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Unmasking Mrs. Doubtfire: Co-parenting Without Deception

It has been almost 30 years since Robin Williams gave us his masterful turn as a Scottish nanny in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Based upon the 1987 novel Alias Madame Doubtfire, by Anne Fine, the 1993 movie tells the story of a man who turns to cross-dressing and impersonation in order to see his three children during a divorce. While with distance, we all remember the film fondly now for Williams’ comedic antics, the themes of the film (like the book itself) are far from light and breezy. In fact, despite the farce and whimsy, the movie depicts an incredibly dark and bleak landscape of parenting amid divorce, even with the allegedly “happy” ending. Let us first recall what we all saw then, explore what we did not see, and then reflect on what we can learn from it all.

In one of the initial scenes in the film, Williams’ character, Daniel, and his wife, Miranda (played by Sally Field) are having an argument. All three of their children are positioned in close proximity and are eavesdropping. It is clear that Miranda has made up her mind and that the marriage is ending. For his part, like many spouses we see in our practices as divorce lawyers, Daniel is not yet “there” and searchingly pleads for reassurance of Miranda’s love and commitment. He receives nothing in return.

We soon learn that Daniel is a freelance voice actor and a bit of an overgrown child. His work ethic and parenting abilities are, to be polite, unsteady. After Daniel quits his job and throws his son a birthday party he was advised not to host, Miranda becomes enraged and summarily files for divorce. Opting to proceed from the start with litigation, she obtains temporary sole custody of the children. Daniel’s ability to share custody with is wife is made dependent upon whether he obtains employment and a decent residence within 90 days.

From his now lowly position, imposed via litigation, Daniel leaves the parties charming San Francisco home and gets a small apartment. He also obtains a job as a shipping clerk at a local television station. Daniel soon learns that Miranda is searching for a housekeeper to assist her in taking care of the children. In light of his increasing erasure as a parent, and Miranda’s preference for a third party to care for the children rather than their father, Daniel desperately comes up with a bold plan — to remake himself as a woman and live action role play as Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire — a sassy and stern Scottish nanny. Somehow, Daniel manages to successfully convince Miranda to hire him and he is now, by pretending to be everything he is not (both in form and substance), able to see his children frequently.

Lydia, Chris and Natalie initially resent Mrs. Doubtfire’s exacting and strict ways and chafe at her presence, but they soon come to love her. Interestingly, as Miranda and the children come to rely upon the masked and costumed nanny Doubtfire, Daniel (when he is being Daniel) continues to fade into the background of the children’s lives. While playing Doubtfire, Daniel grows in character and responsibility through his acting role. And after the passage of some time, the children uncover the ruse and figure out that Daniel and Doubtfire are one in the same. Fortunately for the children and their father, a pact is made to keep the information a secret from Miranda.

Daniel’s ability to inhabit other voices and roles is profound and his acting skills soon propel him to be invited for dinner with the TV station boss. However, the dinner coincides with a birthday dinner for Miranda to which Doubtfire has been invited. The dinner is being thrown by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Stuart (played by Pierce Brosnan), and is set at the same restaurant and at the same time as Daniel’s work-related meeting. Robin Williams expertly switches back and forth between Daniel and Doubtfire throughout the evening in some of the funniest moments of the film. However, after learning that Stu is allergic to pepper, and after seeing Miranda with the man vying for her affection so soon after their separation, Daniel is driven to sneak into the kitchen to add cayenne pepper to Stu’s meal.

Ultimately, after the attempted poisoning and after consuming too much alcohol — Daniel/Doubtfire is exposed when his mask is torn while performing the Heimlich maneuver on Stu, who was choking from the tainted meal. Miranda becomes immediately enraged and storms out of the restaurant with the children in tow.

If all of these hijinks were not striking enough, Daniel and Miranda conclude their divorce matter with a custody trial. For his part, Daniel demonstrates to the judge that he satisfied the work and residency requirements placed on him. Despite knowing her husband’s commitment and care for their children and despite the attachment, bonding and love that their children have for their father, Miranda still seeks and obtains full custody of the children. In court, Daniel’s parenting time is reduced even more after the Doubtfire shenanigans come to light and into evidence. Daniel’s time with the children is even made subject to supervision. Miranda thereby reduces, destroys and eliminates Daniel as a father yet again.

Later, after the divorce, Miranda visits Daniel on the set at the television station where he now hosts a show for children called “Euphegenia’s House.” Tellingly, the show has become a nationwide success, as Daniel (the divorced dad with virtually no parenting time) plays Doubtfire and brings entertainment and warmth to children across the land.

Perhaps because the actress who gave us Gidget and the Flying Nun can never fully be the “bad” apple — the film attempts to shore up her motherly bona fides. Miranda ultimately acquiesces to Daniel having more time with the children and to shared custody, after it finally becomes clear to her (why it wasn’t apparent before is not clear to me) that the children love Daniel and benefit from time with him. Miranda finally acknowledges that Daniel-as-Doubtfire made her life, and that of the children, better.

In the last words we hear from Daniel, he states (spoken as Doubtfire to a child of divorce who had written the TV show): “some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together.”

And that is the message we are meant to take away. To me, it is all rather shabby stuff from the standpoint of divorce and parenting. Rather than presenting an object lesson in true cooperation and coparenting, which it intends to, the film demonstrates to my practitioner’s eyes and my ears as divorcé, a lost opportunity. It almost gets there, and then doesn’t.

I have often said, jokingly, that if I had represented Daniel in litigation— I would have hired a forensic psychologist and gone to town on Miranda’s issues. On other occasions, I simply state this: Sally Field was a really bad coparent. Why am I so adamant in this regard? Perhaps it is precisely because I am both a divorce lawyer and a divorced parent, whose ex-wife is also a divorce lawyer.

