Sometimes, we have to give credit where credit is due. Some feats are so trying with such apparently insurmountable obstacles that their ultimate achievers deserve the utmost in respect and recognition. Thus was the case of transforming the hairiest man in the world into a moderately convincing elderly British woman. In the words of one of Robin Williams' on-screen transformers, "The man has a five o'clock shadow at 8:30 am." These makeup people and professional arm waxers certainly deserve their due.
Mrs. Doubtfire, based on the 1993 novel Madame Doubtfire, was an ambitious undertaking. Sure, audiences had eaten up Tootsie a decade before and publicly declared their love for movies starring cross-dressing men, but you know what they say: it's a hell of a lot easier to turn Dustin Hoffman into a woman than it is with Robin Williams. Though the two movies invite obvious comparisons, Mrs. Doubtfire separated itself in a major way by marketing to children. Sure, a man in drag is funny, but a man in drag to children is hilarious. Well played, director Chris Columbus. Well played indeed.
The movie is one for which audiences were willing and eager to suspend their disbelief and allow themselves to get caught up in the touchy-feely heartwarmingness of it all. We can all recognize that the plot is absurd and unrealistic, but that's why it's a movie. There's no "based on a true story" anywhere about it. It's based on a fictional story. It doesn't have to be real. It just has to be entertaining.
Cresting the wave of popularity of William's voice acting successes in animated films such as Aladdin and Fern Gully, Mrs. Doubtfire's opening scene depicts Williams (as Daniel Hillard) doing in-studio voice-over work for an animated short. Though his performance as a opera-singing caged bird is near-inspired, he clashes with the creative director and leaves the set, thus severing ties with gainful employment.
Largely unaffected by this minor hiccup, Daniel defies his wife's wishes and throws his son (played by Matthew Lawrence) a crazy 12th birthday bash, complete with full zoo and other reckless means of child enjoyment. Daniel's wife Miranda (Sally Fields) comes home to find the house a mob scene, with everyone jumping around to that House of Pain song. Tired of being the bad-cop to Daniel's super-fun cop, Miranda asks for a divorce. Due to his flaky employment and lack of steady income, the judge allows Daniel the miniature visitation time slot of Saturday evenings. Needless to say, Daniel is pretty bummed.
Lucky for us viewers, this sad sack-ness doesn't last for long and antics quickly escalate into insane debauchery. Daniel learns that his ex-wife is seeking a housekeeper and is insulted that he can't be trusted to care for his kids. Instead of handling this in a rational, adult way, Daniel goes for the crazy, voice-talent approach. He intercepts Miranda's newspaper ad and changes the phone number to ward off legitimate inquiries from qualified housekeepers, and proceeds to call Miranda numerous times with different frustrating-inducing traits. Eventually he calls in as the soothingly sweet and highly qualified Mrs. Doubtfire, pilfering the name from a newspaper headline ("Police Doubt Fire Was Accidental").
What happens next can only be described as a clinically, almost criminally insane quest for Daniel to disguise himself as a sweet old lady. In an extremely convenient plot point, Daniel's brother is actually some form of special-effects make-up guru who is just perfect for this job. Although he probably should have considered disguise options before committing to an interview, Daniel hastily retreats to his brother's home and asks, "Can you make me a woman?" His brother is more than happy to oblige, and also happy to waste mountains of time and expensive resources making him look like Barbara Streisand and other near-misses, purportedly for our pure entertainment value. They even through in some Fiddler on the Roof in a sequence where Williams appears dressed exactly like my grandmother in a rainstorm.
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His brother just happens to have all of the necessary accouterments on hand, right down to the jeweled Victorian brooch. Euphoric high fiving, hip-bumping, and chaotic dancing ensue, and Daniel's brother and his partner declare Daniel fit to convince his ex-wife and children that he's a 70-something English nanny full of worldly wisdom, nutritious cooking expertise, and disciplinary goodness.
Of course, requisite hilarity ensues in typical 90s montage fashion. All sorts of what-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong situations unfold, such as the hilarious prosthetic-breasts-aflame-in-cooking-gone-awry moment. Unfortunately for Daniel, Miranda becomes smitten with her hunky co-worker (Pierce Brosnan). Sure, it's rough on him, but just try to tell me you could platonically share office space with James Bond without asking him to be the father of your children. Just try!
Obviously, instead of doing the grown-up thing and either a) lying to someone to change the conflicting plans or b) telling the truth, Daniel opts for elusive option c) attempt to change back and forth and eat two dinners as two different people at the same time. Obviously it goes amok, and Daniel's cover is blown as his disguise comes unglued and he is exposed as the father of all frauds. Or frauds of all fathers. Take your pick.
Daniel pleads his case in family court, but to no avail. In a singular sane moment of clarity, the judge revokes Daniel's custody and allows him only supervised visitation. Daniel is devastated, but somehow manages to pick up the broken shards of his life and relegate his creative energy into a new show, Aunt Euphegenia's House, starring himself as Mrs. Doubtfire. Miranda sees the show and in typical movie fashion, immediately reconsiders and allows joint visitation. It just goes to show you: if you're crazy enough to housekeep your children in drag but entertaining enough to bring that character to TV, everything will work out just fine. Really.
If that description was too long and unwieldy for your tastes, don't you worry your pretty little head about it. Someone (not me) put together this handy condensed version of the film. For your viewing and summarizing pleasure, Mrs. Doubtfire in under a minute flat:
Oh, and don't forget to tune in to the next installment of our multi-part series on mid-90s cross-dressing themed movies starring Robin Williams when we examine The Birdcage. What can I say? These were his drag queen years.