05 February 2016


Twelve Things about Mrs. Doubtfire

12. My post Twelve Things about Stepmom included a tiny, throwaway allusion to this earlier movie about "non-traditional" families and divorce . . . and guess which movie everyone preferred to talk about? =P

I think I've waited long enough. Here's another go at another film which sends up that time-honoured genre of children's storytelling: the faerie tale.

11. We begin with that classic source of childhood misery: a broken home. Since this is a modern story, it's not death that parts the parents, but "irreconcilable differences." Yet every child understands that those are crappy reasons, so the movie has to bend over backwards to keep the mother, who initiates the divorce proceedings, from looking like the villain.

I can't remember what I thought about Sally Field's character when I watched this as a child, but as an adult, I see exactly where she is coming from and I understand. I also empathise very deeply with Robin Williams's character. There is no malice in their relationship, but there is incredible frustration. Should they have stayed together? Of course. Could they have stayed together without one of them becoming truly miserable? I have a very strong opinion on that, but never mind it now.

10. What we know of their marriage begins with the "last straw" . . .

(See also the aftermath)

. . . which doubles as the "tip of the iceberg."

It's easy to see why Miranda Hillard fell out of love with the father of her children . . . but it's also easy for me to be "reasonable" like this. I can imagine someone else having a different opinion--specifically the someone who took me to see Mrs. Doubtfire when it was in cinemas: the father of my childhood best friend.

He and his wife had separated, and she had moved abroad with their daughter, where she knew he couldn't follow. It devastated him. A few months after that, he asked my mother for permission to take me out every Saturday, which had been when he'd taken my best friend out. And for about a year, while he got over his loss, I unwittingly played the role of his substitute daughter. But I was a shallow child and only now can I begin to imagine how sitting through Mrs. Doubtfire with me must have affected him. Especially since his wife had left him for reasons nearly identical to Miranda's.

9. Then there's the question of how my best friend would have taken this film. Would the final monologue about "all sorts of different families" and love as "the ties that bind" have helped her to heal? . . . As I ponder the answer to that question, I realise that Mrs. Doubtfire is not a faerie tale for children, but for adults. And it shares one of its morals with that other Chris Columbus movie from the early 90s, Home Alone. Remember: "Kids are resilient!"

8. But this isn't a "Chris Columbus movie" as much as it is a "Robin Williams movie." It's a near-perfect vehicle for the funny actor! I wouldn't be surprised if most of his lines were ad libbed. And not just the scenes in which he "does voices" . . .

. . . but also pretty much every scene he is in.

7. The exceptions would be the equally Williams-esque comic sequences, which would have required more detailed planning and everyone agreeing to follow a script . . .

Williams doesn't get a writing credit, but I suppose that's superfluous if you're already an executive producer. I'll bet that he had a say in the final look as well, though it wouldn't have merited his joining the makeup team on stage when they received their Academy Award.

6. Playing Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire was obviously the right career choice for this Julliard-trained actor known for his comic talent--and I don't think anyone else could have sold it as an equally sensible decision for out-of-work actor Daniel Hillard. I'd be interested in reading the source novel, Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine, to see how she made it work it without him. Seriously, I can't imagine any real-life divorced father, however desperate, dressing up in drag, even if it is the only way for him to see his children more frequently. It doesn't even work as a metaphor--and if you think it through, it's frankly disturbing.

This moment messed Christopher Hillard up
more than his parents' divorce ever did

Several years ago, on another blog, I mentioned that I was collecting material for a "Top 5 Subliminally Pro-gay 90s Movies". I never quite got further than two, but now you know which one would have been #1.

5. While we're looking at Mrs. Doubtfire as a send-up of faerie tales, we should note the stepfather figure--one who is unusual for not being in disguise. Stepmothers are usually overt, but I'll bet that you couldn't name a single stepfather.

While we're looking at the story as a send-up of faerie tales, let's note that it's extremely rare for any sort of absent parent to come back transformed. (Oh, Lord, was that a pun?!?!?!) We have the tree over the mother's grave in Cinderella . . . but that's all I've got unless you can help me out. In contrast, we have many cases in which an outsider who steps into the role of an absent parent becomes the villain. But though you can name all those with stepmothers, you're probably stumped when it comes to the stepfathers--because they're all in disguise! Since I like dropping bombshells I'm nice, I'll unmask two of the most famous ones for you now: the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk and the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood.

