Robin Williams and Mrs. Doubtfire: Comedy and tragedy entwine

I saw “Mrs. Doubtfire” twice, first in the movie theater, second on a rainy Saturday afternoon alone at home. The first time I saw a comedy, silly, implausible, bold. The second, I saw the tragedy underneath, and cried the entire length of the movie. The plot was the same each time of course – a man who’d meant to be a better dad (and husband) than he’d bothered to be is out in the cold, lonely, tormented by longing to have a second chance.

Written off by his wife and children, he can’t get back in without becoming someone he is not, tricked up in outlandish garb, posing as his antithesis – a kind everlastingly patient caretaker. He elbowed his way back in as Mrs. Doubtfire because he needed them. Once he was in, the errant dad could see all too clearly how much they needed him.

The difference was his viewpoint, the knothole he peered through. For me as the weepy viewer, it was the same. Home alone on a rainy day, the grief counselor in me saw only the loss and desperation and the box the character couldn’t get himself out of – irresponsible, self-involved, clueless.

I have a soft spot for outsiders, in art and in life, but I could not have found what I did in this portrayal if it hadn’t been put there by the actor. He knew about turning points; he knew to look for the tragedy underneath the comedy. Rather than play the clown, he was able to inhabit the emotional life of his character so that I would know to cry.

In his real life, I wish that he could have widened his viewpoint, and been able to access the positive to soften the negative, and to remember that the worst impulses pass. But easy for me to say, who has the luck to be free of the tortures of depression and addiction. For all of us with that luck, trying to understand how a person who gives joy and laughter could not get enough of it himself, imagine a long dark tunnel. We can see from the outside that there are escape points, but the person inside can’t.

We wanted him to live so we could see what he’d come up with next. Now we have to go backwards and look again at what he left behind. I suggest starting with “Mrs. Doubtfire.”


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