Robin Williams was a constant presence in my life growing up – he was Genie in Aladdin and Alan in Jumanji, when I got older he was Armand in The Birdcage and Adrian in Good Morning Vietnam. He was cool and funny, and he somehow managed to be a kid and an adult at the same time (it wasn’t an accident he played a 40-year-old Peter Pan in Hook and an 10-year-old adult in Jack). I watched every single thing he made, and every new film I saw reinforced my belief that a) we would be friends, b) he was the funniest person alive and c) he had a big heart. In Chris Columbus’s Mrs Doubtfire he managed to embody all the things that I loved about him, plus … he plays a cross-dressing divorcee dad in a tartan skirt.
When I was younger my dad used to drive me down the road to Upfront video every Saturday so I could rent a VHS. I watched Mrs Doubtfire one Saturday in 1994 on a battered paisley sofa in our living room. I watched it again the next morning before we had to return it. Then I saved up and bought my own VHS with my pocket money, and watched it again. I started secondary school. I watched it again. My parents got divorced. I watched it again.
Daniel Hillard is a struggling actor using his considerable talent for impressions to do voice work, while being a husband and father to three kids. The film opens with Daniel being fired from his job voicing a cartoon parrot called Pudgy after a crisis of conscience during recording, when he refuses to voice Pudgy enjoying chuffing on a cigar. “Millions of kids are watching this, Hal!” he protests to his producer. Hal’s response (fag in mouth) is “If you wanna play Gandhi, do it on somebody else’s time!”, so after a quick Ben Kingsley impression, Daniel walks out. William’s character is set out within two minutes of the opening credits – this guy cares about kids.
It happens to be his son’s birthday that day, so Daniel’s (questionable) response to losing his job is to make the snap decision to hire an entire petting zoo to come to his house. Sally Field plays Daniel’s frustrated wife, Miranda. Miranda has already organised a nice dinner and a birthday cake for her son’s birthday, so when she gets home after being at work all day to discover her house covered in streamers, her jobless husband dancing on a table to House of Pain, a horse in her garden, and a goat eating her sofa cushions, it is unsurprisingly the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and she files for divorce. At the court hearing, the judge gives Daniel 90 days to sort his life out – get a job and a house, be a stable father figure or you won’t see your children again.
Daniel moves into a flat by himself, and while looking for a job learns that Miranda is looking for a housekeeper. In yet another questionable decision (he makes a lot of these), he asks his drag queen brother to fashion him a prosthetic face mask and give him tips on dressing as a woman, before bulk-buying a load of cardigans and deciding to impersonate an elderly Scottish nanny to get the housekeeper job. My 12-year-old self was fine with this – “Sure Daniel, disguising yourself as an old lady to trick your ex-wife into letting you inside her house sounds like a great plan! Can you do another impression please?”
Thus is born Mrs Doubtfire – the perfect nanny, airlifted into the Hillards’ lives to help the kids with their homework, clean the house while Miranda is at work and cook dinner when she gets home. There is a joyous hoovering montage set to Aerosmith’s Dude (Looks Like a Lady), and at one point Mrs Doubtfire plays football with the kids – and as an adult, the idea of Robin Williams running around a park in a dress shouting “Goal!” in a Scottish falsetto sounds like the product of a particularly intense fever dream. Marriage Story this ain’t.
Having a bit of help with the kids also means Sally Field has the time to pursue a fledgling romance with everyone’s favourite hairy-chested Irish Bond, Pierce Brosnan. Tanned, white-toothed, and possessing a bottomless collection of light-coloured linen suits, Brosnan tries his best to charm Miranda while being negged by a 60-year-old nanny.
Robin Williams obviously had a gift for physical comedy, and the slapstick comes thick and fast – a social worker visits Mrs Doubtfire at home after Daniel’s prosthetic mask has been run over by a lorry, forcing him to dunk himself in a cake to conceal his face. Hilarity ensues. There are fake boob jokes when he leans too close to the stove while cooking breakfast (“This hollandaise smells like burnt rubber”). Hilarity ensues. Daniel juggles two simultaneous dinner dates in a restaurant while dressed as both himself and Mrs Doubtfire, running between two tables and necking cocktails. Hilarity ENSUES.
When I was 12, I loved this film with every fibre of my being. This was in part because it made me laugh, but also because it has a big heart. Daniel Hillard is a cross-dressing Mary Poppins, and he becomes a much better father and human being than he ever was before he started wearing a tartan skirt and fake breasts. Eventually Mrs Doubtfire gets her own kids’ TV show, on which she responds to letters from viewers. A 12-year-old girl writes in asking about her parents getting separated, and if she’s going to “lose her family”. Robin Williams in full drag looks straight at the camera and starts a two-minute monologue. “Some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. But if there’s love, dear, those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, for ever. You’re going to be alright, poppet.”
I was 12 when Mrs Doubtfire taught me that if you’re a kid and you’re worried times are going to be tough, that’s true – sometimes they are. But don’t worry … everything’s going to be alright.