Good Morning, Vietnam Proved Robin Williams Could Make Us Laugh and Cry
By Nick Nadel
The legendary comedian showed us you could pair improv with combat.
When Robin Williams died in 2014, the big screen lost both a legendary comedic talent and one of the finest dramatic actors of his generation. In films as varied as The Fisher King and Insomnia, Williams displayed an uncanny ability to disappear into a character. One such example, the one that proved Williams could tackle both comedy and drama, is his classic role as an unconventional Armed Forces Radio Service disc jockey in Good Morning, Vietnam.
Prior to donning headphones as Adrian Cronauer, the real life Air Force sergeant and radio DJ who inspired the film, Williams had burst from the stand-up scene and the sitcom Mork & Mindy to big screen vehicles like Moscow on the Hudson and Popeye. And while he showed dramatic range in The World According to Garp, Williams was mostly known for his comedic roles when Good Morning, Vietnam hit theaters in December of 1987. The film’s massive success catapulted Williams to mega-stardom and earned the funnyman a Golden Globe, along with BAFTA and Oscar nominations for Best Actor. At last, Williams was earning respect for his quips and his acting chops.
Directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man), with a sharp script by sitcom vet Mitch Markowitz (M*A*S*H), Good Morning, Vietnam gave Williams ample opportunity to showcase his signature brand of comedic insanity. The role was perfectly suited to his pop-culture-laden improv skills, and the actor riffed all of his rapid fire DJ banter. While Williams’ solo comedic fireworks are on full display, he hilariously bounces off the solid ensemble — Forest Whitaker, J.T. Walsh, Robert Wuhl, among others — who portray the soldiers and commanding officers trying to survive the chaos of 1965 Saigon. (Williams’ scenes with Bruno Kirby, as the stiff lieutenant who can’t appreciate Cronauer’s irreverent rants, are particularly funny.)
In addition to Williams’ arsenal of wacky voices and celebrity impressions is the deep reservoir of emotion he brought to some of his best roles in films like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. Williams’ masterful ability to go from broad comedy to sensitive, moving drama is readily on display in Good Morning, Vietnam, particularly in the scene where Cronauer entertains a convoy of G.I.s with an impromptu comedy routine before they drive off into combat.
As revealed in the upcoming HBO documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, Williams grappled with personal demons as his star rose on the big screen. Watching the great actor discover both his comedic and dramatic voice in Good Morning, Vietnam is a singular joy that takes on a deeper significance in light of his tragic death. The classic film is both an excellent comedic drama about the importance of humor in an unwinnable war and the moment when a hyperactive comedian became a full-fledged movie star.