For those of us in our 20s and 30s, the death of Robin Williams felt like the death of a childhood. In the city of Los Angeles, where I reside, there was the added element of creative influence, as many comedic performers could list him as one of the reasons they chose their career. We grew up on his movies—a sentiment that reverberated across social media networks as people shared his most memorable performances.
For my younger sister and me, that special movie and performance was Mrs. Doubtfire.
Without exaggeration, we watched this film over 1,000 times. Over the seven-year period before I left for college (1993 to 2000), we watched it about three times per week (3 x 52 weeks x 7 years = 1,092 times).
Our friends know this. They send us any and all Mrs. Doubtfire Internet memes and news stories. In a recent game of charades, we stunned and annoyed everyone when all I had to do was stand up from a chair, touch my lip, and then wipe off my lip for my sister to guess that the topic was “Mrs. Doubtfire.” She instantly knew that I was referencing the scene in which Sally Field greets her love interest, “Stu,” with a milk mustache.
By the 50th or so time we watched the film, we had it memorized from start to finish. We started reciting it while watching. Both of us enjoyed getting to deliver the Mrs. Doubtfire lines, so we would alternate scenes—my sister would get to do the dinner with Mr. Lundy, I would get to do the pool scene with Stu. Our roles with other characters were more fixed. As the older sister, I always played Lydia, and my sister always played Natalie. Chris, the middle child, went to whichever one of us wasn’t already in the scene.
We would recite the movie when we weren’t watching it. I often used it as a way to connect with my sister after a fight. We could have just been screaming at the top of our lungs over whose turn it was to claim “shotgun” in the car, and then, over a tense silence, I would start: “LAYLA, get back in your cell! Don’t make me get the hose,” and my sister would deliver Sally Field’s response in perfect cadence: “I’m sorry, the position has been filled.”
Somewhere in the back of our minds, during this madness, we knew why we loved this film.
My sister and I grew up in a home where there existed the constant and imminent threat of divorce. While our parents didn’t divorce until after our Mrs. Doubtfire marathon, we knew in our hearts that it was just a matter of time—that they could never end up together happily ever after.
What is so poignant about Mrs. Doubtfire, and Robin Williams’ performance in particular, is that it demonstrates the selfless love of a parent. Children of divorce, or children of constantly fighting parents, grow up with a certain emotional void. It’s the textbook psychology that we all know. They feel that if their parents loved them more, they wouldn’t be fighting. They feel it’s their fault and that they are the cause of their parents’ unhappiness. They feel invisible because their parents are stuck in a cloud of their own misery, unable to stop fighting for two seconds as a sacrifice for their children.
They feel unloved.
This is why it’s ironic to me that so many divorce films, especially from the ’90s, are centered on the parents. They are about the kids doing work to get their parents back together—setting up hijinks in which the parents sit next to each other at a recital or end up in some situation that allows them to reconnect romantically.
While these films align with the surface goals that children feel—getting your parents back together—they fail to mend that deep and growing wound: feeling unloved.
That’s what made Mrs. Doubtfire special. It was about a father who loved his children so deeply that he couldn’t bear the idea of seeing them every other weekend. It was about a father who loved his children so selflessly that he didn’t even need them to know that it was him. All that mattered was that he got to see them grow up, nurture them, spend time with them.
It was about a father who put himself in the most ridiculous circumstances—a body suit with breasts, dentures, prosthetics, high heels, pantyhose, and a female Scottish accent—just so he could pick up the kids from school and make sure they did their homework. He did this so he could see them, but also so they wouldn’t go astray under the supervision of a hired nanny, or “stranger,” as he described it. It was about unfathomable, unconditional fatherly love.
Of course, the movie was also brilliantly hilarious and had a raw, unfiltered comedic genius that transcends writing and filmmaking. The sheer entertainment value was reason enough for us to watch it obsessively. But after watching a movie however many hundreds of times, the jokes lose their effect, and what’s left is the heart of it.
As is the case with movies, it’s hard to separate the actor from the character. It’s especially hard in this case, given the uniqueness and commitment of the performance, to separate Robin Williams from Daniel Hillard—the man whose heart was so big.
Robin Williams touched and inspired many through his performances. For my sister and me, he showed us the beauty of parental love, which perhaps we didn’t always feel in real life. But for seven years, through a worn-out VHS tape, we got to feel it through him.