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WILLIAMS, ROBIN: Managing the Madness

Honoured by a retrospective at this year's American Film Festival in Deauville, France, Robin Williams - on the eve of his Australian visit to promote Bicentennial Man - tells our European correspondent, JORN ROSSING JENSEN that "you are only given a little madness; you mustn't lose it."

In Bicentennial Man, Robin Williams gets to play the most challenging of characters: Andrew, a robot who has to make us care for him and cry with him and weep with him (with Sam Neill as the Master and Wendy Crewson as Ma'am). It's pathos and drama and humour all rolled into one being that has no ethnic base or any real backstory. But then Williams has done it all, from Vietnam DJ to a tramp, to the wise psychoanalyst in Good Will Hunting who defied the pattern of humorous and lovable crazies. No wonder the French love him. . . .

"There is a necessity of humour in most situations"

Everyone knows Robin Williams is manic as Mork and faster than a speeding punch-line. But is there anything we - or he - cannot joke about? He doesn't hesitate: "There is a necessity of humour in most situations. I realised that a couple of years ago, when I was performing in a mental hospital with an improvising theatre group. There were all these patients around, and you would ask for a suggestion of a place. Most of them would yell 'OUT!' The day we were leaving a lot of them tried to walk out with us. . . 'I AM WITH HIM!'

"Or yesterday, as we arrived at Deauville and were just walking around the town. The first 10 minutes nobody noticed us. We went into a shop to pick out children's clothes, and when we came out there was a crowd of 45 people. 'ROBIN, ROBIN!' It is always a weird experience, and there is nowhere to run. So you have to play a little bit, not too much, or someone might get angry.

We use comedy to keep things going, so it is a dreadful thought that you might be caught off-guard. Like Houdini, who died supposedly because he was very relaxed. He used to ask people to punch him in the stomach, and he was very tough. But one day this kid came up and punched him when he was not looking, and he just died.

"Last time I visited Christopher Reeve "

"Last time I visited Christopher Reeve . you know, he sits in this giant wheelchair that has a huge engine in the back, so I asked, ''How is the lawn mower today?' To him this is very funny, for other people - 'well, how could you say such a thing?' When I first came to the hospital, I was dressed as a Russian protologist, and I told him 'I am just going to put my finger up your arse, I hope you don't mind', and he laughed. Somebody else might think it was horrific. Christopher eventually told me the joke about the woman whose dog had a heart attack. She tried to give him mouth-to-snout resuscitation, but in the process she fell and broke her back. The dog died. At this point all the guys in the wheelchairs are going 'HAHAHAHAHA'. For them it is a very funny story, while we are more like 'Oh, God.' Anything you say you cannot joke about, and you will find somebody who can."

Of course, all this is delivered in a flash, making him a turbo charged interview subject. Are there ever any quiet moments? "When performing," he admits, "I am on 100,000 volts - that is a lot of electricity; you can read by your testicle - and it is an incredible drain of energy. So I need time to recharge, moments of stillness, to allow myself to have new thoughts. I love to walk about on my own, or to take a car to the countryside and just see something beautiful."

"you are only given a little madness; you mustn't lose it"

If it is true - as he claims - that "you are only given a little madness; you mustn't lose it", Robin Williams is a good administrator, having drawn from it for such different roles as in Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King, all earning him an Academy Award nomination. The 48-year-old former stand-up comedian, who spent the last half of 1999 working on material for a new night-club act, finally received the Oscar for his part as Dr. Sean McGuire in Good Will Hunting - 17 years after he made his feature debut in Popeye. Educated at New York's Julliard School, he has performed on stage in Waiting for Godot - a stretch from Popeye or just part of the craft?

In his new film, Jakob The Liar, that was screened at Deauville during a retrospective in his honour, Williams shows the more serious side of his talent, but with comedy behind it. Set in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, Jakob the Liar is the story of a former cafe-owner in the Jewish ghetto, who accidentally overhears a forbidden radio bulletin announcing Soviet military advances against the Germans. The news spreads, and so does the rumour that Jakob has a radio - an offense punishable by death.

As Jakob sees how spirits in the ghetto are lifted by his report, he starts fabricating fictitious news bulletins of Allied successes on the front. Optimism is reborn among the inhabitants, despair turns to hope, and the suicide rate drops. But at the same time the Germans begin a search for the resistance hero who operates the mythical radio.

Shot entirely on location in Eastern Europe, Jakob the Liar, directed by Petter Kassovitz "allows you to remember a week in the life of a ghetto just before its liquidation, with all these people dealing with one lie," says Williams, who plays the lead as well as taking producer chores, with a cast including Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Michael Jeter and Armin Mueller-Stahl.

"comedy - or rather humour - in the face of human tragedy"

It seems to be a project very personal to him. "I read Jurek Becker's book three years ago, and I thought it was very powerful and different from what I had seen before: comedy - or rather humour - in the face of human tragedy. Most Americans would say that you cannot deal with the holocaust that way, but Europeans accept it because they have been through it over the centuries - wars coming and going, occupation on and off. I talked to survivors from the ghetto, and they confirmed that this was how it was. We simply had to make the film. We did not know that Life Is Beautiful was shooting at the same time, and they did not know what we were doing. Our production was actually ready to open last year, but because of release schedules for my other films - What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams - it was postponed. If they had come out simultaneously, somebody would probably have said 'but there isn't room for two movies like this' - and why not? There is still room for 25 cop movies a year."

Life Is Beautiful is an amazing film, says Williams, but it captures another whole aspect of holocaust - a man trying to survive with his son, trying to keep things going. "But there is so much to talk about, that even if you made 10 films a year, you would only get little into it. I just read I Will Bear Witness, a great book about the rise of Nazis in 1933 and all the way to
1945. First you hear about Hitler, all of a sudden there is a denial of certain rights. Now you cannot go to a concert, then friends disappear. Finally they come and get you."

It is a film in which Williams' character dies. It's a rather surreal experience, he says bemused, "especially for my wife - also a producer of the film - who had to see me dying more than once. When you watch documentary footage of executions, people who are shot just fall into a slump. Noone goes 'OOOHHH!', they simply drop, because the whole body shuts down. It is over, you leave. And of course you cannot help thinking that there will come a day when you fall yourself, and there will be no second take. God gets final cut - the first one was when you were circumcised," he adds unable to help himself with a throw-away jest.

"I've been trying for a long time to land a role as a villain"

Williams, always a decent or at least funny character on film, has been a huge success, but there is one thing he hasn't managed: "I've been trying for a long time to land a role as a villain. In many movies you are greatly attracted by the villains, because they are the most interesting, because they are sort of darkly funny, they have this sense of nasty cynicism. But they do not offer it to me. I suppose I just have to keep trying."

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Robin Williams - we use comedy to keep things going


Robin Williams can be seen in two films opening in Australia just a month apart: Jakob the Liar in November 1999, Bicentennial Man in December 1999.


...Bicentennial Man

...Jakob The Liar

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