There is an old joke in Hollywood which actors like to repeat often — ‘If you are an actor, chances are that you will be one day wearing clothes that are conventionally worn by a woman’. This is clearly a hyperbole, as there are many men who are yet to don ‘women’s clothes’ for a role on-screen. But the one who has perhaps done it to a great comic effect is the late Robin Williams. I, of course, mean the 1993 Chris Columbus directorial Mrs Doubtfire. The movie inspired a Tamil film (Avvai Shanmughi), which was further remade into Hindi film starring Kamal Haasan in the lead role (Chachi 420).
Cross-dressing is a common phenomena in movies across the globe, often done in the earlier days to evoke laughs. In Mrs Doubtfire’s case, it was undertaken to assume another identity altogether. Now that we know more about the world, it is easier to see how that trope is functioning at two levels. One, as (perhaps) an unintentional commentary on culture and gender, and the second obvious point is to move the plot forward. For the uninitiated, Williams’ character Daniel in the film is a divorced parent who wants to strengthen his bond with his children. He does not have any kind of understanding with his former partner, which is why Daniel decides to take the extreme step of impersonating an elderly British woman by the name of Euphegenia Doubtfire. This inevitably brings him closer to the kids as he gets a job as their nanny, and in turn, it makes him a better parent too. The circumstances which Mrs Doubtfire often finds herself in in the new house makes for much of the comic relief.
Broadly, Mrs Doubtfire is a likeable enough film to sit through its entire two-hour duration. The script also deals with the concept of estrangement, what it does to children, and parenting. What was needed more here was finesse. Having Robin Williams shouldering much of the burden of the film helps matters greatly. Williams, a brilliant comic, was a fine emotional and physical actor, who left no stone unturned in terms of audience engagement.
A great example of his comic range is where we see Daniel talk to his legal counsel about the next appropriate step to take after his separation. When the counsel asks him about his specialty, Daniel responds that he ‘can do voices.’ He then proceeds to imitate a great number of characters. What this part shows off wonderfully is Williams’ own ability to mimic and ‘become’ other people. After his theatrics fail to lighten up his counsel, a somewhat sad Daniel says that he is willing to do anything that will help him strengthen his connection with the children. From the over-the-top voice impersonation to that slightly heartbroken Daniel that we see at the end of the sequence is a testament to the prowess of Williams as a performer.
Over the years, there were many attempts at doing a sequel of the successful movie. However, nothing panned out which left Williams impressed enough to return to the familiar premise. Later, filmmaker Columbus had said that he was discussing something in the way of a sequel with Williams. But before that could happen, the actor passed away.
You can watch Mrs Doubtfire on Disney Plus Hotstar.