Despite his many shortcomings, Daniel was clearly a caring and loving parent. For whatever reason or reasons, Miranda could not see this until Daniel transformed himself through prosthetics, masks and accents into someone else. Perhaps all of the years of marital disappointment and regret led her to that point of blindness. Clearly, we see in Miranda, from the first scenes, someone who is tired of the excuses and exhausted by the failures of her husband. Her cruelty and coldness (made more explicit in the book) is exceedingly evident; and, I am not unsympathetic to it. It must have been depleting to exist in a marriage with Daniel as he was. But it is not until after the divorce, custody trial, and more that Miranda finally embraces Daniel as a quasi-parenting peer. But even then, the final scene between them betrays (to my eyes and ears) her continuing conviction of parental superiority. Ultimately, though, many of us are left feeling great sympathy for Daniel and far less for Miranda.

Importantly, we now know that two scenes were edited out of the film that could have made a difference. In one, the parties daughter Lydia observes her parents fighting in the audience of her spelling bee competition. Internally, she reflects on why her mom and dad cannot pretend to love one another. Another scene shows Daniel and Miranda in a vicious fight, but does so through the eyes of the children.

Now we start to come to the point, through what we did not see. Miranda appears to us like a poor coparent because she is never provided enough depth in the film. She is just a frazzled, working mom with a goofy, slacker husband. From her internal reality, which we can infer, she carries all the weight and the burden. If I represented her, I am sure she would tell me that Daniel was always “the fun parent.” She would tell me what it is like being the primary parent while also being a quasi-parent to a spouse. I would hear about those fights that got deleted out. I would understand the nature of their relationship more. I would see how it felt to live years feeling like it was all on her. Her resentments would be expressed. She might break down and tell me how grueling it was to always be the one who had to be on duty. She would be humanized.

You see, Miranda wears masks herself. Although not prosthetic ones. We all wear them. She exudes confidence, strength and competence. She arms herself. She doesn’t get hurt, except that she does. Just like we all do. Who knows whether marriage counseling would have saved the parties’ relationship. Perhaps. But it certainly could have assisted them in a more positive “unmasking,” and without going to the trouble of the elaborate ruse that Daniel engaged in. While Sally Field WAS a bad coparent, particularly at first, I don’t entirely blame her.

Daniel and Miranda Hilliard had years of regrets, disappointments, betrayals and dreams together. By the time we first meet them, they are broken. A creative and wild presence, Daniel runs amok. Perhaps part of that was him acting out whatever career frustrations he had. Maybe he chafed that his wife eclipsed him in some way. If I were to talk to him, I would learn those things. I would also uncover that he always had Doubtfire in him. That was real. But the “mask” he wore literally actually permitted him the distance and freedom to become more fully integrated, more truly himself, and to shed what was holding him back when simply being Daniel. Maybe he fell into the “fun dad” role and the position of jester and layabout because it was an escape. Maybe it was fear at first. Or perhaps it was a reaction. It certainly arose, to some extent, through a dynamic dance of mirroring and reciprocation. As Miranda dug in, he pushed and lashed out.

In the absence of a sequel, we may never know how it went for the Hilliard’s after they landed on shared physical custody. I would like to think they learned an important lesson. I certainly hope that they came to communicate better relative to their children and between themselves. Simply sharing time is one thing. Ideally, Natalie, Chris and Lydia saw their parents regenerate into a new, albeit different version of their relationship. A reboot of sorts. Version 2.0 — if you will. Daniel and Miranda clearly came to appreciate the value of the other to a larger extent. If they took that appreciation and translated it into active and consistent communication and true cooperation, then they succeeded in moving from shared parenting to coparenting.

For all divorcing parents, the tough lessons that Daniel and Miranda learned are critical. In my own life, my former wife and I avoided the harshness of litigation and we resolved things between ourselves — knowing well what a different approach could mean for our son and ourselves. But I know that our approach is not always possible or even advisable. I also know that regardless of whether your divorce is amicable or incendiary, it is wrenching either way.

It is trite, but true, that “talking it out” can do a lot to help. I have seen, both for myself and for clients, the benefits of counseling and therapy with your spouse or former spouse. Even when the parties agree that the marriage will end, therapy can help them to better communicate around child-related matters and to better understand the interior reality of their partner and themselves. Ultimately, though, much of the work is done alone and within. Whether through dedicated time for journaling, contemplation or meditation, cooking or creating, exercise, hobbies or wellness routines — anything we do to press pause on the weight we carry (figuratively) daily will be of aid. We are sometimes most at peace and most reflective when we are outside of our regular, workday selves. When we do these various things with thoughtfulness and actively observe what we are feeling and thinking, it can help to start to strip away our own masks. The masks we wear for others. The masks we wear for ourselves. This interior work is the key, because change begins within. When we have faced ourselves, we have done what we needed to do. We can, at that point, look out. And what we see and how we see it, will hopefully be clearer. For her part, Miranda came to see more clearly. And although it was never expressed, she didn’t just realize Daniel’s value. I believe she also knew deep down and fully her own role in what had occurred between them.

And for his part, Daniel was right, of course. Sometimes it IS better when people don’t live together. But that does not compel the conclusion that they cannot work together, although apart, for the benefit of their children and themselves. To be able to do that, however, requires us being able to work through our own issues and take responsibility for our own role in everything that occurred between our spouse and ourselves. When we shift from blame, shame and guilt — to radical self-ownership teamed with full acceptance— we move out of a fraught and contested place and into a space where we can truly forgive ourselves and others and make a kind of peace. Coparenting, in my personal view, becomes possible where the individual selves involved, and the relationship, have been unmasked to the point where all can hear and say what they need to without deception of self or others, and everyone can see with clarity where they need to go next — individually and as a family.



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