10/01/2008

TV on DVD: Inside the Actors Studio: Robin Williams





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Admittedly he's been lampooned by Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live for his overwhelming tendency to gush and feign excitement at even the most regrettable films of an actor's career. However, aside from that and the fact that he bears an uncanny resemblance to my uncle Bob, thespian and author James Lipton's long-running Bravo series, Inside the Actors Studio has become an intellectual, illustrious staple for those with basic cable.

For more than twelve years, the admirably prepared and enviably brainy Lipton has interviewed more than two hundred guests. Smart television for smart people-- Studio is both deliciously fascinating and entertaining as it offers viewers a chance to see performers without a script. Guests are confronted by Lipton's famous and seemingly endless stack of cards and the now instantly recognizable French questionaire that ends the show as viewers get a true sense of just how much work goes into the craft of acting. To put it another way for those who have yet to catch the show, if Actors Studio were a newspaper, it would be The New York Times whereas the Barbara Walters Specials would probably morph into USA Today or People Magazine.

Beginning with biographical background information and asking probing, pointed questions about when the interviewee first caught the acting "bug," it's become a recurring theme of humble beginnings, early tragedies, and lonely childhoods as we listen to the entertainers say how they turned to performing just to be loved. Yet each episode is unique-- whether it involves Sean Penn breaking the "code" and lighting up a cigarette for the duration to Kevin Spacey imitating Al Pacino, or seeing refined actresses recite their favorite "curse word"- hands down the most famous show was when Robin Williams took the stage on January 29 of 2001.

The Robin Williams episode follows the successful release of other classic episodes including a 3-DVD Icons Box Set featuring the tragically late, great Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Barbara Streisand, and Clint Eastwood and another one for Leading Men which includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sean Penn and Russell Crowe as well as individual discs for Johnny Depp, Dave Chapelle and others. And after the endless demand from over eighty-four countries of the series' most requested and popular episode, Inside the Actors Studio: Robin Williams has finally landed on DVD, thanks to Shout! Factory.

The first two hour episode in the history of the series as neither Bravo nor Lipton wished to cut any part of it-- James Lipton introduces the disc by giving us more inside information of the legendary evening when Robin Williams talked to the students and guests in a packed auditorium for more than five hours. Featuring never-before-seen extra footage that didn't make the original broadcast, Lipton also reveals that one audience member laughed so hard that they actually had to leave the theatre afterward by ambulance, having developed a hernia simply from viewing the hysterical comical genius live and in person. Sharing additional information that is also available in his behind-the-scenes book, Lipton explains that from the moment Robin Williams took the stage at 7:07, he took over and Lipton was unable to ask the first question for nine minutes, taking an additional seven to work his way to the second one.

From riffing about the idea that "legalized sanity" is like having "voluntary Tourettes," or hypothesizing what would happen if you gave Prozac to a cat or likening the Royal Family to the banjo playing kid in Deliverance, he leaves no joke untried or new character unexplored including his most famous bit about a drunken pilot that has since become used by an airline corporation.

Additionally, Williams chronicles his lonely childhood as a perpetual new kid always moving around with his "elegant" but busy father and "Christian Dior Scientist" mother he always wanted to make laugh. As he matured, he continues on about becoming a mime outside of the Met which he likened to being "naked at Yankee Stadium," up through Mork and Mindy, receiving an honorary degree from Julliard which he equates to a "Nerf vibrator," to the dark times or feeling like a "vampire with a day pass" during his period battling drug addiction.

However, for fans of the actor's extraordinary cinematic work, it's especially rewarding when he reveals the next phase of his life as he became a family man and over the years starred in memorable films such as Good Morning Vietnam, Aladdin, The Fisher King, Moscow on the Hudson, Awakenings, Dead Poet's Society, The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Good Will Hunting. Eventually a four time Oscar nominee (and winner for Hunting), Williams truly makes the most of his phenomenal ability to lose himself in whatever role he's playing-- effortlessly moving from comedy to drama.

While at times it's hard to keep up with his racing mind as even Lipton questions whether Williams just thinks faster than the rest of us, asking in exasperation, "what the hell is going on?" the DVD provides the best opportunity to savor every line and nuance. Especially since we can back up to catch a missed joke and try to somehow piece together his fascinating and awe-inspiringly random improvisational train of thought. And whether he's taking a prop from the audience to use for an endlessly spontaneous several minutes of laughter to likening psychotherapy to a GPS system, discussing the fifty-two characters he played in Aladdin as the chance to do "a Warner Brothers cartoon in Disney drag," or speculating the way that Elmer Fudd could've played A Streetcar Named Desire, we're helplessly riveted to the screen.

While hopefully, you'll fare better than the attendee who developed a hernia, luckily laughter is the best medicine and for that we turn to Dr. Robin Williams on DVD, sure to turn anyone's frown upside down.


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