What sets the Robin Williams vehicle Mrs. Doubtfire apart from other recent family comedies that dramatize the redemption of an absentee father, such as Hook and Liar Liar, is that the form his character’s redemption takes isn’t presented as the necessary form of his redemption. The title of Liar Liar indicates what Jim Carrey’s unscrupulous defense attorney must do in order to restore his son’s faith in him, and he’s forced to do it by apt supernatural intervention on the son’s behalf. By contrast, the plot of Mrs. Doubtfire isn’t patly remedial. We can see that Williams’s Daniel is a hyperemotional, erratic actor whose instincts have been overcome by the breakup of his marriage to Miranda (Sally Field), the mother of his three children, as well as by his professional failure. He’s too traumatized to think up a reasonable plan of action but still has the kind of crazed energy it would take to pull off the lunatic imposture he conceives of: dressing up in drag as Mrs. Doubtfire, a late-middle-aged Scottish nanny, in order to spend time with his children who live in the exclusive custody of his fed-up ex-wife.
In order to secure the job with his ex, Daniel first changes the phone number on her newspaper ad and then barrages her with calls from patently unacceptable prospectives so she’ll leap at Mrs. Doubtfire. Each call is a Williams riff, pleasurable in itself, but taken together they’re like a spray of buckshot triggered by emotions Daniel can’t control. The movie understands that Daniel is a trial for Miranda when they’re married: he gets to be the clown, forcing her to end the parties like a cop and clean up after them like a housemaid. And afterwards, when Mrs. Doubtfire has been installed as nanny, he’s a menace to her disguised as a household fixture to whom she naturally turns to confide about her failed marriage and to seek advice about Stu (Pierce Brosnan), her new, wealthy, sophisticated suitor.
Surprisingly for such commercial moviemakers they don’t falsify the premise of Daniel’s double-dealing, which is what allows Williams to give a layered performance. We see him pump Miranda for info, needle her, try to plant ideas in her mind and sway her decisions. If anything, the script intensifies Daniel’s erraticness from Anne Fine’s 1988 source work Alias Madame Doubtfire, in which we initially see Miranda from his perspective swooping in like a witch, a fury, unreasonably set against his involvement with his children. The script does excise the dialectical process monitored by the children who see the justness of both parents’ resentments as well as the way in which their intransigence has made them ugly, grotesque. They’re aware of their mother’s rigidity but also of their father’s inflammability, even to the point of violence. One of the most glaring changes is that whereas the kids in the book are thoughtful and perceptive (like Henry James’s Maisie), the movie deals with them almost entirely in terms of their emotional needs, which override everything. (They become boringly brave American TV brats; the wee one even swears, with a lisp.) But though the movie softens the portrayal of the children and the mother (perhaps to make the role palatable to the fans of Sally Field, who doesn’t get enough comedy, and certainly not of the kind she deserved after her riproaring turn in Soapdish), it preserves Daniel’s volatility, and this is central to the picture’s lack of bad faith.
In Hook and Liar Liar the bad faith consists of the moviemakers, apparently guilt-ridden over what they’ve sacrificed for success, offering mea culpas, which, with an irony they couldn’t perceive and still make such movies, take the form of absolutely standard corporate product. They exploit their guilt to assuage it, though big studio productions like all three of these movies require the same kind of soulless dealmaking and can take an actor or director away from his family as much as an expensive movie with a different message or none at all. And all these movies are much more expensive than they’d need to be to entertain us. The pointless realism of Mrs. Doubtfire is actually depressing (the busy but imaginatively listless children’s birthday party where the dream carnival atmosphere of the pillow fight in Zéro de conduite, which Jonathan Demme summoned in the dance scene in Married to the Mob, would be appropriate) and not even intelligent (Daniel’s dump of an apartment is way too big for a marginally employed man in San Francisco, not to mention that his brother has the accent of a New York Jew).
