Prior to becoming a sitcom star and one of the hottest stand-up comics in America, Robin Williams was an aspiring dramatic actor, trained at Juilliard, and to a significant degree Williams’ career over the past 35 years has been defined by his desire to be taken seriously as a thespian, and not just remembered as Mork from Ork, or that fast-talking comedian who makes jokes about his penis. Egged on by critics who complained that his early films like Popeye and The World According To Garp didn’t make the best use of his quick wit and ebullience, Williams has sought out projects that let him be “himself,” which has meant being both improvisatory and serious. The result—almost from the start—has been movies split between heavy-handed messages and incongruous silliness.
At the time of its release in late 1987, Good Morning, Vietnam was hailed as the perfect match of actor and role. Playing real-life Vietnam-era Armed Forces Radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, Williams was given license to riff, free-associating about politics and popular culture, not unlike one of his own concerts. But just as Williams’ shtick no longer seems as electrifying as it once did, so Good Morning, Vietnam becomes almost painful to watch whenever Williams is behind the microphone, tossing out slogans and names and impressions with little regard for whether they cohere into anything like a joke—let alone the kind of joke anyone would be telling in 1965. (Making matters worse, director Barry Levinson keeps cutting to soldiers in hysterics at Williams’ antics, which is the visual equivalent to a laugh track.) Mitch Markowitz’s script then takes a turn to the maudlin as Williams risks dishonorable discharge by getting involved in the lives of the locals and by delivering censored news reports about what’s really going on in Vietnam.
Williams is at his best in Good Morning, Vietnam when he’s pitched between manic and earnest: when he’s reacting to his castmates, who actually are funny. Levinson has a knack for the comedy of guys just sitting around jawing, and whenever Good Morning, Vietnam focuses on Forest Whitaker, Richard Edson, and Robert Wuhl giving the business to their superior officers Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh (both of whom are hilarious in their own way), the movie becomes the subtle, amusing rebuke of military stuffiness that it always should’ve been. Too much of Good Morning, Vietnam, though, is self-congratulatory without giving any real reason for the applause.
Williams was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for Good Morning, Vietnam, then was nominated again in the same category two years later for Dead Poets Society, a film in which he has roughly a half-hour of screen time out of 128 minutes. Written by Tom Schulman (based loosely on his prep school experiences in Nashville, Tennessee) and directed by Peter Weir (on assignment from Disney/Touchstone head Jeffrey Katzenberg while Weir was waiting to make Green Card), Dead Poets Society was a small piece of summer counter-programming that became an unexpected blockbuster, as audiences responded to its story of high school boys learning to be non-conformists on the cusp of the ’60s. Schulman’s script is way too pat in its depiction of idealistic souls being squelched by stern parents and crusty headmasters, but the young actors—led by Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, and Josh Charles—are all extraordinary, and Weir and cinematographer John Seale imbue the campus and its environs with the feel of an old myth, playing out with dark inevitability.
As for Williams, he’s more restrained in Dead Poets Society than he is in Good Morning, Vietnam, though again, whenever his iconoclastic English teacher starts putting on a show for his students—imitating Marlon Brando, for example, or mocking a coldly academic approach to literature—he comes off less like a character in a period drama set in 1959 and more like Robin Williams in 1989, giving his fans what they’d come to expect. That’s only an issue inasmuch as his style contrasts with Weir’s, which is more about emphasizing the pimply gawkiness of the boys, comparing them to lost, squawking birds. Williams is playing the vague rebellion of “carpe diem,” while Weir is showing how these kids are courting real trouble whenever they sneak out at night to their cave to smoke cigarettes and talk about girls. The movie never satisfactorily resolves that tension—but then neither has Williams, even today.
Key features: Detailed behind-the-scenes material (including longer Williams monologues) on the new Vietnam Blu-ray; fawning featurettes and a thoughtful Weir/Schulman/Seale commentary track on Dead Poets.