Here are some words I thought I’d never write. I find myself in agreement with Barry Norman.
For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Barry Norman was the best-known and no doubt most influential film critic in Britain for a quarter-century. From 1972 until 1998 – a period when, for much of the time, most British people had access to only a handful of terrestrial TV channels, the Internet didn’t exist and newspaper coverage of new cinema releases was limited to one page of reviews on a Friday – he presented a weekly film-review programme, as well as occasional cinematically-themed documentary shows like The Hollywood Greats, on the BBC. Thanks to his regular telly appearances, he was for a long time Mr Movies as far as the British public was concerned.
For me, however, he was a conservative, prudish, play-it-safe old fart who seemed to epitomise everything I hated about the British film-critic establishment of the era. British films were only seen to be good if they were either socialistic kitchen-sink dramas set on housing estates or expensive costume epics set in the glory days of the British Empire – everything had to follow in the slipstream of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Lawrence of Arabia. Anything, British or otherwise, that tried to be unusual or different or fantastical was treated with the sort of benign condescension that adults usually bestow on small children who are babbling nonsense. Anything that pushed the boundaries of acceptability was distasteful. Horror films – one of my favourite genres, Barry’s least favourite one – were detestable. I sometimes got the impression that Barry and his counterparts in the British press didn’t actually like films very much. They thought far too many movies were immature and childish, and they could be unsavoury or even dangerous if they weren’t kept firmly in their place.
This past week, poor old Barry – who keeps his oar in both with the film world and with the BBC by writing a column for the Radio Times – has found himself at the centre of a shit-storm. He wrote a column in which he opined that the recently, tragically-departed comedian and comic actor Robin Williams had an “enormous talent which, if not exactly unfulfilled, could sometimes be spread so thinly as to be almost invisible.” Williams, he conceded, had made some good films but also “a plenitude of bad ones. Well, every actor makes bad films occasionally but what was remarkable about Williams was not that he was good in the good ones but that he was so very bad in the bad ones.” And he attributed this problem to the fact that Williams seemed addicted to making unrelentingly feel-good movies, to peddling “saccharine, tooth-rotting sentimentality.”
The column promptly drew a flurry of angry responses from people who thought he was wantonly despoiling Williams’ memory. It was considered so newsworthy that it was soon being reported in newspapers like the Guardian and the Telegraph – whose comments threads quickly filled with equally-angry posts. “F**k off Barry Norman” was one measured reaction in the Guardian. In a cinematic context, I don’t think I’ve seen so much opprobrium and disgust heaped on someone or something since, oh, old Barry himself reviewed David Cronenberg’s The Brood in 1979.
Well, I suppose one could argue that Barry, although he’s entitled to his opinion, was out of order to harp on about the weaknesses in Robin Williams’ back catalogue so soon after the man’s death. Then again, when creative people die and obituaries appear in newspapers – including the Guardian and the Telegraph – it’s usually considered fair play for obituarists to point out the deceased’s failures as well as his or her successes. When Michael Winner – a filmmaker about whom the kindest thing that can be said is that much of his oeuvre was not terribly good – popped his clogs early last year, nobody tried to claim that Winner’s films were brilliant out of consideration for the feelings of his family and friends.
It grieves me to say so but, in my opinion, Barry Norman was right about Robin William’s film output. There came a time in the 1990s when his output seemed to consist of nothing but toe-curlingly sugary, openly manipulative schmaltz-fests and / or juvenile fantasies in which he played naïve, lovable man-children: Hook (1991), Toys (1992), Jumanji (1995), Jack (1996), What Dreams May Come (1998), Patch Adams (1998), Bicentennial Man (1999)… Even in more acclaimed films, like Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Awakenings (1990) and Mrs Doubtfire (1993), I sensed there was a huge reservoir of sentimentality lurking nearby, ready to swamp proceedings if the slush-gates suddenly burst open. Mrs Doubtfire, in fact, captures the Williams dichotomy perfectly. Playing the title character, the eccentric nanny with the prim Scottish accent – this being a Hollywood movie, of course, everyone assumes she’s from England – he’s a comic delight. When he’s playing the despondent dad who wants to be near his kids, the ‘power of family’ message and the sentimentality generally are cranked up to eleven.
