At the Castro Theater, No Batman Needed As Robin Holds Court

A Night of Fun, Frivolity and Film at The 50th San Francisco International Film Festival


Robin Williams duplicated, but never imitated: The Peter J. Owens award honoree at the Film Society Awards Gala on Thursday.  On Friday he had audiences laughing for an hour.  (Photos: Omar P.L. Moore)


by Omar P.L. Moore  |   The Popcorn Reel

May 4, 2007

San Francisco, The Castro Theater

Another of San Francisco's native sons was welcomed in open arms at this grand cavernous theater tonight, as Robin Williams held court for almost two hours before a near-capacity crowd as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival event "An Evening With Robin Williams".  Graham Leggat, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, introduced 20 minutes of clips from Williams' films from a 20-year stretch, beginning with "Good Morning Vietnam" (1987) and ending with "Man Of The Year" (2006).  This montage of mostly memorable films and a small few forgettable films were sandwiched around the actor's Oscar-winning performance in Gus Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting" (1997) and a searing display as a lonely photo developer in Mark Romanek's "One Hour Photo" (2002).

The Chicago-born, San Francisco raised actor-comedian's feature film debut was made as the title character in director Robert Altman's "Popeye" (1980) and it has been a wild roller-coaster film run for the funny man, who lives in the tony, exclusive Seacliff District here with his wife Marcia.  There have been ups and downs off-screen for Mr. Williams, and most recently his stint in an alcohol rehab clinic has seen him back to his very best. 

And on this night at the Castro Theater Robin Williams' energy and humor was typically free-flowing, spirited, and unquenchable. 

Although Robin did not require a Batman to assist him, Armistead Maupin, who wrote the famous six-part series of books Tales Of The City and who wrote the book The Night Listener and co-wrote its feature film screenplay (which also starred Williams, in 2006) formed a dynamic duo with the 55-year-old, who studied at Julliard School of Performing Arts in New York City with Christopher Reeve, whom he spoke of fondly during the evening event, which was followed by a screening of "The Fisher King", the 1991 Terry Gilliam-directed film that starred Williams, Jeff Bridges and Mercedes Ruehl, who received an Oscar for her supporting role.

On the Castro Theater stage, Maupin played interviewer on this night, and in contrast to the Spike Lee event, where Wesley Morris delicately asked the questions, Maupin was comfortable, confident and conversational.  Williams and Maupin played off each other perfectly.

For an hour Williams, wearing a short-sleeved contour-fitting black shirt and slightly-faded black jeans, had the audience in stitches with laughter, doing impressions of some of America's greatest leading-male film acting icons such as Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson.  The "Mork And Mindy" television performer of the 1970's played court jester. 

Williams recalled the moment during the filming of Penny Marshall's "Awakenings" (1990) when he broke Mr. De Niro's nose.

"The most frightening thing in the world is to actually have your elbow hit Bob De Niro's nose and hear (crunching sound).  He goes down, and comes up bleeding, and I'm going, 'my fucking life is over.'"  He mimicked De Niro's immediate reaction in an impersonation: "It's alright, I'm okay, it's okay.  I'm alright.  You hit me.  I'm good.  You're good."  Williams also recalled director Marshall's reaction: "is he gonna be alright?"  He spoke of working with method actor Al Pacino on Christopher Nolan's 2002 American remake of "Insomnia", which including Hilary Swank, featured three Oscar-winning actors.  Pacino would roar like a lion to prepare for the role of Will, a sleepless Los Angeles detective sent to Alaska to investigate serial murders in which Williams' character Perry may or may not be involved.  "'Raaaarrrrgh!'  And I'd be over here going (he makes the sound of a mouse.)" 
 


Left photo: Robin Williams clowns around with Bonnie Hunt during an interview on the red carpet at the San Francisco Film Society Awards Gala on Thursday.  Right photo: Armistead Maupin (left), author of the six-book series Tales Of The City, interviewed Robin Williams at the Castro Theater on Friday, May 4.  Mr. Maupin is pictured here with his partner Chris Turner at the San Francisco Film Society's Awards Gala on Thursday, May 3.  (Photos: Omar P.L. Moore)


Robin Williams has done films big and small, and tonight he spoke fondly of being free from meddling studio executives on the smaller films. 

"You just do the thing that you want to do," he said.

"For no pay," Armistead Maupin chimed in.

"For no pay," Williams repeated, with a smile.