So it's interesting that the obvious stepfather figure in this movie is a decent guy. If Daniel had actually died, the handsome and rich Stuart Dunmeyer would have been an okay stepfather.

Forgive me . . . I couldn't resist

Yeah, I admit that I got "wolf" vibes when he said that he liked five-year-old Natalie Hillard the most among the three children . . . but the script was carefully written so that he'd be merely an old flame for whom Miranda is "the one who got away"--and definitely not that sort of single mother dater. I'm also not impressed that he blithely assumes he can be a "stable father figure" after years of saying that he didn't want any of his own--years when Daniel was actually being a dad! Yet this is more due to the plot speeding things along and Daniel needing a foil than to Stuart being villainous.

4. Besides, I can't blame Stuart for finding the Hillards fantastic enough to ignore the source of their last name. Not when there was a time I myself wouldn't have minded a shot at being their part-time housekeeper--a job opening which requires a stranger to take over a family member's role. (Columbus really makes them look like the perfect family.) But would I have passed the initial interviews?

Daniel does because he knows exactly what to say: he praises Miranda's taste . . . he brings up Natalie's favourite book . . . he invents a collegiate football background to impress Christopher . . . He becomes the perfect person for the hole in their lives, which is, of course, all sorts of ironic. But is there a practical takeaway here for a "career housekeeper"?

3. The teenage Lydia Hillard is the toughest nut to crack, and so the weakest link in the entire plot is how the standoff between them is resolved. It's just really hard to believe that Lydia would refuse to do her homework one minute and in the next be so easily press ganged into vacuuming the floor as a punishment. And there's no explanation: the perspective just jumps from Mrs. Doubtfire making the threat to the Hillard children elbow-deep in the consequences. We should have seen exactly how Point A led to Point B, given Daniel's spotty track record at the same task.

2. Something else I'd like a better idea of is the passage of time. How much time passes between the day when Mrs. Doubtfire is hired and the night "she" is exposed (Ahem!) to the children as Daniel? How much time in total between the first meeting with Miranda and the final unmasking? This matters because the Hillards clearly grow to love their new housekeeper, and it's hardly a consolation prize, even for the children, to learn that she's actually someone else they've always cared for.

Heck, I am a little sad that Euphegenia Doubtfire doesn't actually exist. And I find it hard to believe that little Natalie didn't need therapy . . . and didn't run away screaming from this:

But kids are resilient, right, Chris Columbus?

1. Daniel's success in convincing his family that he is a capable, experienced housekeeper begs the question of why he couldn't have been a better partner to Miranda the first time around. If he can learn how to cook for a role, why couldn't he learn to cook for his family without the role as mediator? "Faking it until you make it" is real life acting, and the very strong opinion I alluded to earlier is that all adults have the obligation "to fake it until they make it" for the good of the children in their lives.

On a less judgmental note, I'm fascinated by the overlap between learning a role and learning a language. As the inimitable Khatzumoto (among others) has pointed out, fluency in a new language brings out a side of your personality that you didn't know you had. Daniel's character arc suggests that the mastery of any new skill does the same thing. Now that he has learned how to cook and to keep a neat home, he is simply not the same man he was at the beginning of the story. If Miranda takes him back, she'll be very surprised at how happy they can be together! Yet there is the catch . . .

For this movie's happy ending isn't based on hard-won virtue and selfless sacrifice, but on the unconditional acceptance of others despite any flaws. And so winsome is it in selling this alternative path to happiness that Mrs. Doubtfire itself has been embraced and loved despite all its flaws. Look, I know we all loved Robin Williams . . . but that doesn't mean everything he asked us to believe was right.

Image Sources: a) Mrs. Doubtfire poster, b) Run-by fruiting


MrsDarwin said...