I find What Dreams May Come, a fantasy-weepie about the soul of a dead man searching heaven and hell for his wife, particularly depressing. As well as squandering Williams’ talents, it’s based on a 1983 novel by Richard Matheson, who’d once been one of the sharpest and most innovative horror and fantasy writers around. However, by 1983, Matheson had lost his grit and this novel is the new-age literary equivalent of comfort food. Meanwhile, it’s no surprise that in Cecil B. Demented, the anti-Hollywood satire that John Waters made in 2000, there’s a scene where the independent-film-loving terrorists led by Stephen Dorff attack a cinema that’s showing Patch Adams: The Director’s Cut.
I think one problem was that too often Williams got partnered with directors like Steven Spielberg, Penny Marshall and Chris Columbus, who didn’t always seem aware that ‘feel-good’ didn’t necessarily equal ‘good’. And it’s interesting that when Williams worked with Terry Gilliam in 1991 – Gilliam had had his fair share of strife from the big studios with films like Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and no doubt by then took a more cynical view of things – the result was a genuinely endearing and special movie, The Fisher King.
By the late 1990s, I’d formed a film-going rule. If I was approaching a cinema and saw a film-poster that had Robin Williams’ name on it, I’d immediately give that cinema a body-swerve. (I’d developed a similar rule about Hugh Grant.) However, I was glad that in 2002 I forced myself into a cinema to watch Christopher Nolan’s excellent thriller Insomnia. In it, Williams plays against type and is surprisingly effective as a murderous psycho, up against Al Pacino’s sleep-deprived cop in Alaska. By this time, Williams must’ve realised that his career was drowning in a vat of schmaltz and he needed to drastically change direction, for in the same year he played another deranged character in the psychological thriller One Hour Photo.
Anyway, the real villain here isn’t Barry Norman. It’s a Hollywood studio system that, for most of the time, proved itself clueless about how to properly harness and package William’s talents as a stand-up comedian for the big screen – and if you’ve seen footage of Williams doing stand-up, you’ll agree that those talents were prodigious. Alas, Williams was not alone in this predicament. After he’d swapped the stage for the film studio, Steve Martin got a decent string of movies during the 1980s – The Man with Two Brains (1982), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), All of Me (1984), Roxanne (1987), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) – but you’d have to be a masochist to find pleasure in most of the Martin films that’ve come since. Father of the Bride (1991)? Sergeant Bilko (1995)? Cheaper by the Dozen (2003)? The Pink Panther (2006)? Such movies are pain on a stick. Eddie Murphy’s period of grace was even briefer. He was great in 48 Hours (1982) and Trading Places (1983), but even by 1984 and Beverley Hills Cop the rot was starting to set in. And many unfunny, formulaic duds ensued.
Perhaps the best a stand-up comic can hope for is to do what Billy Connolly has done – he’s kept his stage career going whilst making the occasional movie on the side. Mind you, I can think of one person who’s bucked the stand-up-comic-good / movie-actor-bad trend. I thought Andrew Dice Clay was an odious, racist knob-end when he struck gold with his stand-up career in the 1980s. However, I saw him in a supporting role in last year’s Woody Allen-directed movie Blue Jasmine and found myself, to my astonishment, quite liking him.
But returning to Robin Williams – the best thing you can do to honour his memory is throw those DVDs of various dodgy 1990s comedy movies into the bin and, instead, watch some of his great, vintage stand-up material on youtube. (The moments where his unhinged comedy genius erupts during a 2001 interview on the American cable show Inside the Actor’s Studio are remarkable too.) Yes, screw Patch Adams and Mrs Doubtfire. Remember the man this way.