Robin Williams, American Master: Book Review

Robin Williams, American Master: Book Review

Robin Williams, American Master: Book Review. Esme Betamax @betamaxer

Author Stephen Spignesi is “[…] considered a world authority on Stephen King, The Beatles, Robin Williams, the Titanic, and other historical and pop culture subjects.” So probably the right kinda chap to bring along to a pub quiz. This quote tells you everything you need to know about where the author stands: “Admittedly some of the jokes wouldn’t fly today in our politically correct and hypersensitive cultural climate”.

In a bid to squeeze a little more out of Williams’s legacy (Robin, we’re on first name terms here) the author sticks to his film career for this volume, unlike his previous book on the subject. The Robin Williams Scrapbook, published in 1997, took a more general approach, covering film, television, and stand-up. He also takes the opportunity to clear up any uncertainty surrounding Williams’ death in 2014.

Robin Williams, American Master contains a full filmography from Can I Do It…’Til I Need Glasses? to the posthumous release Absolutely Anything, via many uncredited roles. However, Spignesi would rather ignore a whole swathe of these films. He starts out pretty enthusiastically with 1980’s Popeye, but chucks it (with Can I do it…) under the bus, claiming Garp to be his true film debut. “Perhaps we should consider The World According to Garp as Robin Williams’s real film debut, Popeye notwithstanding.” His desire to appear impartial seems an odd stance to take.

It comes as some surprise that a self confessed fan would present Robin Williams as he does. He views most of his film career as a square-peg-round-hole situation, in which Williams must repeatedly ad-lib his way out of bad scripts. He says “Robin Williams’s name on a film implies a certain something—sure it’s essentially an indefinable something” but it’s clear that for Spignesi that “something” boils down to the amount of stand-up material he can fit in, no matter the plot.

Spignesi throws trivia at the reader with the pace and indiscrimination of an Aldi cashier. Some of these trivia points are informative, for example a full list of the 90(!) character transformations by the genie in the 3rd installment of the Aladdin franchise. More often they are dubious. For instance: “Patch [Adams] shouts out “Let’s do it!” which may be a nod to Robin’s deceased friend John Belushi who shouts the same thing in Animal House.” Surely this Belushi connection is too tenuous. 

He refers to the same critics — Roger Ebert, “Robin Williams and animation were born for one another”; Leonard Maltin “Williams is terrific as usual”; James Berardinelli “Robin Williams hits all the wrong notes” — as a gesture towards continuity. However, the effect is more repetitive than anything, and the amount of negative feedback is unexpected.

Robin Williams, American Master is for superfans and trivia nerds. It’s the box-set released by your favourite band that you have to buy if only for that one B-side you can’t get anywhere else.

Robin Williams, American Master is due for release on January 21, 2021 from Post Hill Press

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Esme Betamax is a writer and illustrator. Often found in the Cube Microplex. Favourites include: I ♡ Huckabees, Where the Buffalo Roam, Harold & Maude, Being John Malkovich and In the Shadow of the Moon.