I first saw Mrs. Doubtfire when I was 14, on vacation with a friend and her divorced father. I felt incredibly awkward the whole time, and that colored my watching, so that scarcely any of it was funny by the end. I think it's an appalling story, and your point about "if he's so good at keeping house why couldn't he have done that to hold his marriage together?" reminds me of reading some article about second marriages in which some interviewee claimed that his new marriage was working out because he and his wife were doing all the things right that they did wrong in their first marriages. All the pain and drama of divorce, just to wisen you up for your second marriage! I'm sure the first spouses appreciated being the test case.

So anyway, I hated the movie and don't really have anything positive to say about it. I do remember thinking that Sally Field had probable cause, though, as Robin Williams's character seemed exceptionally hard to live with. And Harvey Fierstein... how convenient was it that Daniel Hillard should happen to have a gay makeup artist brother?

Enbrethiliel said...


I recall similar articles: one in which a divorced couple who were living as next-door neighbours (an arrangement they adopted soon after the divorce, for the sake of their children) said that if they had known, when they were fighting so bitterly, that they would get along so well in the future, they wouldn't have gone through with the divorce . . . and an interview with a Hollywood celebrity who said that he had finally figured out exactly what had gone wrong in his first marriage and if he could do it over again, he would get it right. I don't know how the current spouses of those interviewees felt about that!

Anonymous said...

I am in shock! I can't wait for my husband to wake up so I can tell him what you said about stepfathers! I can add one famous stepfather. Hamlet's stepfather. But that isnt quite a fairytale, is it. I still haven't seen this movie, but I've been watching the previews since I was little.



An odd note, his psudonym sounds greek. I would render it 'praiseworthy sacrifice' or 'aplause maiden' or something significant to the story like that.


Enbrethiliel said...


I'm going to guess that Robin Williams totally ad libbed "Euphegenia," possibly with (yes, the very Greek) "Iphigenia" in mind.

Hamlet's stepfather is a good example! He's also a little more sympathetic than the other stepfather villains . . . which helps to make Hamlet less sympathetic as our hero. Have you read Bruce A. McMenomy's commentary on Hamlet? Here's the part that just came to mind for me:

Hamlet's critical failure is not one of indecision. He is never undecided, once he has put the ghost to the test (the final piece being the play-within-a-play). His failing--which is not a character flaw but a positive transgression--is that he oversteps his moral authority, which is to avenge his father's murder, not to redress an eternal imbalance or manipulate the affairs of God. He is obliged to kill Claudius, not to send his soul to Hell. In deferring his revenge to achieve something fundamentally beyond his authority, he brings doom down upon himself and everyone else who dies in the play. Of course, we soon learn that had he done what he ought to have done, killing Claudius at his prayers when he had the opportunity, Claudius would indeed have died unredeemed, and all the other people who die, beginning almost immediately after this failure beginning with Polonius' and ending with Hamlet's own, would have survived. This cascade of violent deaths all spring from Hamlet's initial and deliberate failure. Once he starts down this path, moreover, it worsens. He goes out of his way to ensure not just the death but the damnation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It is not enough that they be put to death: he stipulates that they are to be put to death "not shriving time allowed." They are to go to their eternal account with all their sins upon them. If there is any doubt as to what Shakespeare thought of this, it is probably to be sought in another play: in Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio (in disguise as the friar), describes a prisoner scheduled for execution as, "A creature unprepared, unmeet for death;/ And to transport [i.e., execute] him in the mind he is/ Were damnable." This is precisely what Hamlet has particularly set out to do, and he incurs a huge moral guilt thereby.

Accordingly, while one must have a certain sympathy for Hamlet, and especially for his predicament, it seems to me to be a mistake to present Hamlet as unequivocally good. He may be appealing or engaging; certainly he’s a character of enormous intelligence, power, and complexity, but he’s pursuing a distorted, fundamentally evil agenda, and both he and those around him pay a very heavy price for that distortion.

The rest is here: Shakespeare on View: Hamlet.

Comparing Mrs. Doubtfire to Hamlet, we see that Christopher Hillard fails in his moral obligation to his father by not actively discouraging Stuart from pursuing Miranda. Daniel must do it himself while in disguise as Mrs. Doubtfire. (How interesting that here the father rather than the stepfather is in disguise!) I don't see the Hillard family dynamics as very realistic, but there is only so much you can do in one movie, especially when the movie is primarily a vehicle for its star.