a script based on his own experiences. However, once the script was picked up by scriptwriter Mitch Markowitz little of Cronauer’s ideas remained. In reality, Cronauer never did comedy on his show, this being a creative decision after deciding to build the film around Williams, who completely improvised all of the famous broadcasting scenes.
It’s easy to forget that this was only his fourth film role. In 1987, Williams was still mostly famous for playing a stranded alien in the hit TV show Mork & Mindy and also for his brilliant stand-up comedy. GMV was the movie that really established him as a major star more than capable of holding his own as a Hollywood leading man. It affirmed his comic genius, but also allowed him to show a much broader range, bringing genuine pathos to the scenes involving the object of his affections Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana) and her Vietcong operative brother Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran).
The film as a whole never trivialises the Vietnam war, and this was part of the appeal for Williams who said “I thought the script made a great effort to show the Vietnamese as people rather than ‘the enemy.’ They have families and needs … they laugh and play and are afraid, just like everyone else.” These elements of the film are ultimately what gives the film depth and stops it from simply being a vehicle for a comic performance.
That said, the film is still rightly celebrated for those radio broadcast scenes, and not only for the dazzling improvisations of Williams, but also for the very sharp 60’s soundtrack that accompanies them. ‘Nowhere To Run’ by Martha & the Vandellas, ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’ by Them, ‘Game of Love’ by Wayne Fontana and ‘I Feel Good’ by James Brown all make memorable appearances in the film and the soundtrack conveys the feeling of the mid-60’s perfectly.
My favourite musical moment in the film comes near the end. Set to an unflinching montage of the violence and insanity of war-time life is ‘What A Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong. The dreamy sunniness of the music creates a perfect juxtaposition with the harsh reality being portrayed. it’s heart-wrenching and leaves you a little breathless no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
Robin Williams was a complex character. A man gifted with a unique comic imagination, he was also plagued by depression and alcoholism. He bought light and laughter to millions but ultimately couldn’t conquer the darkness that dwelled inside him.
What we get in GMV is that too – the light and the shade. It’s a movie that showcases one of the greatest comic actors of all time, but simultaneously never flinches from bringing us the horror of the war in which it is set. The darkness allows us to properly appreciate the brilliant light, and that’s as true of this film as it is of Williams’ career, and ultimately as it is of the man himself.