Robin Williams is a somewhat contradictory figure within contemporary popular cinema. Rising to prominence in the 1970s for his role in the sitcom Mark and Mindy, he became known for his manic, rapid-fire delivery style as a stand-up comedian during the 1980s, before emerging as a regular of the family feature film in the 1990s. Glancing at Williams' filmography, one is struck not only by the extent of his output, but also its range: 1996 saw Williams starring in The Birdcage (USA), a remake of gay farce La Cage aux Folks (1978, France/Italy), Kenneth Branagh's William Shakespeare's Hamlet (UK/USA), Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (UK), Francis Ford Coppola's Jack (USA) and Disney's video follow-up Aladdin and the King of Thieves (USA) in which he reprises his 1992 role as genie of the lamp. Williams is interesting for the apparent ease with which he straddles the child-orientated genre of 'family comedy', and the adult-orientated sphere of 'serious drama'. In 1997, the same year as Williams earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting (USA), a film dealing with class prejudice, social deprivation and child abuse, he also took the lead in Disney's Flubber (USA) in which he plays the bumbling, flying car-driving inventor of green anthropomorphised slime.
In his study Stars, Richard Dyer relates a popular film star's image to the struggle between dominant and competing or subordinate ideologies. Stars can be understood as negotiating these conflicts, either through displacement, the suppression of one discourse in favour of another, or by working a '"magic" reconciliation of the apparently incompatible terms'. Thus Lana Turner's synthesis of sexiness and ordinariness, or Marilyn Monroe's combination of knowing sexuality and sexual innocence, both serve to reconcile the conflicting desire within American culture for women to be at once sexy, pure and ordinary (Dyer, 1998: 26); Dyer observes parallels between Monroe's film persona and discourses surrounding female sexuality during the era of her popularity (1998: 31). This suggests that the attraction of film stars stems from their ability to unify competing discourses, an act of ideological reconciliation cemented by the star's existence outside the film text. I shall argue that Robin Williams, both in terms of the roles he has played and the range of films in which he has starred, characterises many of the tendencies of recent Hollywood cinema. The central conflict which Williams serves to reconcile is between adult and child, synthesised in what might be termed his 'man-child' persona. While serving to stabilise various generic problematics inherent within the contemporary family film, this merging of adult and child has significant ideological dimensions, in terms of Hollywood's representation of men and masculinity, and children and childhood.
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