Has Barry Norman jumped gun in knocking Robin Williams?

Veteran film critic raises eyebrows by attacking star's 'saccharine tooth-rotting sentimentality'

Actor and comedian Robin Williams
(Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Has the veteran film critic Barry Norman broken with convention by questioning the reputation of Robin Williams before the actor's family has even organised his funeral?

Norman has accused Williams of starring in too many bad movies and of being addicted to "saccharine tooth-rotting sentimentality".

"It's hard to know what to make of Robin Williams," Norman wrote in a column for the Radio Times. "Admiration is called for, but also sadness, not just for his tragic death but for an enormous talent which, if not exactly unfulfilled, could sometimes be spread so thinly as to be almost invisible

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"Every actor makes bad films occasionally but what was remarkable about Williams was not that he was so good in the good ones but that he was so very bad in the bad ones."

Norman's comments have attracted anger on twitter. The Daily Mail quotes "piano teacher Chris" saying Norman's views are "mean spirited… I know who I'd rather watch".

The Guardian repeats R B Stuart's tweet: "I suspect when Barry Norman walks out on films he kicks the shins of Salvation Army bell ringers & slams doors on the elderly?"

But for those remember his long years as the presenter of BBC's Film programme – until he was replaced by Jonathan Ross in 1998 – that is hardly Norman's reputation.

As a veteran producer told The Week: "Hollywood is first and foremost about sentimentality, and no one knows that better than Barry. He was very happy to play the game when he hosted the Film programme… all those - let's not say fawning, but respectful - interviews with film stars and directors; it seems very odd that he's come out like this.

"If he feels that strongly about Robin Williams, surely he could have waited a decent period – at least until after the Emmys at the end of the month [25 August] when there's bound to be a special tribute because of Mork & Mindy."

Norman even questioned whether Williams's problems with drink and drugs - which the actor always owned up to - may have been responsible for his bad choices.

"Were the bad films made when drink or drugs played their part? You might also ask, what caused a man of such gifts to rely so heavily on drink and drugs?"

Norman did not question the quality of Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society or One Hour Photo, but he made it clear he wasn't crazy about Mrs Doubtfire while he evidently hated What Dreams May Come.

"It was unrelentingly weepy," Norman wrote of the latter movie, "and he was so cringe-inducing that if it were the only Williams film you ever saw, you would say, with confidence, that he would never make an actor."

Williams was 63 when he committed suicide ealier this month at his home in California. His wife Susan Schneider, who is said to be planning a private funeral (dismissing rumours that it might be televised), has explained that he suffered from anxiety and depression and was also struggling with the early onset of Parkinson's.

What makes Norman's attack surprising is that he's been in journalism for many years – his career goes back to the long-defunct Daily Sketch and takes in the Daily Mail and The Times – where convention dictates that you wait a decent period before questioning the reputations of popular figures.

It is not long since he shared with readers of the Daily Mail his own grief at the death of his wife, Diana.

When she died in 2001, he wrote within a fortnight a paean of praise, explaining that she had been not only a devoted wife, mother and grandmother, but also "one of the most gifted historical novelists around".

He told how, under her married name, Diana Norman, she had produced 11 "meticulously researched, beautifully written novels ranging in period from the 12th to the 18th centuries", winning "a host of admirers and an international reputation". He also detailed the awards she had won for the historical whodunits she wrote under the pen name Ariana Franklin.

No one would begrudge Norman his pride in his wife's career. But they might have expected him to extend the same respect to the family of Robin Williams.

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