In the 90s, Robin Williams’ career really started to take off and land him roles beyond the typical comedic romps and propelled him to legendary status as both an improvisational comic and a dramatic actor of the highest caliber.
I was extremely dismayed to hear of his passing earlier this week as a result of self-inflicted asphyxiation and I felt compelled to write an article about one of his movies. I want to pay tribute to a man who brought smiles and entertainment to so many people over the years. There are so many great titles in his catalogue of work from the 90s that are worthy of recognition that it was hard to choose just one.
Hook is a great example of a film that defied genre expectations for a childrens’ movie and successfully mixed a fairy tale story with a live action movie. This type of film paved the way for many more fantastical movies to come and it still stands as a fun, unique, and ultimately satisfying film in its own right. Williams’ acting ability was brilliantly complemented by Dustin Hoffman’s iconic performance as the lead villain and this cinematic duo rallied a fervent following behind this awesome film.
There are films like Jumanji, another favorite from my youth that marked a time when Hollywood finally started to use CGI effects to create mood and tension with some believability. It was the movie that made everyone want to rush out to their nearest toy store and pick up a board game. How many movies can say that? Williams played Jumanji just as funny, heartfelt, and sentimental as all of his other roles and it’s another great title to share with people.
One of his best dramatic roles was that of the no-nonsense therapist in Good Will Hunting. Although the movie was written about the trials and tribulations and spiritual awakening of Will Hunting, I feel that most of the character development was as a result of Dr. Sean Maguire. Williams’ passion, straightforwardness, and tearful honesty made this one of his most memorable roles and helped make Good Will Hunting a film that still resides high atop my favorite film lists.
And who could even pretend forget his role as the wise-cracking, schizophrenic genie in the lamp in Disney’s Aladdin? You ain’t never had a friend like him.
When it comes to the feelings and emotions and cultural relevance of a film, however, there is no better example than Robin Williams’ cross-dressing ode to family values known as Mrs. Doubtfire.
In this film, Robin Williams plays a character that has many elements of his real-world self. Daniel Hillard is a supremely talented, but often-overlooked (and recently unemployed) voice actor in the bay area. His greatest moments of joy in life are the moments he gets to spend with his three children. However, as a parent he isn’t the best disciplinarian, as is the case with most fathers who try too hard to be friends with their kids instead of guiding them.
His wife Miranda, the timeless Sally Field, considers him an irresponsible goof and this chasm of maturity level separation between them leads to marital troubles. In an unforgettable early scene in the movie, Daniel throws one of his children a wild, rock out with your cock out birthday party despite his son’s failing grades. Miranda comes home to the whole mess of madness going on in their house and absolutely loses it, asking for a divorce and eventually gaining custody of the kids. I guess the lack of a house and the lack of a job leads the judge to believe that Daniel would be an unsuitable caretaker.
Devastated by the loss of contact with his beloved children, Daniel catches wind that Miranda intends on hiring a housekeeper to care for the children while she is working. Since he is not allowed to care for the kids as himself, Daniel poses as a pleasant and kindhearted elderly Scottish nanny named Mrs. Doubtfire and manages to snag an interview.
Daniel scrambles to figure out how to look the part after faking the voice on the phone and enlists the help of his gay brother, Frank, conveniently a talented makeup artist, to transform him into Mrs. Doubtfire.
Miranda and the children must have pretty awful vision, though, because none of them realize that the kindly old woman is actually Daniel in disguise when he comes for the interview. Daniel’s persona as Mrs. Doubtfire is a huge departure from his own methods, as he takes on the role of a strict matron. Initially reluctant, the kids come to recognize Mrs. Doubtfire as an important part of the family and her guidance allows Miranda to ease back into a normal relationship with her alienated children.
Daniel is not without growth as well, as he learns several domestic skills by posing as Mrs. Doubtfire and also steadily rebuilds his life, acquiring a low-level job at a local TV station and taking better care of his apartment.
The seemingly good times come to a screeching halt, however, when Daniel becomes overcome with jealous rage after meeting Miranda’s new love interest, Stuart Dunmire (played by the dashing Pierce Brosnan). There’s also the irony that Miranda, despite Daniel’s long list of self-improvements, will not allow him to look after the children by himself, admitting that she could never dismiss Mrs. Doubtfire because she had made their lives so much better than they used to be. Suffice to say, Daniel fucked himself over in more ways than one by cross-dressing as a geriatric Scottish nanny.
The stakes have never been higher for Daniel, Miranda, and their kids and the resolution of Mrs. Doubtfire is about as heartwarming and honest as a film can possibly get.
Some of the best parts of Mrs. Doubtfire come from Williams’ acting ability. He is simultaneously charming, heartfelt, misunderstood, childish, goofy, and somehow responsible. His character takes on so many changes, both emotionally and physically, throughout the film and he continues to roll with the punches.
There are so many memorable scenes in this film. From his fake boobs catching on fire to stuffing his face in a pie, Robin Williams knows how to win over an audience with both laughter and tears. There’s something so satisfying about a comedy actor that can transcend “funny” and push himself into “utterly lovable.” Daniel Hillard is the quintessential hilarious, inept, but virtuous loser dad character and Robin Williams does him assloads of justice on-screen.
My absolute favorite scene in the movie is when Mrs. Doubtfire pegs a certain douchey Mr. Dunmire in the back of the head with a ripe lime and then claims that it wasn’t her, but a random act of “run-by fruiting.” Robin Williams is a fucking genius.
Although the story seems contrived and simplistic, Mrs. Doubtfire resonated with the 90s because it took place during a time when the dynamic in so many families had changed. Divorces were no longer rare and looked down upon, they were a facet of everyday life that people had to accept, children especially.
Films like the Parent Trap, House Arrest, and countless others took the struggles of kids going through a parental divorce and provided some much-needed hope. While some of these films seemed idyllic in nature, I felt that Mrs. Doubtfire was pretty realistic in its closing sentiments. Sure, it’s not super-believable that your divorced dad would dress like a woman and win back all of your hearts, but it leaves a nice lasting impression because Daniel and Miranda don’t end up miraculously back together.
The point of the film is that no matter what kind of family you’re a part of, how it changes and how it struggles over time, there will always be a “family in your heart.” I think that’s a great message.
I wish Robin Williams hadn’t felt so alone and he could’ve taken even just one millionth of the amount of collective love directed toward him and remembered it in his darkest moments. Tragically, we’ll never see another Robin Williams movie and that fact still hurts, but we can always remember him fondly and pass on that kind of generous, hilarious, bouncy optimism that he was best known for.
Rest in peace, old pal.