Robin Williams is one of the greatest comedians, actors, and personalities of all-time. Williams is one of the rare performers who has never not been memorable; even in his worst films, it’s unlikely that you will forget what Williams contributed. Of course, Williams’ unprecedented career as a standup made him a comedy titan. Listing out Williams’ string of classic comedies would be laborious, because he successfully found a new audience with each generation of film fans.
It’s a popular trend nowadays for inherently comedic actors to “de-glamorize” themselves to give more dramatic performances, but Williams has never been afraid to tackle more serious material. Between Good Will Hunting, Awakenings, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam, Insomnia, The Fisher King, and Dead Again, Williams’ dramatic achievements have been as notable as his comedic career. What’s remarkable is that in all of those films, Williams never loses his singular energy. He never felt like he was backing away from who he is; he plays larger-than-life characters, who take on different forms based on the film’s tone.
Robin Williams as a Dramatic Actor
This is why Williams’ breakout role in the 1982 classic The World According To Garp is such a fascinating chapter within his career. It was Williams’ third film ever, following an appearance in the sketch comedy anthology Can I Do It… ‘Til I Need Glasses? and the titular role in Robert Altman’s Popeye (one of the rare misses from one of the industry’s greatest filmmakers). The World According To Garp is a charming, old-fashioned coming-of-age story about a writer chronicling his adventures, and using his experiences to craft his stories. However, it’s not T.S. Garp (Williams) himself who is larger-than-life; it’s the world and characters that surround him.
Williams was asked to do something that he had never done before, and rarely did since. He’s specifically not the scene-stealer, as the more interesting roles were given to Glenn Close and John Lithgow (both of whom received Academy Award nominations). Garp is a charming young man with big dreams, and fits the mold of the young hero archetype to a T. He takes the people that have influenced him, and turns them into characters. While his readers may have imagined that these are because of his amazing imagination, Garp’s coming-of-age saga is fairly relatable.
However, Williams isn’t acting as the source of Garp’s stories. It is strange to see Williams, who is best known for his infectious energy, acting as an observer, and not an instigator. However, The World According To Garp serves as an example of Williams’ understated ability to latch on to something that the audience can invest in. Even at his wildest, Williams has always been able to make his characters feel distinctly human. The genie from Aladdin is working toward an empathetic dream, Peter Pan has to accept his childhood in Hook, and even Mrs. Doubtfire has a warmth and sensitivity to her. In The World According To Garp, Williams exemplifies the relatable qualities that he’s always had, and shows he doesn’t need to dial things up to 11 in order to make them work.
The Life of Garp
It’s Williams’ attention to detail (and the old-fashioned texture of director George Roy Hill) that make Garp’s childhood so interesting. The film follows Garp as he goes through all the challenges of growing up; he explores his sexuality, competes in his school’s wrestling team, and ultimately, finds his passion for storytelling. Williams is remarkably tender throughout these scenes. Outside of one extended comedic bit where Garp runs up and down the stairs to impress his love interest, Helen Holm (Mary Beth Hunt), it’s an understated performance. Garp isn’t looking for stories; they just tend to surround him.
Garp’s worldview is dominated by the unique perspective of his mother, Jenny Fields (Close). Jenny is a passionate feminist activist, and develops studies into the role of women’s sexuality and bodily autonomy. Garp’s upbringing certainly makes him less toxic than most boys of his age are, even if he’s somewhat embarrassed by his mother’s interests. Garp is humiliated when Jenny hires him a prostitute in order for him to “let out” his sexual urges. He’s even more flustered when she uses it for a clinical study. It’s inadvertently odd to see Williams have to reckon with someone who is weirder, braver, and more curious than he is.
Williams is incredibly judicious in his scenes with Close. While he latches on to Garp’s childhood resentment for his mother’s strictness, he shows that beneath his teenage angst there is real love. Garp’s desire to write comes from his mother, even if she dismisses his interest in fiction as superfluous. As his career as a writer takes off and he marries Helen, Garp takes the time to regularly return to visit his mother. Even if he’s just sighing and shaking his head that his mother still manages to be so productive, Williams shows that he’s privileged to be sharing the screen with Close’s character. You can feel Garp’s affection for Jenny through Williams’ respect for Close; he doesn’t try to upstage her.
In a later scene, he becomes furious when he learns that his wife is having an affair. The “man flipping out because his wife is cheating on him” scene could have easily been mishandled (and so often is), but Williams shows that beneath Garp’s fury is genuine heartbreak, and not ego. He asks himself what he is doing wrong, and not directing his fury singularly at Helen. However, his planned confrontation ends up causing an inadvertent tragedy. When Garp accidentally crashes into his wife’s lover’s car, his son Walt is killed. Given all that we have learned about how seriously Garp takes his relationships, seeing Williams instantly turn from a spurned husband to a grieving father is absolutely devastating.
The World According To Garp is definitely a product of the era in which it was released, and its earnest (but unfortunately outdated) depiction of the transgender character Roberta Muldoon (Lithgow) plays differently within a modern context. That being said, Williams does a great job at showing Garp’s emerging interest in the feminist movement without stigmatizing it. There’s another scene toward the end which could have easily been very problematic. Garp tries to sneak into the exclusively female funeral for his mother, who was assassinated. Garp’s initial frustration that he is not allowed in isn’t out of anger toward the feminists, but because he simply wants to mourn the woman who raised him. Williams makes this complex sequence work without turning it into an indictment or a caricature.
The World According To Garp wasn’t the star turn from Williams that his fans may have expected, but it’s one of his most important roles. Williams was able to grant authenticity to a story that only works with sincerity. Of all of his versatile roles, the one where he plays a normal guy is remarkably one of the standouts.