“All my love to you, Poppet. You’re going to be all right.”
Like so many others, I was shocked and dismayed early this month to learn of the untimely death of actor Robin Williams. I remember Robin from his “Mork and Mindy” days, thirty-six years ago. By the time of his death, he had been in the public eye for so long that he had acquired an aura of permanence.
I’ve seen many of Robin’s movies over the years, and my favorite, “Mrs. Doubtfire”, is the subject of this month’s post. For those of you who haven’t seen it – and for the many who have – I offer this review as a tribute to a great actor and uniquely gifted entertainer.
“Mrs. Doubtfire” tells the story of Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams), his wife Miranda (Sally Field), and their three children, Lydie, Chris, and Nattie. When we first meet Daniel, he is doing what he does best, voice acting in a children’s cartoon. Rather than do a scene that appears to encourage smoking, Daniel abruptly quits his job and goes to meet his children after school. He explains to the suspicious Lydie that he wasn’t fired, but that he quit for “reasons of conscience.”
At home, Daniel has arranged an elaborate twelfth birthday party, including a mobile petting zoo, for his son Chris. The animals quickly get out of hand, and Miranda receives an anxious phone call at work from their neighbor Gloria. When she arrives home early, the party is in full swing: ear-splitting rap music, animals loose in the house, and children jumping on the furniture, wilder than the animals. This proves to be the last straw for Miranda, who is beyond furious. When she pulls the plug on the boom box, Daniel tells a subdued Chris, “The party’s over”, which turns out to be true in more ways than one: Miranda wants a divorce.
At the custody hearing, the judge rules that Daniel will be allowed to see his children only on Saturdays. For Daniel, who has never been away from them for more than a day at a time, this is an intolerable restriction. When Miranda places an ad in the paper for a part-time housekeeper, Daniel decides to impersonate an English nanny, and with the help of his brother Frank, who is a make-up artist, Mrs. Doubtfire is born.
Robin Williams gives a virtuoso performance as Mrs. Doubtfire. In my opinion, you can retire the trophy for “Best Performance by a Male Actor Playing a Woman”. I’ve seen “Some Like It Hot”, and as much fun as it is, as played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, Daphne and Josephine are little more than caricatures of women. I’ve also seen “Tootsie”, and cannot watch Dustin Hoffman’s Dorothy without being conscious that she is really a man. With Mrs. Doubtfire, however, we – along with Daniel’s family and everyone else – are completely taken in. Robin Williams is that good.
Sally Field has one of the most expressive faces in the movies, and as Miranda Hillard, delivers a note-perfect performance. Pierce Brosnan gives a subtle, understated portrayal of Stuart Dunmeyer, her new love-interest. The supporting cast is superb, as are the make-up and editing, and the choice of music is inspired. On the whole, the film is so human and believable that we are more than willing to suspend our disbelief during the slapstick scene at Bridges Restaurant.
As my son Wescott pointed out to me, we can also retire the trophy for “Best Film about Divorce”. “Mrs. Doubtfire” lays it all out for us: the pain and anger of the parents, the guilt and confusion of the children – it’s all there. But the story doesn’t end there. As Chris Columbus, the director of “Mrs. Doubtfire”, said in 1993, “I can understand the validity of showing people the ugliness of the world, but I also think there is a place for movies to leave people with a sense of hope. If your film isn’t going to do that, I just don’t think it’s worth making.” By the end of the film, Daniel and Miranda, who could never learn how to be married, have learned something about how to be divorced, yet remain a family.