#302. Robin Williams

“Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult.” Unfortunately, the one man who perhaps epitomizes this statement is none other than Robin Williams. His too-soon departure from this world is still a tragedy many years later, especially considering his comedic skills. Of course, this also begs the question: if comedy is difficult, is it more difficult than drama? Sure, there are many attributes of comedy which are hard to master, such as wordplay, observation, and . . . timing, but could the emotional complexity of dramatic acting be as equally challenging? If we examine several actors who made the transition from drama to comedy, we’ll find they are vastly outnumbered by the actors who successfully transitioned from comedy to drama. Even though Robin Williams was best known for his comedy, his dramatic roles were indeed notable as well. This week’s two films examine Robin Williams’ dramatic roles.

Good Will HuntingGood Will Hunting
Year: 1997
Rating: R
Length: 126 minutes / 2.1 hours

A good indicator of an actor’s dramatic potential lies in his nominations for Best Actor. This Oscar and its Supporting counterpart can almost show the progression of an actor’s career. While nominations can happen early in an actor’s career as recognition of some underlying talent, sometimes it takes several years before they are actually recognized with the gold statue of a winner. Only seven years after his first leading role, Robin Williams was first nominated for Best Actor in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). His second nomination would come two years later for Dead Poets Society (1989), followed by his third nomination for The Fisher King (1991) two years after that. Finally, a decade after his first nomination, Robin Williams would win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Good Will Hunting (1997).

When Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) finds a difficult mathematics problem he posted for his students has been solved by an anonymous person, he discovers none of his graduate students stepped forward with the solution. Upon leaving another, even harder problem, he finds that the janitor, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), was the mysterious mathematician. While Will has plenty of talent, he chooses to live his life simply, never pushing the limits of his possibility. It soon becomes clear to Lambeau that he must pass Will onto one of his therapist colleagues, Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). At first, Will doesn’t take the therapy seriously, but as Sean begins to open up about his own life and struggles Will eventually finds they share much of the same trauma. Now that his past is behind him, Will drives off to California to fully live his future.

Dead Poets SocietyDead Poets Society
Year: 1989
Rating: PG
Length: 128 minutes / 2.13 hours

It’s interesting to think that, by 1989, Robin Williams had only acted in a dozen films. Sure, just like other comedians, he started out with a long and successful career in television, but by the 1990s his transition into film was quite complete. By the turn of the century, Williams had tripled the number of his film roles with such classics as Hook (1991), Aladdin (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and Jumanji (1995). Amidst these comedic gems, he continued to perform in dramatic roles like What Dreams May Come (1998), Bicentennial Man (1999), and Insomnia (2002). Clearly, Williams was a master of both muses of acting: Thalia (comedy) and Melpomene (tragedy). Given the tagline of Dead Poets Society (1989), he certainly seized every day given to him, up until his very last one.

An alumnus of Welton Academy, John Keating (Robin Williams) has taken it upon himself as an English teacher to inspire the students under his purview at the same school where he once was one of them. One of these students, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), is inspired by Keating’s encouragement to “seize the day” and decides to resurrect the Dead Poets Society, a group which once had Keating as a member. Neil continues to open up and learns that his passion for drama and acting does not align with his father’s wishes for him to be a medical doctor. With no other recourse, Neil takes his own life. This action causes the administration of Welton Academy to scrutinize Keating’s teaching style. After they come to the conclusion that Keating’s encouragement of free will was the culprit, he is forced to resign. However, the students resist the verdict and stand up for Keating one last time.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 wonderful Robin Williams roles

Bacon #: 2 (The Big Wedding / Robert DeNiro -> Sleepers / Kevin Bacon)

#301. Matt Damon

If you had one trillion dollars lying around, would you use it to save Matt Damon? A few years ago, someone threw some numbers together to estimate the amount of money spent on rescuing all of Matt Damon’s characters, and the total was close to a trillion dollars. Granted, Matt Damon certainly has some skill when it comes to being an actor, but why his characters always need saving is quite the question. Part of why this number is so significant is due to the variety of Damon’s roles. From sci-fi epics like Elysium (2013), Interstellar (2014), and The Martian (2015) to modern-era films like Syriana (2005) and Green Zone (2010), Matt Damon has shown time and again that he knows how to act like he needs help. With so many great roles to choose from, this week’s two films highlight some award-winning films featuring Matt Damon.

The DepartedThe Departed
Year: 2006
Rating: R
Length: 151 minutes / 2.52 hours

What helps set Matt Damon apart from other actors is the fact that he can remain as an individual in a cast filled with high-profile actors. From his role as Linus Caldwell in Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) to his role as James Granger in The Monuments Men (2014), few films with a star-studded cast including Matt Damon have been nominated for Best Picture. Unless you also want to include Good Will Hunting (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and True Grit (2010) in this list, in which case it’s happened three times. However, the only film to include Matt Damon alongside a cast full of A-list actors that also won the Oscar for Best Picture is that of The Departed (2006). Of course, partly because of the large cast of excellent talent, Damon was not nominated for an acting award for his part in this film.

Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) has come a long way since his childhood in South Boston. As he proved his reliability in the Massachusetts State Police, eventually he was placed on a task force to rid the city of organized crime. What his supervisors do not know is that this position is a conflict of interest for him, since the mobster they are trying to catch, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), is the man who helped raise him. Soon, Colin is trying to use his connections to find a mole in the mob while also trying to not be found out as the mole in the police. Both moles eventually learn each other’s identities, but when it comes down to loyalties, each one has to determine for themselves which side of this fight they want to be on. Unfortunately, with secret identities now revealed, the conflict explodes in a hail of bullets, leaving few alive.

