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After a string of box-office disappointments in The Best of Times, Club Paradise, Moscow on the Hudson, The Survivors, The World According to Garp and Seize The Day to his name, 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam became a huge turning point for Robin Williams in his transition from a TV star and stand up comedian into a movie actor. Whereas the success of Mork and Mindy helped elevate his status and popularity as a TV star and a celebrity during the late 1970s to early 1980s, Good Morning, Vietnam was the breakout vehicle that justified and consolidated his worth as a movie actor, particularly as a dramatic actor from the mid-1980s, all the way up to the early 2000s.
In 1979, Vietnam war veteran Adrian Cronauer finished a screenplay for a proposed sitcom that was based on his experiences as a disc jockey on the armed forces radio service in Saigon in 1965-66. In the early 1980s, Robin Williams read the script and saw it as the perfect format for his own style of comedy and improvisational humour.
It grossed millions of dollars in the box office and elevated Williams's Hollywood status to an all-time high for the first time.
It was not an accurate representation of Cronauer, as in real life he was a droll. While Williams's portrayal is manic, humourous and zany, the real Cronauer was never antiwar. In the movie, he learns and suddenly realises his reliance on humour also serves as a detachment from his environment, as well as from his military comrades. Additionally, it showcases Robin Williams improvisary brilliance (Niemi, 161).
Erickson argues that Good Morning, Vietnam only succeeds as a comedy due in part to Robin Williams's on screen performance. Without Williams, the movie lags (Erickson, 334). Which I agree with; after all, this is more of a Robin Williams movie than that of a movie with so many A-list actors and actresses.
It is a comedy about one man's attempt to make peace with his country's enemy & about the importance of comedy in speaking the truth against the forces that would oppress it (Simon, 172).
Time magazine called the movie the best military comedy since M.A.S.H disbanded. Richard Schickel explained the film is not afraid to work the extremes and that Williams makes the whole thing work because of his confidence with the role. He creates monologues on the nature of war and turning the reality and seriousness of it into comic relief (Suid, 537).
Williams's performance in Good Morning, Vietnam became a hallmark for other characters that present a whimsical and fun side, which masks a damaged exterior. From Peter Banning/Peter Pan in Hook, Dale from Fathers' Day, Daniel and Mrs Doubtfire in Mrs Doubtfire, Parry from The Fisher King, this is not as a reflection of his personal issues or problems that affected Robin Williams's life; but more so in terms of that he will be best remembered by many fans like myself as a character-based actor and performer. All these complex, multi-dimensional & multi-layered characters help bring out the emotional, as well as happy and fun sides & performances to each and every one of them.
As Adrian, his improvisational timing and skill is so impeccable, natural and smooth, and although the negatives are very few, the romance angle between Adrian and the Vietnamese girl, doesn't quite work and thankfully it becomes subdued later on as the movie advances. He embraces his position by entertaining and informing the troops with a 'Good Morning, Vietnam,' introduction during every segment. He bounces from one character to another: from being happy, ecstatic and energetic and boisterous to sad and angry. The politics of war and radio also makes for an interesting juxtaposition.
Whereas many people have dismissed this movie as nothing more than a typical comedic vehicle for Robin Williams to do his schtick, they seem to forget that Good Morning, Vietnam is not so much a semi-autobiographical story of Adrian Cronier's life, but more to the point, it is about how a subject such as war is usually regarded as negative, not very interesting and entertaining. It is not about making fun of a relatively difficult subject matter but how to see the humorous side to it and that war can be discussed in an open and humorous manner, without coming across as being too offensive or taken too seriously.
At the same time, there are concepts around friendship, understanding and even over cultural differences that are glossed over and become intertwined with the comedic elements; some of which these leads to scenes where cultural differences and that no matter where you are from in the world, no matter how many times you want to reason with people and want them to come round and be on your side, that cannot always happen the way you want it. Due to external differences, be it political, social, cultural or otherwise.
The troops, the American soldiers are all out in Vietnam wanting to fight the forces of evil, under the supervision of their superiors, but for Adrian, he doesn't want to fight with people, or go into battle against them. He is out there to entertain, as well as to inform troops all whilst in the studio and out in Vietnam as he interacts and bonds with the locals and also, teaching English to a group of students. As a foreigner in an overseas country, Adrian wants to help and reach out to others and share Western tidbits of knowledge and culture with them.
Not only do we have a situation where he is trying to assimilate into the Eastern culture and understand its customs and how the people live, work but a clash of personalities arise too when he comes face-to-face with the army generals, who don't appear to take too kindly to his style of irreverent humour and irony.
Good Morning, Vietnam may well be Robin Williams's best all-round, dual comedic and dramatic performance. It basically takes the best of his comedy and dramatic talents and harnesses it, that it's a great film and it succeeds in part, because of Robin's turn as Adrian. The poignancy and humility of Good Morning, Vietnam as a movie transcends on so many levels and in numerous scenes throughout it, such as the ending scene where Adrian says goodbye to the girl and when he breaks down when he tries to deliver news live on air about a cafe bombing, of which the officials try to prevent him from broadcasting to listeners.
Released during a period, or be it a decade where Williams was still trying to find his feet in the movie industry and moving on from his almost innocent child-like Mork persona from Mork & Mindy, his performance in this film has so much depth to it. & if there ever was a movie that would turn out to be the turning point for his movie career onwards, then thankfully I'm glad that movie was Good Morning, Vietnam. You could say Robin was playing himself, what with his ad-libs and improvised voice-overs.
Having heard of the movie, but never seen it when it was released in 1987, watching Good Morning, Vietnam today, I realized that the critics and many other Robin Williams fans who enjoyed it, were right. It delivers everything it promises to be, lives up to the hype and it also makes me smile, laugh and emotional too. I thought it was and it is very enjoyable.
A terrificly amusing and at times moving movie with a terrific performance by Robin, it's a shame he didn't secure an Oscar for it, because he deserved it.
Good Morning, Vietnam is undoubtedly, and rightly so one of his best ever movies.
Guts and Glory: the making of the American Military image in film, Lawrence H Suid
History in the media: film and Television, Robert Niemi
Military comedy films: A critical survey and filmography of Hollywood, Hal Erickson
Trash culture: popular culture and the great tradition , Richard Keller Simon
How Good Morning Vietnam Made Robin Williams A Star - Slate Magazine via Youtube