Egypt Today’s resident entertainment critic weighs in on the iconic actor’s legacy
by Sherif Awad
I got the sad news about the death of Robin Williams last night from the comments by my Facebook friends. Many of them were sad because Robin Williams’ comic film roles were part of their childhood and teen memories while others were devastated because this great comedian reportedly ended his life because of depression.
Many of the great comedians are not funny in real life. They generate laughs on stage and on film, make people happy but, at the end of day, they suffer from great sadness stored in their hearts. Some of the most famous actors — including Charlie Chaplain, Peter Sellars, John Belushi and Richard Pryor — battled depression.
Even in Egypt, some of our comedians died in sadness: Naguib El-Rehany is most remembered in the scenes where he was generating tears in his few films, while Ismael Yassin died penniless after sinking a fortune into his theatrical troupe. Most recently Said Saleh died alone in hospital, with his burial service sparsely attended.
A great comic has a photographic memory where he keeps the daily sorrows of his own people to project later in his work. I invite people to discover Robin William’s non-comic roles because, to me, he was a great dramatic actor, someone like Jack Lemmon in the United States, Jean-Paul Belmondo in France or Alberto Sordi in Italy, who after creating a repertoire of hilarious comic roles excelled as great dramatic actors. Let’s not forget that Williams, nominated four times for an Academy Award, won the coveted Oscar for a non-comic role in 1997’s great drama Good Will Hunting.
I first discovered Williams through the Cairo International Film Festival, when I was trying to watch the Oscar-nominated dramas Awakenings in 1990 and The Fisher King in 1991. That led me to discover his earlier serious work, and I sought out Dead Poets Society (1989) and The World According to Garp (1982) because they got very good reviews.
Williams became famous in Egypt for his comic genius, though, winning local hearts as the voice of the genie in Disney’s Aladdin (1992), the elderly babysitter Mrs. Doubtfire in the 1993 comic blockbuster of the same name, and the funny Russian gynecologist in Nine Months (1995). Williams also was hilarious in his standup comic performances, and I encourage his admirers to search YouTube or DVDs to watch his great comic improvisation on stage and his incredible spontaneity as a guest in American talk shows.
For some of his psychologically driven performances, we must watch again One Hour Photo (2002), The Final Cut (2004), The Night Listener (2006), and of course Insomnia (2002) where he played a villainous killer opposite Al Pacino. The latter is a film I admire a lot for its script and settings and the direction by Christopher Nolan, one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers.
I was working in film distribution when Patch Adams (1998), based on a true story, came to Egyptian theaters. As the title character, Williams played a medical student who defies the medical establishment by treating patients with humor. Looking back on the film now, it seems ironic: Williams played a real-life doctor who used laughs to heal people, but laughs could not heal the great comedian himself.
Our Egyptian director Khairy Beshara once said he loved cinema because “Cinema makes a moment become eternity.” Those words apply to every moment of Robin Williams’ art.