The Peter J. Owens award, named for the longtime San Francisco benefactor of arts and charitable organizations (1936–1991), honors an actor whose work exemplifies brilliance, independence and integrity.
The Peter J. Owens award is made possible by a grant from the Peter J. Owens trust at the San Francisco Foundation. Gary Shapiro and Scott Owens, trustees.
An Evening with Robin Williams
Friday, May 4
429 Castro Street (near Market)
The Film Society pays tribute to the accomplished career of actor Robin Williams, this year’s Peter J. Owens Award recipient. This very special event will feature retrospective film clips followed by an onstage interview with local literary luminary Armistead Maupin and a screening of The Fisher King.
Seriously Funny, Seriously Talented
By Michael Fox
Nearly 30 years into a remarkably prolific and unpredictable film career that’s taken him from off-the-deep-end humor and off-kilter cameos to slyly dangerous character studies and megahit family fare, Robin Williams seems in little danger of misplacing the brilliant comic inventiveness—spark of madness—that has made him one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
Frankly, no matter what Williams achieves as a dramatic actor—and four Academy Award nominations and one engraved gold statuette are decidedly not chicken feed—he will always be viewed as a funnyman. It’s not his fault. Americans tolerate serious actors and pant over movie stars, but they loooove their comedians. From Mork and Mindy to Mrs. Doubtfire to Aladdin to The Tonight Show, the Seacliff resident has made more people laugh than any living person this side of the Beijing House of Mirth. (For sheer numbers, the edge has to go to a Chinese performer.) But though Williams’ one-of-a-kind gift for inspired improvisation never ceases to amaze, it’s his ability to convey the needs and dreams of everyday characters that touches thoughtful moviegoers most deeply.
A native of Chicago, Williams grew up in Marin County watching the occasional cartoon and a lot of The Twentieth Century with Walter Cronkite. He graduated from Redwood
High in Larkspur, where (the story goes) he was voted least likely to succeed. He studied drama at Juilliard before segueing to stand-up comedy, developing his trademark turbo-delivery as a way to head off hecklers. Television was an entry point, as it is for most comics, and Williams was cast in a recurring role in Happy Days before catapulting to stardom in the late 1970s with the anarchic Mork and Mindy.
For his big-screen debut, Williams was asked to play the titular cartoon character in Robert Altman’s Popeye. His small-screen fans didn’t follow him to theaters, however. In retrospect that may have been a break, for it allowed Williams to stretch audience and industry perceptions with nuanced performances in serious parts, first in The World According to Garp, and then Moscow on the Hudson and The Best of Times. Demonstrating patience and restraint, a reverence for the script and the ability to hold the screen without pyrotechnics, Williams proved wrong all those who thought that manic energy was the only note he could play.
Good Morning, Vietnam, the first of three films with Barry Levinson, took excellent advantage of his range and garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, as did his portrayal of an unorthodox English teacher in his next film, Dead Poets Society. That same year, Williams graced the screen on Opening Night of the SFIFF as the hilariously disembodied King of the Moon in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Firmly established as a major star at the beginning of the ’90s with the success of Awakenings, Williams had his pick of projects. He glided fluidly between broad amusements such as Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji and more challenging fare like Gilliam’s The Fisher King (another Best Actor nod from Oscar), Being Human, Hamlet and Jakob the Liar. Good Will Hunting was a high point by any measure, garnering him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Williams’ pace hasn’t slowed in the new millennium, as he balances first-rate voice acting in animated features like Happy Feet with darker roles such as the unhappy photo-lab employee in One Hour Photo for first-time director Mark Romanek and the murder suspect in Christopher Nolan’s first big-budget movie, Insomnia. He took on the late-night talk radio host in The Night Listener (based on Armistead Maupin’s novel) and the mentally challenged janitor in David Duchovny’s directorial debut, House of D.
If there were one detail that confirmed Williams’ uniqueness in Hollywood, it would be his insistence on living some distance away. An avid cyclist, unflagging charity worker and political junkie, Williams has resided in San Francisco with his family for many years. He can often be spotted taking in a Giants game, riding his bike or supping at Rubicon (the restaurant he owns with Francis Ford Coppola and Robert De Niro). Williams has used his clout to have some of his films shot here, providing work for local actors and other benefits to the local economy. An outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq, he has nonetheless become the most consistent entertainer of U.S. troops, leading one wag to dub him the next Bob Hope.
Williams’ idols are Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor, who in addition to their unmatched comic skills were superlative actors. He shares their ability to peer into the darkness, to probe behind a character’s sunny or manic disposition and reveal the loneliness at the core. Although he’ll continue to enliven family comedies and fantasy fables, one gets a sense that Williams is gearing up for a run of solid dramatic roles. As fine an actor as he’s been, the best is yet to come.
Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic and journalist who writes for SF Weekly, SF360.org, GreenCine, KQED.org’s Arts and Culture blog and other publications.
The Fisher King
Night at the Museum (2006)
Happy Feet (2006)
Man of the Year (2006)
The Night Listener (2006)
One Hour Photo (2002)
Patch Adams (1998)
Good Will Hunting (1997)
The Birdcage (1996)
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
The Fisher King (1991)
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
The World According to Garp (1982)
Good Morning Vietnam
2006 Ed Harris
2005 Joan Allen
2004 Chris Cooper
2003 Dustin Hoffman
2002 Kevin Spacey
2001 Stockard Channing
2000 Winona Ryder
1999 Sean Penn
1998 Nicolas Cage
1997 Annette Bening
1996 Harvey Keitel
Previously Known As Piper-Heidsieck Award
1995 Tim Roth
1994 Gérard Depardieu
1993 Danny Glover
1992 Geena Davis
1991 Anjelica Huston