Yet the movie, like the book, is still in touch with a major theme of contemporary middle-class life in the West. As Fine writes of the hardworking mother, who, unlike Daniel, is employed: "All too frequently in the last few years, she had been forced to regard herself as an unresponsive and distant parent, too often absent earning their living, too often frazzled by the day’s events at the Emporium, too often simply too damn tired, to sit and listen with any pleasure to her children’s conversation." 1 Most people probably still feel that this is a worse crime in a mother, which explains why the symbolic economy of both book and movie require the father to fill in for her in drag. In the transcription from book to movie we get Daniel yelling at Miranda, "Just realize you’re spending too much time with those corporate clones you used to despise!" (which is surely as true of Williams as it is of any major star), and so we feel that at some level the movie understands adults have to make tormenting choices. Daniel is entertaining but also a freak because he tries to get around this.
The degree to which the movie is clear-eyed about Daniel’s character without abandoning slapstick enables it to transcend its sentimentality about parent-child relationships. Early shots of Daniel pleading with a divorce court judge, "I have to be with my children," or late shots of Miranda beaming at a TV children’s show hostess dispensing the same wisdom about how "there are all sorts of different families" that I had recently heard on an episode of Barney (and that Williams would later lampoon as Rainbow Randolph in Death to Smoochy), can’t kill the impact of what comes in between: tense, hilarious scenes of a jealous, angry ex-husband in grandmotherly drag telling his ex-wife that both dresses she’s trying to choose between for a date "cry harlot," or the sight of the old bag on a family expedition to Stu’s country club, throwing a lime at the back of Stu’s head, blaming it on a "run-by fruiting," and then muttering into her beer. The basic suspense of a divorce comedy--will the ex-husband get the last crack in against the new fiancé, or will he end up looking like a fool (take The Awful Truth as the model)--is here heightened by the fear of a nightmarishly embarrassing discovery.
This tension makes the audience edgily alert whenever Daniel faces off directly with Stu. Even when his cracks aren’t great they’re funny because they show that Daniel can’t help running the risk, can’t defer the gratification his emotions demand. Additionally, the script has the good sense to make Stu sincere. He may be stiff, but he’s not a phony (as the bride-to-be is in The Parent Trap, for instance). Thus, you aren’t pushed to hope that Daniel and Miranda will get back together, because Daniel gets funnier only by getting more unstable. Daniel really is, as Miranda thinks, a tornado in a trailer park.
The Drag Continuum
The tidy, starched look Daniel settles on for Mrs. Doubtfire (after a snappy, silly sequence testing other options) takes a less-trodden middle path for drag acts. At the far poles, representing most and least gay, respectively, drag performers emphasize the resplendent sexiness that masculinity is not fabulous enough to express, or they emphasize the oxiness, the impossibility of the illusion, which is the outer form of the character’s (and probably also the actor’s) reluctance 2 . A frenetic comic compromise is for the actor to make a frankly unattractive woman who is nonetheless frisky and flirty, in the manner of Roscoe Arbuckle’s Miss Fatty, Charley’s Aunt, or Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. Mrs. Doubtfire is in the tradition of Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Danny Schiller in Personal Services, and Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, characters for whom being in drag does not in itself excuse unladylike behavior. There’s something irresistibly nutty about men who dress up like fussily proper, even dowdy, women.
Williams has a thick build, like a hairy upended couch, and so he could scarcely be made up as a sexy Miss Thing anyway. Plus, Daniel has a rationale for playing a maternal figure in that he wants to soothe his kids. In costume he matches perfectly the description from Fine’s book: "There was something terribly reassuring about her. She sat like a fortress at the table, reeking of lavender water, solid and steady and imperturbable." 3 Williams requires a lot of padding and makeup to make him look at all feminine and it gives him another quality he’s able to use: as Mrs. Doubtfire Daniel is as big as a mummy case, and Williams’s familiarly hyper-alert eyes look out from the disguise he’s swaddled in with an anxiety that belies "her" solid imperturbability. (When he’s introduced to Stu his utter hatred makes his latex mask look exactly like a latex mask.) Daniel’s eyes behind the makeup are those of a man who feels cut off from his life. That’s why he’s in his former house in drag in the first place. They’re also the eyes of a man going under as the consequences of his own impulses inevitably well up around him.