Good Will HuntingGood Will Hunting
Year: 1997
Rating: R
Length: 126 minutes / 2.1 hours

While The Departed did not garner Damon an acting Oscar, he has been nominated several times. This comes as no surprise as Matt Damon holds the eponymous role for such films as the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan, as well as The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and Jason Bourne (2016). His most recent nomination comes in the form of another eponymous role: The Martian. Before this, he was nominated for Invictus (2009), but merely in a supporting role. The real trick is, even though he didn’t win an Oscar for his acting in Good Will Hunting, he did earn one for this film. Along with Ben Affleck, the two of them wrote the screenplay for this coming-of-age film, immediately launching both of their careers for decades to come.

The titular Will Hunting (Matt Damon) works as a janitor at MIT where he comes across a mathematics problem posted for graduate students. His solution to the problem piques the interest of the professor who posted it. Realizing the genius who solved the problem isn’t one of his students, Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) gets Will out of some jail time by promising to mentor him. While this allows Will to avoid punishment, it also comes with a catch: Will must receive therapy. With Lambeau’s attempts to coach Will through his problems being unfruitful, Lambeau decides to hand him off to Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). Despite initial coldness, Will eventually opens up to Maguire, learning that they share some of the same struggles. At the same time, Will’s blue-collar friends gradually convince him that he’s meant for greater things and to take the opportunities he’s given.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 magnificent Matt Damon roles

Bacon #: 2 (The Rainmaker / Mickey Rourke -> Diner / Kevin Bacon)

#299. Ben Affleck

Have you ever tried to be something you’re not? Do you know someone who has succeeded at one talent, only to try and capitalize on the success by attempting a different talent? While Hollywood is filled with actors who want to be directors and directors who want to be actors, very few of them can succeed in both realms at the same time. Take Clint Eastwood, for instance. He was a great actor back in his heyday, and now he’s a great director, but there wasn’t much time where he was both. Somewhat similarly, Ben Affleck has shown he is an excellent director as of late, but his early acting efforts were not quite as exemplary. Perhaps Affleck has finally found his niche after being lauded for his writing skills early in his career. Of course, he still enjoys his time in front of the camera as well. This week’s two films look at the directing and acting of Ben Affleck.

ArgoArgo
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 120 minutes / 2.0 hours

At age 25, Ben Affleck (along with his friend, Matt Damon) won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Good Will Hunting (1997). While he had acted in a few films before, including two by director Kevin Smith (Mallrats (1995) and Chasing Amy (1997)), none of his roles could ever be taken seriously. Instead of pursuing his writing, Affleck ended up appearing in numerous films, most of which were forgettable or terrible (most still say Gigli (2003) is the worst film ever made). And yet, when he started directing full-length films, his acting seemed to improve almost overnight. Within five years from his directorial debut, Affleck would win his second Oscar, this time for the Best Picture, Argo (2012). While he also appeared in the leading role of this film, his performance was much better than most of his previous attempts.

Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is astounded to learn there are no viable plans to rescue the six escapees of the Iranian hostage crisis. While his exfiltration skills are top notch, he doesn’t have any better ideas. After a phone call with his son, while Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) is playing in the background, he is struck with inspiration. Using the cover of a Canadian film crew performing site surveys for a sci-fi film, Tony heads to Iran to help coach the six individuals through his plan. Even though all the prep work in Hollywood has been done to make the film look like it is real, the hoax only works on the ground if the six diplomats can manage to convince the Iranian security forces that it’s truly what they’re there for. In the moment of truth, the group head to Tehran International Airport and attempt to leave the country the only way they can.

The TownThe Town
Year: 2010
Rating: R
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours

In 2007, Ben Affleck put on his writing cap and wrote the screenplay for Gone Baby Gone. Despite having directed a short film much earlier in his career, Gone Baby Gone was his first feature-length film as a director. While he did not appear in the film, leaving the leading role to his brother, Casey Affleck, when 2010 rolled around, he was back in front of the camera (as well as behind it) for The Town. Once again, audiences could see that Affleck does have a talent for writing, as he wrote the screenplay for The Town as well. Despite the uproar of his casting as Bruce Wayne / Batman in the DC cinematic universe, this role, along with Nick Dunne in Gone Girl (2014), have shown Affleck takes his acting much more seriously now, perhaps as a result of his directing. Time will tell if his most recent writing and directorial effort, Live by Night (2017) will be as well received as Gone Baby Gone and The Town.

Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) is just one of a group of friends who grew up together and are now partners in crime. Along with Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), Gloansy MacGloan (Slaine), and Dez Elden (Owen Burke), the four friends rob a bank and take the manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), hostage. After they release her, they realize she lives in their neighborhood and could potentially identify them to the police. To find out what she knows, Doug starts following her; but eventually, the two of them develop feelings for each other. Unfortunately, since the four friends are still rooted in the world of crime, they continue to make robberies. Because these heists still occur, they eventually find that the FBI has figured out who they are. The Feds perform a sting at Fenway based on intelligence they received from a jilted ex, with few of the crew managing to escape.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 deftly directed pieces by Ben Affleck

Bacon #: 2 (Shakespeare in Love / Colin Firth -> Where the Truth Lies / Kevin Bacon)