Why Mrs Doubtfire mattered

Feature Simon Brew
19 Nov 2013 - 06:40

Just a silly comedy? There might be more to Mrs Doubtfire than it's given credit for...

This article contains spoilers for Mrs Doubtfire.

If you dig through the box office takings for the films of Robin Williams, then - taking aside his supporting performance in Night At The Museum - his most lucrative film at the US box office remains 1993's Mrs Doubtfire. Inflation-adjusted, it tops the list.

The film was released in the aftermath of Disney's record-breaking Aladdin (and followed the fascinatingly flawed Toys), and in the years that followed, Williams would enjoy a bunch of further hits, including the likes of Jumanji, The Birdcage (two films that, fact-fans, passed $100m at the US box office on the same weekend), Patch Adams and Flubber. He'd nab an Oscar in the midst of that run for Good Will Hunting, too. This was Robin Williams' purple patch as a movie star, and to his credit, he then used that clout to seek out darker films such as One Hour Photo, Death To Smoochy and Insomnia.

Mrs Doubtfire, though, dominated the box office come Christmas 1993 in the US, and repeated the performance when it landed in the UK early in 1994. Williams' comedy talents were put to good use, and the supporting cast of Sally Field, Pierce Brosnan (just on the cusp of his Bond break at this point) and Harvey Fierstein certainly did their bit too.

Now Mrs Doubtfire is, at heart, a broad comedy, and one that on the surface doesn't seem to have much going on beneath it. Director Chris Columbus - he of the Home Alones and early Harry Potters - is a steady but unspectacular hand for comedy, and affords the star space to put in effectively different performances. He doesn't resist chucking on a bit of sugar from time to time, but there are a couple of impressive sequences here - the restaurant scene, for instance - that are really well staged. Still, this article certainly isn't going to excavate profound philosophical messages to hand down through the ages.

But it is going to salute something brave and ahead of its time that the film did. Because it tackled divorce in an accessible way to the inevitably young audience that was also attracted to the film. This was a time, after all, when you could have a PG-13-rated comedy that grown-ups and anklebiters could each get something out of. Remember those days?

Divorce had been addressed and dealt with before on screen, of course. But there were three factors here that, intertwined, made a big difference. Firstly, this was a film that was going to a broad audience. This was no small project looking for a niche release. It was targeted as a big comedy blockbuster, with one of the most bankable comedy stars in the world headlining it. Secondly, it was intended that a large younger audience would come to the see the film. And thirdly - here's the really important bit - the mother and father didn't get back together at the end of the film.

It sounds such a small thing, that last point. But in its own way, Mrs Doubtfire was to the issue of divorce through the eyes of a young child as groundbreaking a film as Philadelphia would be in addressing attitudes to HIV and AIDS a year or two later. Neither film is anywhere near perfect, but both talk about a complicated issue in a relatively simplistic way, in a manner that's digestible by a large audience.

In the case of Mrs Doubtfire, it's something of a shock that Robin Williams and Sally Field don't get back together anyway. After all, the whole idea of the film is Williams trying to get back in with his family, as well as spending time with his children. Pierce Brosnan's character, as the new love in Sally Field's life, is routinely portrayed in the movie as an antagonist of sorts, and the target of some of Mrs Doubtfire's actions.

So when the big reveal comes, and everyone sees who Doubtfire really is, I remember being sat in my seat expecting the usual turn to be taken. It's not as if Hollywood comedies hadn't taken the easy route before. But then you get the speech at the end of the film. Brosnan and Field are still together, and the big family reunion never happens. Instead, the end result is joint custody of the children.

Furthermore, the film then ends with Mrs Doubtfire, now front and centre of a television programme, answering a letter from a young girl. In the letter, the girl reveals that her parents are getting a divorce. And whilst what happens next has no subtlety to it, it still hits. Because Doubtfire explains in the response that just because they're splitting up, it doesn't mean that they don't love her. A bit of sugar and treacle? Certainly. But it still mattered, because big Hollywood films didn't do this. And to talk directly about a subject too often glossed over, to the people in the audience most confused and affected by it, was incredible.

So I'm going to say it: I think, for all its bumps, the ending of Mrs Doubtfire is outstanding. I have problems with the film, but if you're looking for bold final moments of 1990s blockbuster movies, it's surely up there with the best of them. That's why, for me, Mrs Doubtfire endures far more than it's usually given credit for. That, and the bit where he sets himself on fire is still funny too...

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