Should I Watch..? 'Mrs. Doubtfire'
What's the big deal?
Mrs. Doubtfire is a comedy-drama film released in 1993 and is loosely based on the book Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine. The film stars Robin Williams in one of his most-loved roles as struggling voice-over artist Daniel Hillard who adopts the guise of a female Scottish nanny in order to spend more time with his children after a custody battle ensues with his estranged wife. The film also stars Sally Field, Pierce Brosnan, Lisa Jakub, Matthew Lawrence and Mara Wilson and was directed by Chris Columbus. Despite mixed reviews when it was released, the film went on to take more than $441 million at the global box office (second only to Jurassic Park that year) and even went on to earn an Oscar. Plans for a sequel had languished in development hell for years until Williams' tragic death in 2014 led to them being cancelled.
What's it about?
Daniel Hillard is a voice-over artist who dotes on his three children Lydia, Chris and Natalie while his wife Miranda considers him unreliable. After walking out of his latest job and throwing a massive party for Chris' twelfth birthday, Miranda returns home after the neighbours complain and tells Daniel that she wants a divorce. After Miranda is awarded custody of the three children, Daniel is given just one day a week to see them - devastated, he moves out and seeks solace with his gay brother Frank and his partner Jack.
With Daniel out of the house and career-minded Miranda too busy to look after the children, Miranda places an ad for a housemaid to keep things in order in the house. But Daniel applies for the role himself, pretending to be the erstwhile Euphegenia Doubtfire after scaring Miranda by playing a number of unsuitable candidates. Once Mrs Doubtfire gets the job, Daniel soon finds that he discovers a side of himself he never knew existed as well as discovering that Miranda has quickly moved on from him with her new boyfriend Stuart...
Daniel Hillard / Mrs Doubtfire
Randi Mayem Singer & Leslie Dixon *
Release Date (UK)
28th January, 1994
Comedy, Drama, Family
What's to like?
Like so many of his movies, Williams is the absolute star of the show. Whether he is improvising his way through scenes, flapping about with physical comedy or flexing his dramatic acting prowess, you simply cannot take your eyes off him. It is a virtuoso performance, although I felt that the Mrs Doubtfire character had much more life to her than that of poor Daniel. Opposite, Field gives a controlled portrayal of a woman struggling to hold things together while Brosnan oozes the raw sexuality that no doubt led to him being cast as James Bond a few years later.
The story might not sound like fertile ground for comedy but the film manages to extract plenty of laughs from what is actually not very much. The scene in the restaurant where Williams must be both Daniel and Doubtfire is predictable, of course, but thoroughly entertaining because of the sheer energy he brings to the picture. I must also mention Fierstein who surely needed more screen time as the gay make-up artist responsible for the remarkable transformation Williams goes through - he has some great lines and I felt he could have been used a bit more.
- According to Columbus, Williams improvised so much of the film that it could have been edited into versions for each of the US ratings system. He also had to use several cameras to record Williams' performance because he simply didn't know what he was going to do next.
- Polly Holliday played the Hillard's neighbour Gloria Chaney and was originally set for a bigger part but most of her scenes were cut due to time constraints. In the final cut, it was she who called Miranda about the birthday party.
- The Mrs Doubtfire makeup took four hours to apply and was so convincing that Williams' own son didn't recognise him. Williams also frequently walked around San Francisco in the costume without being recognised, even popping into a sex shop to make a purchase!
What's not to like?
Drag movies seem to come around every now and again in Hollywood and comparisons to the likes of Tootsie don't help the film's cause. The humour in Mrs. Doubtfire feels a little forced at times as the film's overall premise is actually rather horrifying if one stops to think about it. Daniel is clearly a man in need of psychiatric help, justifying his decision to go along with the charade because he loves his children so much. Does any father love their children to the point of practically breaking the law just so he can pick his kids up from school? It just didn't sit right with me - no, I'm not a father but I simply can't imagine any fathers I do know going to such extremes.
I also felt the story underserved certain characters, Frank being the most obvious. But Brosnan's role felt tacked on and almost forgotten about by the time of the finale and if I'm being totally honest here, I sympathised more with Miranda than I did with Daniel, who is clearly a loose cannon. The film isn't as funny as it should be because, in truth, there is only so much comedy to be found amid a family crumbling apart at the seams. Admittedly, this gives Williams room to allow his dramatic acting to flourish (an under-rated aspect of his career, I felt) but I wanted the film to have its heart in the right place. Comedy is about making people laugh and other than Williams' superb performance and Fierstein's cameo, I didn't find much to laugh about.
Should I watch it?
These days, Mrs. Doubtfire underlines how much of a talent Robin Williams was. His scene-stealing performance saves the picture from wallowing in melancholy as this perfect family with the picture-postcard house in San Francisco tears itself apart with the unfortunate kids stuck in the middle. It could, and perhaps should, have been a disaster but Williams takes the film and turns into an acceptable comedy through sheer force of will.
Great For: cross-dressers, makeup artists, recently separated career women
Not So Great For: depressives, single parents, patriotic Scots
What else should I watch?
When I said that cross-dressing films appear quite frequently, I'm not kidding. Ever since Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis smashed it out of the ballpark with 1959's Some Like It Hot, it has been a staple of Hollywood comedies ever since with more recent efforts like She's The Man and the numerous films of Tyler Perry playing Madea, who first appeared in Diary Of A Mad Black Woman. Occasionally, cross-dressing has been use for dramatic purposes - Glenn Close won nominations everywhere for her part in Albert Nobbs - but generally, Hollywood is more comfortable making fun of such people.
Williams was a unique talent in Hollywood, able to perform both mind-blowing comedy as well as dramatic performances - sometimes even in the same picture. His appearances in films like Good Morning, Vietnam, Good Will Hunting and his unforgettable Genie in Disney's Aladdin led to both critical acclaim and popular adoration and his loss is still keenly felt in some circles.
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© 2017 Benjamin Cox