On the day after Robin William’s death, I watched the film Mrs Doubtfire. I could hear echoes in my head of Pagliacci and Laugh, Clown, Laugh – stories about men who cover up the anguish of betrayed love, while they play the parts of clowns. In the opera, Pagliacci, the clown expresses his anguish in the aria Vesti la giubba (Put on the costume) and putting on the costume becomes the motif of the film, Mrs Doubtfire.
A modern day version of the Pagliaccistory, Mrs Doubtfire is not melodramatic and is more complex as it focuses on the clown-man in whom fantasy and reality are confused. The film presents the process of untangling the clown from the man, so that his life can become reality, not performance.
The confusion of life with art, make-believe with reality, tragedy with comedy, the concrete with the abstract is presented in an intriguing pattern of contrasts and reversals. Mrs Doubtfire is the story of Daniel Hillard, who cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. As an actor, a voice-over artist (”I do voices”), he plays a variety of entertaining comic characters and comes to see himself as more loved and valued as a clown than as himself. So he adopts the persona of the clown in real life, and becomes a performer both off- and on-stage.
His fear that his real self is not as engaging as his fictional self, emanates from his success as an actor. Actors in themselves are fusions of art and life; they are real people who turn themselves into fictional characters. They are chosen for their resemblance to the roles they play, and they tend to play similar types of roles over and over. Clint Eastwood, for example, tends to cast himself as this macho maverick, unconventional hero with a cavalier attitude to women, but really a noble character deep down. Playing the same or similar roles over and over, it is probably easy to lose track of reality; become the character and lose the real person – especially as it is not clear whether the popularity of actors emanates from who they are or whom they play.
The temptation must be strong to adopt the character in real life as it is the character in the actor, rather than the actor as himself, that fans know. Daniel Hillard, the clown in Mrs Doubtfire, always plays comic roles and makes people laugh. And since it is gratifying to be able to make people laugh, he becomes a clown in real life. Joking and outrageous behaviour become his way of interacting with people off-stage; his way of establishing relationships. He does not wear a clown suit that one can see; his disguise is his clowning. So “putting on the costume” in his case, means putting on the persona of the clown.
As a clown, Daniel is only a caricature; he is loved as entertainment but not for himself. And mistaking the applause for appreciation of the real person, he cannot stop performing. For him the show never ends. The audience, i.e. his friends and family, in particular, his wife, don’t want or need an endless performance. They don’t want endless suspension of disbelief; the show has to come to an end. As a clown, he is a show, a performance, unreal, but for him that is his reality. The applause makes it so. When he stops performing, there is no applause and he feels he is nothing. His clowning, therefore, is also a cover-up for feelings of inadequacy.
Paradoxically, when he does actually put on a clown suit, his clowning stops. Consciously playing a role in real life, brings about a complete reversal. As the fictitious Mrs Doubtfire, he is reduced to one voice and has to be a consistent human being who exists within social conventions. Though the voice is a false voice, it speaks what is conventionally true.
Playing Mrs Doubtfire in real life, not on stage, forces him todistinguish between fantasy and fiction. Having to put on the mask – i.e. the body, face, hair and persona – a precarious disguise – having to don and doff it continually, brings home to him the artificiality of the role. Portraying a woman, and a much older woman, is a persona that he cannot adopt in real life. The bus driver’s interest in him – reinforced by the songs, Dude looks like a lady, Walk like a man – makes that clear. So the role though it is fantasy, forces him to confront himself and what is real. And he discovers himself as a man and a father.
In learning to separate reality from fiction, he learns to function in the real world. He changes, is less self-absorbed and becomes a human being capable of establishing real relationships. Freed from the control of the fictional character of the clown, he becomes himself in real life and the clown is relegated to fantasy in the fiction of a TV series.
Seeing the film at the time of Robin William’s suicide, however, gave it a further twist. It turned the more or less happy ending, the reversion to reality in the film, into a fiction within a fiction. I wonder what happened to Robin Williams, the man, who played Daniel Hillard, the character, also a comic actor, who learned to differentiate between fantasy and reality.
Hillard’s life ends in normality not in death as in the opera, Pagliacci, or in the film Laugh, Clown, Laugh. But Robin Williams’ death imitates those earlier fictions and becomes a mystery that returns us to the life-art confusion.