The Role That Defined Robin Williams for Another Generation

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 11 2014 8:39 PM

The Role That Defined Robin Williams for Another Generation

Robin_Williams_Genie_Aladdin
The Genie in Aladdin.

© 1992 Walt Disney Productions

Robin Williams had such a long and varied and iconic career over the last four decades that whole generations will remember him differently. For many who watched TV in the late ’70s and early ’80s, they will remember him most as Mork—the performance that earned Williams his first Golden Globe. (He won six.) For movie fans from the ’80s, they may remember him as the wiseass DJ Adrian Cronauer from Good Morning, Vietnam—the performance that gave Williams the first of his four Oscar nominations. For others, he’ll always be John Keating from Dead Poets Society—“Oh captain, my captain!”—or the wise, sad Dr. Sean Maguire from Good Will Hunting (the role for which he won Best Supporting Actor).

Advertisement

But for many in my generation, they will remember Williams most as a man with gold bracelets, blue skin, and no legs. I speak, of course, of his movie-stealing portrayal of the Genie in 1992’s Aladdin.

As strange as it may seem, the Genie was in many ways the perfect role for Williams. Williams excelled at impressions, and he liked to cycle through them at a mind-boggling pace. In The Birdcage, he gave an entire history of modern dance choreography—from Bob Fosse to Martha Graham to Twyla Tharp to Michael Kidd to Madonna—in less than 30 seconds, parodying each master’s choreography along the way. He did similar rapid-fire medleys in his stand-up, and any time he stormed onto a talk show, and in other movies, like Good Morning, Vietnam.

But Aladdin allowed Robin Williams to become what he so often was: a cartoon. When he first emerges from the lamp, he runs through more than a dozen different impressions in a single minute, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to a Scot in a kilt to Ed Sullivan. He keeps this rate up for the rest of the runtime of the movie, even when he’s also carrying a song. The animators somehow kept up, managing to morph the character from line to line just as Williams did with his voice-over. Williams didn’t get an Oscar nomination for the role, but it allowed him to fully become what he so often seemed—superhuman.  

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.