Death and Mrs. Doubtfire

The secret ingredient of Robin Williams’s greatest role: grief

Jimmy Turrell

Death, if we are loved at all in this world, is a centrifuge: at the moment of cessation, it throws our essence outward, and further outward, scattering us abroad with supernatural force and largesse. And in the hearts that receive these essential shards or sparks we are, for a short time, revealed—who we really were, what we really meant. For a short time. Then it’s back to the common muddle and the general noisy sleep: life.

When Robin Williams committed suicide in August, we—humanity, I mean—were globally instant-messaged, a zillion bulletins of illumination. There he suddenly was: not an overexposed funnyman with his best work behind him—what a crass misapprehension!—but a beloved genius. An extraordinary human being, wreathed in pity. And there he suddenly wasn’t: gone, self-removed from our love. “Why did he do it?” asked my son and my three nephews, all under the age of 13. They were interested—not particularly distressed, but interested—because the day before, we had all been watching Williams’s 1993 movie, Mrs. Doubtfire. “Quite a coincidence, Dad,” my son said. But it wasn’t, really: I’ve been watching Mrs. Doubtfire at roughly four-month intervals, alone or in the company of whoever will watch it with me, since the day it was released.

The security-blanket movies, the thumb-in-the-mouth movies, the ones that we use to soothe and compensate—that’s an interesting critical category, is it not? I have been rescued many times by Mrs. Doubtfire. Scooped out, gurgling, from sloppy nights, dubious mornings, and bottomless afternoons. Mrs. Doubtfire has never failed me. More than once, in the reduced-pressure emotion canister of a transatlantic flight, I have shed warm tears watching this movie; I have spilled wetly over my little armrests. What can this mean? Wherefore these expansions, these strange consolations? Mrs. Doubtfire is a crowd-pleaser, a mass-market panderer. In the chronology of great Robin Williams movies, it sits like a carbuncle of banality between The Fisher King (1991) and Good Will Hunting (1997). The broad strokes and gaudy palette of director Chris “Home Alone” Columbus, the terrible soundtrack—why do I love it so?

Because. Because it’s wonderful. And because now, and only now, I begin to see that Mrs. Doubtfire is the happy-sad performance of Williams’s career, a masterpiece comic turn in which his linguistic voltage, his madcap mimetic gift, his soulfulness, and his eerie, emptied-out humility are perfectly rationed and combined.

In case you haven’t seen it 83 times: Williams plays Daniel Hillard, an out-of-work voice-over actor and just-divorced father of three driven temporarily insane by the limited access he now has to his children. Disguising himself as a matronly English woman—full drag, fake teeth, latex mask, and all—Daniel inveigles his way back into the household as the children’s nanny: Mrs. Doubtfire joins the family. What a pitch. What a premise. Could anyone other than Robin Williams have pulled it off? Dustin Hoffman, 11 years earlier, had been superb in Tootsie, even achieving a sort of fragile, flaming glamour as Dorothy Michaels, the transvestite creation of another unemployed actor, Michael Dorsey. But Euphegenia Doubtfire is something else entirely: her pearls, her cardigans, her formidable bogus bosom. Her face steaming blandly with benignity like a plate of mashed potatoes while her small eyes glitter behind the panes of her granny glasses. “I’m not a therapist,” she tells Daniel’s ex-wife, the high-flying Miranda (played with considerable nuance by Sally Field). “I just see what I see.” She is bulky, downy, a soft-focus bouncer. Though she is theoretically English, Williams plays her with an absurd Scottish accent, a padded brogue with lots of cooing and hooting and small satirical cries that rise from her like puffs of talcum powder. Beneath all this, the verbal sallies are nonstop. “What a lovely home you have,” she tells Miranda. “Did you decorate this yourself?” Miranda confesses that she did. “Oh, it reeks of taste!” says Mrs. Doubtfire. When Miranda, getting ready for a date with the oily Stu (a magnificent Pierce Brosnan), asks Mrs. Doubtfire to help her choose between two dresses, she gets no help at all: “They’re both too brazen, dear. They cry harlot.”

Like us, the other characters assent gladly and immediately to this curious fabrication, as if she has fulfilled for them some previously unsuspected archetype of womanhood. This is part of the pleasure of the movie: Miranda’s readiness to confide in Mrs. Doubtfire; the instinctive trust and obedience of the children; the eagerness of Mrs. Sellner, the grim-faced court liaison, to be enchanted by her. And then there’s the bus driver … The bus pulls over, the door opens, and Mrs. Doubtfire groans under her breath as she recognizes the driver, a pre-retiree to whose antique harassments she has already been subjected. I love this shameless old bus driver, with his pitted Bukowski face and silver-nicotine hair. “Well, my lady!” he says as she hauls herself up the steps. “It’s a pleasure to see you again!” Mrs. D sits down heavily and exhales, and we feel the weight of her long day of (fake) womanhood. But the bus driver is still staring at her, turned around in his seat and giving slow, happy blinks of deep-sea lechery. Her stockings have given way—slumped down to expose a bestially hairy Robin Williams knee. “I like that Mediterranean look in women,” the bus driver says. “Natural. Healthy. Just the way God made ya.”

But Mrs. Doubtfire’s secret, the thing that authenticates her, is grief. The grief of a father legally deprived of his children and communicating with them through layers of latex and padding; the grief of a man of many voices, a polyphonic virtuoso, whose mania can rest only when it occupies the persona of an artificial woman. Daniel Hillard is a riff on Robin Williams the comic, the clown: a revved-up antic Hamlet blipping and zinging between ideas. Mrs. Doubtfire, by contrast, is the imago of stability. Embedded in her upholstery, hidden in her bra, Daniel can at last be strong, compassionate, wise.

Contrary to expectation, the movie does not end with Mom and Dad getting back together. But Mrs. Doubtfire herself floats blissfully and profoundly free of the circumstances of her creation. His masquerade over, defrocked (as it were) and discovered, Daniel pitches a children’s TV show to a network chief, with himself-as-Doubtfire as the host. She has ascended to the realm of pure fiction, but she is more real than ever. We see her at work in the studio, in her grandmaternal armchair, bantering with a monkey puppet named Kovacs. The mailman arrives with a letter. One of her viewers has written in, worried and sad in the wake of her parents’ separation: “Did I lose my family?” Mrs. Doubtfire reads the letter aloud and then looks into the camera. She speaks lovely, condolent, reassuring words. “If there’s love, dear,” she says, “those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart forever.” Her gentleness is immeasurable. This is where I cry on the airplane. “All my love to you, poppet. You’re going to be all right.”

Robin Williams dies, and we recognize his greatness. The revelation is supplied, death’s disco ball distributes its scintillae, etc. We see that he moved us like Chaplin, universally. And this hangover, this afterglow of sorrow? In a 2010 podcast interview with the comedian Marc Maron, Williams spoke softly and painfully about his difficulties and his addictions. He departed on a long riff in which he and his conscience, in a hotel room, quietly discussed the possibility of suicide. And he told a story about Richard Pryor. Pryor was performing, doing a bit about God coming down to Earth to look for his son: “Where’s my boy?” Humanity is obliged to tell God that it has, in fact, killed his son. “I’m gonna destroy you!,” God says. Then he reconsiders. “All right,” he says, “that’s it. I’m leaving. I’m not coming back. I’m gonna leave you love. And if you fuck that up, you’re on your own.” After which, in Williams’s telling, the comedian walked offstage, to no laughs at all.