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" . . .
. . . 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.
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
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.
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