Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Mrs Doubtfire was an important film for me because it was the first film I saw in a cinema that I recognised not to be very good. When you're a child, everything you see at the cinema, pretty much, is brilliant - or at least, it was for me. How could it not be? Getting your ticket, finding your seat, the lights going down; then, the curtains would part, then there were always the same adverts, for ice-cream and popcorn, a couple of trailers, and then the lights went back up, briefly, and then switched off, and the cinema screen seemed to re-jig its size. A lion roared, someone whispered shhhhh!, and you were off. You're ten. Ah, Wayne's World. This is going to be brilliant.
Mrs Doubtfire was a huge success at the time and everybody in my school had seen it, and so I was naturally very excited to see it at the cinema. I was twelve. From the start something seemed wrong in the film; it was tonally adrift. Robin Williams was presented as a cool Dad and Sally Field as the standard, drab mother-wife figure: but when she asks him for a divorce very close to the start of the film, without us having met either of them for very long, the suspicion was born in me that the Robin Williams character was probably a bit of a dick. The film had perhaps not foregrounded his loveliness and excellence well enough. Things kept going awry: scenes kept happening that prevented the film from being enjoyed as a delicious romp. The Williams character would speak poisonously of his ex-wife's new partner (Pierce Brosnan!), and for some reason the scene where Williams' eldest son discovers his father has been masquerading as Mrs Doubtfire by accidentally walking on her (him) pissing standing up, failed to make me chortle. I suppose the idea of recognising your dad's cock in the hand of the kind old woman who has been looking after you felt like a little too much to take. At the end of the film, having generally made a mess of things and somehow belittled his wife (the film is one of those "men can do whatever women can - but better!" films, with Sally Field reduced to saying "Mrs Doubtfire, what would I do without you?" over and over from the midway point), Robin Williams is gifted a heartstrings scene where he begs to be given his children. Call me a bastard, but at twelve I was already a little tired of this Tootsie meets Kramer vs Kramer situation and didn't care if he got the kids or not.
Something about Williams' relationship with the kids felt queasy somehow. There's a good scene in the film where, in the guise of the kids' father, and not as Mrs Doubtfire, he exhaustedly loses his temper with his children, who reel in shock. That moment felt real - like a real father. The rest of the film felt far too like an old man trying to act pally with a younger generation. I didn't realise at the time that this was the M.O. of Williams' career. In film after film, he played an exuberant loose cannon who was too anti-establishment to fit into the straitjacket he found himself in, but inspired children or younger people to dream and/or be happy. In Good Morning Vietnam it was the army that couldn't contain him; in Dead Poets Society, the rigid private school; in Mrs Doubtfire, Sally Field; in Aladdin, the lamp. In those films he inspired soldiers, students, his children, and Aladdin, with his overblown shenanigans, funny voices, his we're-all-in-this-together attitude, his fuck-'em-all vibe. This is Robin Williams' mid-career, the height of his fame. This Robin Williams type reaches its apex in Hook, in which he literally plays a grown-up Peter Pan, who goes back to Neverland to help the Lost Boys out and rediscover his own childlike joie-de-vivre. It felt like a sort of summation of his career and character. He would return to this benevolent-shitstirring-uncle figure for Good Will Hunting, in more sober mode, later on.
The truth about Robin Williams is that if you were my age you got the very worst of him at the cinema, with intermittent flashes of the comic talent that, older people assured you, he had in droves. All his films contained a sentimental, not to say mawkish streak - and there was often a sense of desperation in his performances, of a need to be loved that went beyond his characters. He went on, after the height of his fame in the late eighties and early nineties, to make a series of staggeringly bad films (Flubber, Jack, Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come, Bicentennial Man) that gave a sense of someone not particularly in control of his career. He belonged in this sense to that lost generation of American comedians whose talent was much vaunted by all but was clearly wasted in films: Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin were also beginning to busy themselves, around then, with gross comedy and children's films that departed radically from their alt-comedy origins. I think there may have been a problem in Robin Williams's case with how to grow up, how to continue to be funny as an adult; how to persevere with your maniacal act after you have ceased to be the young person tearing the world to shreds - and perhaps that problem was there for Murphy and Martin. Bill Murray got around the problem because he was always world-weary in the first place, and he made very few films and seemed not to give a shit. But your more lively comedian has a hard time making himself at home in the world.
The best of Robin Williams came when he was allowed to either give full rein to his excesses (as in his beautiful cameo in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) or when on the contrary he was made to pare his excesses down and he became almost alarmingly creepy (One Hour Photo, Insomnia - both in 2002). Those last two films seemed to show something magnetic about him, but something haunted, too, like an empty fairground. All his other films showed flashes of his talent: his now almost cliché dancing-while-cleaning as Mrs Doubtfire is beautifully understated in its grace, just before he begins to rock out; at one point he does a drop to his knees before dusting the floor with pernickety elegance, which shows how precise and modulated he could be as a comic actor, and in Good Morning Vietnam there are traces, although the film is too written, of his broad and generous madness.
In the end, it was the person who somehow counted for people: something in Robin Williams shone out of his dismayingly patchy career. His appearances on chatshows and his acceptance speeches are all now being paraded as examples of the Robin Williams talent, the high-energy spirit: clearly this spoke to generations. But in the end it was our determination to love and to feel ourselves entertained by that slightly melancholy figure of the ageing older brother that made him who he was.