Though the movie takes a half hour to get going, and ends after an extended two hours right on up-to-date liberal Hollywood family-picture target, we get to that ending via a climactic restaurant scene in which Williams has to sprint from a table with Field, Brosnan, and the children, where he’s supposed to be Mrs. Doubtfire, to the table of a TV producer (Robert Prosky) interviewing him for a job hosting the local children’s show, where he’s supposed to be Daniel. Williams gets to be raunchy, both in drag cooing outrageous metaphors for sex and trying to impress Stu with the competition he’ll face from Miranda’s "power tool" of a vibrator, and man-to-man tying one on with Prosky across the room. But light-headed Daniel has too many drinks and loses track of who he’s supposed to be at which table, and Williams gets to put a twist on this pungent burlesque insanity, croaking in drag to the producer that he has "to piss like a racehorse." Field also scores, with her comic specialty of being driven to make a decision when she’s at her most flustered. (Her sputtering here is up to her top moments in Soapdish.) This fiasco alone is among the best haywire climaxes in American movie farce. (And it’s an improvement over the book’s climax, which involves Daniel’s modeling for a life study class, and which is not very fully "staged.")
In his straight scenes as a dad in love with his kids it’s easy to see why people have hesitations about Williams: he’s too darned ingratiating. It’s probably because of his unthreatening directness that Williams has been put in so many pictures that can function as baby-sitters--Hook (1991), Toys (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji (1995), Jack (1996), Flubber (1997). Even when he plays a negligent father or a bitter man, as in Hook and Jumanji, the scripts make him unpleasant only to redeem him. And Williams is not someone who needs help being likable. In these family pictures his motor-mouth imitations sound less like Jonathan Winters’s scrambled reception, which is what Williams sounds like at his best, and more like Danny Kaye’s sparky turns. When this happens, the richness of Williams’s talent can sit heavy on your stomach.
Mrs. Doubtfire is the most successful of these vehicles because the problem he needs to be cured of leads to flabbergastingly entertaining complications. The writing is certainly not of a piece, which is primarily what keeps it out of the class of Tootsie, though it also matters that all of Tootsie was written with an adult audience in mind and that everyone in the large, expert cast gets his or her own distinct groove. (That it attractively captures its Manhattan settings in the large-scale design and cinematography, and is not set in California, also add to its luster if not its essence.)
Still, the funny parts of Mrs. Doubtfire kick with both back hooves. There are, in fact, enough great scenes of Daniel in drag flinching at what he sees of his family’s even-keeled life without him, or of him coming half and then fully undone, for the picture to rank as a classic. It’s probably a new kind of classic, one brought into existence by video technology. The wonderful fast-forward button enables you to perform liposuction on a flabby movie and reshape it into a trim forty-five minutes of peak material. (Making a "viewer’s cut" in this way is much more efficient than going to the fridge or the bathroom during the dead stretches. Now when I’m bored in the theater I often find myself unconsciously raising the remote control toward the screen.) You probably wouldn’t sit through Mrs. Doubtfire again without fast-forward, but Williams’s performance at its best is far better than such qualified praise implies.
There’s another way of looking at his goopiness as the doting father as well. Both that and the supremely unhinged conniving of Mrs. Doubtfire gain their force from Williams’s rampaging unself-consciousness as a performer. His instincts as an actor can be as uneven as Daniel’s, though his fault is a matter of taste not ethics. But Williams doesn’t falter in generosity; he gives us all he’s got. He does become the audience’s daddy, dressed as Santa Claus handing out gifts with both hands. In Mrs. Doubtfire half of them are not what you wanted, from him or anyone else, but the other half are better than you would have thought to ask for.
- All too frequently: Fine 98. (return to text)
- most and least gay: I’ve heard a number of gay culture commentators who don’t understand that male drag doesn’t necessarily connote sexual ambiguity. This should be clear from Aristophanes’s Thesmophoriazusae, Scribe and Delestre-Poirson’s libretto to Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, or Gilbert’s libretto, after Tennyson, to Princess Ida. (return to text)
- There was something terribly reassuring: Fine 65. (return to text)