According to Williams, typical battles with the big Hollywood studios will go something like the following:

Studio: "The character wasn't funny enough."

Robin: "Well, it's Hitler."

Studio: "I know, but can he be a funny Hitler?"

Trying to get movies made to your satisfaction in Hollywood, Williams said, "is like a prick fucking a hedgehog."

He lamented that films in test screenings, while they can have their advantages, can also be devastating because the meaning of a film can be changed simply because an audience didn't like the ending.  "When you work on a movie, there are hundreds of people around all working together.  So it's one vision.  And you want to preserve that vision [to the end], " he said.

On the big films and on locations in most parts of the U.S., and particularly in Los Angeles, most of the time people won't pay attention to you or disrupt your film set or shooting scenes, but "if you shoot in the Upper East Side in New York, that's only time when people go, 'I don't give a shit.  I do Donald Trump's hair.  I don't care.'"  Williams continued on: "That's the only time when people literally walk right through your scene going, 'fuck your movie!'"  "And you know those women who wear those big fur coats -- the ones that scream 'do you have any idea how many animals I had to fuck to get this coat?'"
 

  
The Reeves: Will, Christopher and Dana.  Mr. Reeve, the actor-activist, studied at Julliard with Robin Williams.  During a solemn moment on May 4 at the Castro Theater, Robin Williams paid tribute to the strength, humanity and courage of all three during an on-stage interview with Armistead Maupin.  The Reeve family is pictured here at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in April 2004.  Chris passed away just six months after this photo was taken.  In 2006, Dana succumbed to breast cancer.  (Photos: Omar P.L. Moore)
 

But it was not all fun and laughter on this night. 

Williams talked about the war in Iraq, and despaired about it: "we're repeating the same thing over again," he said in an agonized voice to Maupin, who himself had been stationed as a combat soldier in Vietnam.  "I've been to Iraq [on USO tours] and I've been to Afghanistan three times and the thing is they [the soldiers] don't want you to forget about them.  It's for them," Williams said, adding that he wholeheartedly supports the U.S. troops, citing that there's a big difference between supporting the war and supporting the troops. 

Williams also took time out to remember the Reeve family, paying tribute to both Christopher and Dana.  "Chris was a quite the looker -- a handsome man and an activist . . . I remember before the accident when he testified before Congress for the National Endowment for the Arts.  He had such power."  Williams also recalled the debate on the arts and its funding that Reeve had with now-late Senator Strom Thurmond, in which Williams said that Reeve soundly trounced Thurmond, with his thorough preparation and knowledge of the subject matter at hand.  Williams praised the strength and power of their surviving son Will, who had to perform two eulogies, the second just last year as a 14-year-old, when Dana Reeve succumbed to cancer.  "There's power right there," Williams remarked, when speaking of Will, now 15, who is running a foundation in his late parents' names with the help of his older step-sister Alexandra.

Earlier in the night, Maupin announced that years ago he had come out of the closet as a gay man while on stage at this very theater.  Robin Williams responded by shouting, "okay people, if you want to come out, this is the place to do it!  Right here!"  

Williams praised San Francisco as a safe haven to seek "asylum" from the close-minded character and mentality of many other American cities.

Williams responded to audience questions including one about his stint as an employee at a restaurant in San Francisco called The Trident, in the seventies, where "the waiters would snort lines right off the grill" and waitresses would be topless in the backrooms of the restaurant and sometimes bottomless as well.  "You have to understand, a lot was going on, back then," Williams remarked, in a mocking quivery voice.  He harkened nostalgically back to the days of Timothy Leary, who was "really out there, literally" during the "turn on, tune-in, and drop-out" days of the hallucinogenic drug culture in America.  The culture of the sixties and seventies was undoubtedly endless and bottomless in terms of drugs, and much of it was hard to ignore.

Speaking of bottomless, Williams did a vagina monologue of sorts in an wild stage act about Britney Spears and the infamous photo shot of her in a limousine, which apparently was digitally altered in some publications.  "I don't understand.  Her vagina was all pixilated.  I said to myself, 'what's this?'", he joked.  Williams then preceded to do some physical comedy and a vivid description of being literally sucked inside a vortex he could not get out of. 

On this night Robin Williams raised the audience off its feet, kept San Francisco's Castro Theater soaring and restored an air of fun, frivolity and laughter that the Friday audience here thoroughly deserved.


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