When you hire Robin Williams for your film, the chances of him doing exactly what is in the script is pretty slim. His comedic persona was defined by an abundance of energy and a willingness to let his mind wander into spaces you could not even imagine. He was a singular performer, so these signature Robin moments would be the things you look for. Even when he started to pivot more to dramatic roles, there was no total containment of his improvisations. He would make up large chunks of his dialogue in “Dead Poets Society” at the behest of director Peter Weir. So when it came the role Williams would ultimately win an Oscar for, some improvisation had to make its way into the film.
“Good Will Hunting” may have won Matt Damon and Ben Affleck the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, but it wouldn’t have an authentically Robin Williams performance unless he got to do his own thing sometimes. In fact, one particular bit of improv though provided a crucial palette cleanser in a rather emotional scene. According to the DVD commentary with Affleck, Damon, and director Gus Van Sant, the scene not only had Robin Williams laughing at his own absurdity but cracking up both his scene partner Matt Damon and the camera operator. Rarely does corpsing this severe make it to the final film, but it turned out to be vital to making the scene work.
With Robin Williams, expect the unexpected
Matt Damon’s Will Hunting has been court ordered to attend meetings with a therapist, and the only one who will take him on as a patient is Robin Williams’ Dr. Sean Maguire. Will is belligerent, quiet, and hates the whole idea of therapy. But after a particularly good first date with a woman named Skylar (Minnie Driver), Will opens up slightly about his life and how thrilled he was with this woman. However, Will does not think he will call or go out with her again, as that date was so good that she won’t seem as enchanting the more time they spend together. A widower, Dr. Maguire recounts how his wife was not a perfect specimen either. She was someone who had her own eccentricities. Then, Robin starts ad libbing:
“She used to fart in her sleep. Just thought I’d share that with you. One night it was so loud, it woke the dog up. She woke up and gone, like, ‘Was that you?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ I didn’t have the heart to tell her. Oh, God.”
Williams and Damon are just howling with laughter as it is happening. Obviously, they weren’t prepared for it because at one point Damon starts leaning forward in his laughter and goes out of focus. Also, the camera starts to bob up and down because the camera operator can’t contain his chuckles either. Williams then segues beautifully back into the written word about the love for his deceased wife.
For Will to truly understand Dr. Maguire’s point, he needed the boost of elation that the laughter can create. He needs to feel the highest of high to understand what actually being in love can feel like and how removing that laughter is so deflating once that love is gone. Not only did Robin Williams just riff something very funny, but he understood how to weave his wild tangents perfectly into a cohesive, emotional scene.
The perfect final line
Not everything Robin Williams comes up with is a gut busting, hilarious thing that goes on for several minutes. Sometimes, it’s just one perfect line. For “Good Will Hunting,” that perfect line also happens to be the film’s final line. On the commentary, Matt Damon confirmed that line “was absolutely, 100% Robin Williams ad-libbed.” After receiving a note from Will saying he is going to California to “see about a girl,” which is what Williams’ Dr. Maguire said to his friends before meeting his wife, he gets a smile on his face, which turns into a sly smirk. He then delivers the classic, “Son of a bitch. Stole my line.” It is a lighthearted emotional sentiment to leave the theater on, perfectly capturing the tone of the entire movie.
Robin Williams deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor that year, and it is a performance that succinctly captures everything that made him such a dynamic performer. He gets to do his hilarious improvised rambling, deliver deeply felt emotional moments, and play an underlying darkness that he obviously was always struggling with in his real life. If you haven’t given “Good Will Hunting” a rewatch recently, make time for it, as you will see a master working at the top of his game in every respect.