For the Kids
Picture this scenario. You’re 5 years old, sweet and innocent but a little confused by your parents’ recent divorce. One night, you’re out to dinner with your mom and her new boyfriend (“Why is Mommy kissing a man who’s not Daddy?” you might worry in some secret corner of your impressionable little mind), along with your siblings and your charming, wonderful, delightful English housekeeper, the lady who reads your favorite book, Stuart Little, to you, and does all the voices, just like Daddy used to before he had to move away. And then, without warning, the housekeeper’s wig falls off… and she’s Daddy!
That would permanently fry your tender young brain, wouldn’t it? You end up a transsexual prostitute in a bizarre Victor/Victoria scenario, all your wiring for gender, sexuality, and healthy human relationships forever short-circuited by your father, who claims to have had only your best interests in mind. And when dear old Dad died, many many years later — he hung on too long, the old fart — you’d skip his funeral but turn up at the cemetery, accompanied by your Goth vampire love slave on his leash, to spit on the old man’s grave. The bastard.
Such is the fate awaiting Mrs. Doubtfire‘s oh- so- adorable Natalie Hillard (and quite possibly the tyke who portrayed her, Mara Wilson). When Mommy, Miranda (Sally Field: Forrest Gump), kicks Daddy, Daniel (Robin Williams: Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come), out of the house, requesting that he never return, he does what any Baby Boomer dad, feeling guilty, would do: He sabotages Miranda’s newspaper advertisement for a housekeeper and afterschool babysitter for the kids and arranges for the only suitable applicant to be the kindly English dowager, Mrs. Doubtfire. Daniel, while only menially employed, is a whiz at character voices, and by sheer outrageous chance, his brother, Frank (Harvey Fierstein), is a brilliant makeup artist. Mrs. Doubtfire — Daniel in drag — is born in time for her interview with Miranda. Bustling efficiently around the Hillard kitchen, making tea, gee, as if she knows the place, Mrs. Doubtfire is an instant hit, and is immediately hired.
Mrs. Doubtfire, directed by the king of sentimental family sitcoms, Chris Columbus (Home Alone — fingers crossed he doesn’t ruin Harry Potter), does have its charms, not the least of which is Robin Williams. He’s a talented mimic, obviously, but not a bad dramatic actor either, when his mania is restrained by an appropriate role. Mrs. Doubtfire is a perfect example, because polite British matrons cannot carom off into rapid-fire impersonations of Looney Toons or idiot politicians. Forced to focus on creating a character instead of being cut loose to improvise his way through a scene, Williams makes Mrs. Doubtfire real, as genuine a female impersonation as Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie. And she’s irresistible, too.
Daniel, however, is more problematic, though this is no fault of Williams’s. The dark side of Mrs. Doubtfire is the dark side that hovers under much of what passes for “family fare” today, films like Jingle All The Way and Columbus’s own Stepmom — although the adult characters in these films profess to be doing what they do for their children, what they’re really doing is salving the guilt they feel as neglectful parents, and in such a way that might actually damage kids who probably would have otherwise survived fairly intact.
Instead of trying to find an honest way to spend more time with his kids after his divorce, Daniel resorts to so insidious a subterfuge that it’s hard to imagine that it was his children, and not himself, who was uppermost in his mind. When his older children — Lydia (Lisa Jakub) and Chris (Matthew Lawrence: All I Wanna Do), both in their early teens — finally discover the secret of Mrs. Doubtfire, as was inevitable, Daniel urges them not to tell Natalie, because she’ll spill the beans to Miranda. Even while his son, who is precisely at the age when positive images of men are so vital, is freaking out to learn that his dad not only dresses as a woman but is a liar, Daniel’s main concern is keeping Miranda from finding out the truth. And well he should, too, since he has, under the guise of Mrs. Doubtfire, extracted confidences from Miranda about her relationship with Daniel that she would only have shared with another woman, and he used Mrs. Doubtfire to sabotage Miranda’s budding romance with the suave and slick Stuart Dunmeyer (Pierce Brosnan: Tomorrow Never Dies). So, honestly, is Daniel more worried about his children’s well-being, or his own?
It’s all only a fantasy, of course, but perhaps we shouldn’t pretend that movies like this are appropriate for kids. Kids are smart — they see through dishonesty, and they don’t like it. Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to teach them that it’s a good way to get the things we want.