Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Secret Identity

Mrs. Doubtfire (Robin Williams): [reading a letter] "Dear Mrs. Doubtfire, two months ago, my mom and dad decided to separate. Now they live in different houses. My brother Andrew says that we aren't to be a family anymore. Is this true? Did I lose my family? Is there anything I can do to get my parents back together? Sincerely, Katie McCormick." Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they're angry, they get along much better when they don't live together. They don't fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don't, dear. And if they don't, don't blame yourself. Just because they don't love each other anymore doesn't mean that they don't love you. There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. And some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. And some live in separate homes, in separate neighborhoods, in different areas of the country — and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months ... even years at a time. But if there's love, dear ... those are the ties that bind, and you'll have a family in your heart forever.

Robin Williams has been a wild man ever since I first became aware of him. He was almost certainly a wild man before that.

The first time I remember seeing him was in the role of Mork — originally as a guest on Happy Days, then in a recurring role on the Mork and Mindy TV show, a Happy Days spinoff. Maybe he did some things before that. I don't know.

But I've seen most of his movies since then, and there's always that kind of frenzy about him. Well, almost always.

The exception, perhaps, was "Mrs. Doubtfire," the movie that was released 20 years ago today. There was still a lot of that hyper dialogue in his performance — some of it must have been the result of a good director (Chris Columbus) simply letting Williams go on one of his improvisational rants. That was, after all, what the moviegoing public paid money to see.

But "Mrs. Doubtfire" was different. Mrs. Doubtfire was a strict but sweet and caring Scottish nanny. In every life there should be a Mrs. Doubtfire.

Thing is, Mrs. Doubtfire was already in the lives of Sally Field and her three children — because Mrs. Doubtfire was really Williams, Field's ex–husband. Williams' character was an affectionate father, but he was not much for discipline nor did he set a particularly good example for his children so he was limited in the time he could spend with them.
Daniel (Robin Willilams): Did you ever wish you could sometimes freeze frame a moment in your day, look at it and say, "This is not my life?"

The only way he could spend more time with them was to assume another identity so he could get the job of housekeeper — and he had to stay in character.

He couldn't be discovered or he would lose the job for sure — and possibly the time he was allowed with his children in his true identity.

That could be pretty challenging, especially when he was with his ex–wife and her new beau (Pierce Brosnan) not as Daniel the ex but as Mrs. Doubtfire.

Of course, there were several narrow escapes before his cover was finally blown, but that was a big part of the movie's charm. Anyway, by then, some really unexpected changes had occurred.

I felt the conclusion of the movie didn't compromise. Williams and Field did not get back together — in a happily–ever–after movie, they would, but not in "Mrs. Doubtfire." Field put a little of her pride on the shelf and allowed Williams to spend more time with his children. It was a good lesson, reinforced by Mrs. Doubtfire's closing monologue (with which I began this post) on love and family and distance, for children from divided families.

When I was growing up, I knew several children whose parents were divorced, and some spent their childhoods hoping their parents would get back together. None ever did. Sometimes they do, as Mrs. Doubtfire said, but quite often, they don't. "Mrs. Doubtfire" always kind of reminded me of "Tootsie."

The stories weren't the same, of course. The lead character in "Tootsie" was not motivated by the desire to spend more time with a family. He cross–dressed because he was an abrasive person who couldn't find work as an actor.

In the process, he learned things that made him a better person.

Something similar happened, I think, to Robin Williams' character in "Mrs. Doubtfire." He learned things that made him a better parent — and led to a different kind of love story.