Saturday, October 8, 2011

FREAKY FRIDAY 1976

What's up with movies for girls and movies for boys? Even legitimate critics resort to using the pejorative "chick flick" label and attributing gender traits to movies as if film reels came swaddled in pink or blue blankets. When I was growing up there was this series of annoying TV commercials about a deodorant made for women, each a variation on the same cloddish, B.O.-challenged husband foolishly reaching for a deodorant, only to have it intercepted at the last moment by a scolding wife reminding him that this particular sweat neutralizer was intended exclusively for the fairer sex. The latter delivered in a piteously supercilious tone that screamed, "You may have more lean muscle mass, superior earning potential, and are favored in a patriarchal society, but I have this deodorant!" 
Advertisers need to perpetuate false distinctions to sell more of their product (one deodorant formula—throw in a bit of scent and slap a daisy on the packaging—voilá, a deodorant for women!), but unless we're talking about Vin Diesel movies, films are about human beings. The human experience is universal, not gender-specific, and there is much to be learned from films about either sex.
Barbara Harris as Ellen Andrews
Jodie Foster as Annabel Andrews
John Astin as William Andrews
The first and best of what would become a trend in identity-switch comedies, Freaky Friday is about a contentious mother and daughter who magically trade places for one calamity-filled day. As each gets to see the world through the other's eyes, a mutual respect grows that sweetly translates into a renewed appreciation of self and the people in their lives. Unlike the stale 2003 remake that needlessly piled on the subplots, this version has the smarts to simply mine the situation's vast comic potential and steps politely to the side, relinquishing the floor to Harris and Foster.
As co-stars, Foster and Harris share very few scenes together, yet neither seems to be off the screen for a moment
Advance publicity for Freaky Friday so played up its appeal to its target audience (pre-teen girls) that, despite the presence of a hot-from-Nashville Barbara Harris and the everywhere-at-once Jodie Foster (she had five films in release in 1976, most significantly, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver), I summarily dismissed it. After all, I was a film major at an artsy-fartsy college at the time and had bigger aesthetic fish to fry. Or so I thought.
Leap ahead ten years, and by way of a rented VHS, I finally see Freaky Friday and immediately fall in love with it. Had I seen it in '76, it easily would have been one of my favorites. A surprisingly smart and laugh-out-loud funny film that ranks among the best comedies of the 70s. Who knew? A non-stop barrage of generation-gap gags and silly stunts, plus an impressive supporting cast of familiar character actors, Freaky Friday is like Disney’s answer to Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? and the films of Mel Brooks.
Even blatant product-placement can't compete with the comic talent of Barbara Harris, here going head-to-head with her son/little brother, Ben (a.k.a. Ape Face) played by Sparky Marcus 
Veteran TV director Gary Nelson (Get Smart, The Patty Duke Show, Happy Days) and screenwriter Mary Rogers (author of the source novel) serve up much of the same white-bread suburban comedy that typified Disney's live-action outings, but instead of the beige blandness of a Dean Jones or Kurt Russell, Freaky Friday is blessed with (and saved by) its two enormously idiosyncratic stars. Harris, one of the screen’s great unsung comedy geniuses, is particularly good. An actress with the sexy/kooky unpredictability of Madeline Kahn combined with the manic agility of Gene Wilder, she’s a true comedy original.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Freaky Friday has the most amazing supporting cast!
Kaye Ballard & Ruth Buzz as competing soccer coaches
Clockwise from left: Karen Smith (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), Marvin Kaplan (Top Cat), Al Molinaro (Happy Days), Jack Sheldon (Run Buddy, Run), and the inimitable Patsy Kelly.
The great Marie Windsor as Ms. Murphy, the typing teacher (l.) and with Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick's 1956 classic, The Killing
Brassy character actress Iris Adrian as annoyed bus passenger (l.) and with Barbara Stanwyk in 1943s Lady of Burlesque
PERFORMANCES:
It's hard to imagine how anyone could have anticipated how well the agreeably opposing comedy styles of Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster would mesh. Foster, who was only 13 at the time, is not much of a physical comic, but she's an exceptionally intuitive actress with a comedian's gift for mimicry. When the tomboyish Annabel switches bodies with her mother, Foster's taking on of an adult persona extends beyond a broadened vocabulary. Employing that slightly starchy quality that would later characterize much of her adult work, Foster, as the child/adult Annabel, seems to rise in stature, her carriage conveying a controlled adult's exasperation in the face of the absurd.
By way of contrast, Barbara Harris' transformation from Mrs. Andrews to Annabel is a thoroughly physical and mental transformation that dispenses with any attempt to mimic Foster's characterization in any way. Rather, Harris' farcically elastic performance is more a reflection of Annabel's liberated spirit. Harris plays a teen trapped in an adult's body like a child let loose in a playground. Annabel is marveling at the freedom that comes with her newfound body (which is free of baby fat, gawkiness, and braces) and is fairly intoxicated by it. It makes complete sense that Annabel in her mother's body would be looser, loopier, and far more physically expressive than the plodding teen we saw earlier. Barbara Harris, with her expressive body, would make for a delicious silent-screen comedian, but given her delightfully wacky sense of timing with the comedy dialog, who would want that? Together, Foster and Harris create the perfect blend of hilariously active and reactive comedy that makes this film work.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
The tone of the film is perfectly set by the cute-as-all-getout animated title sequence and its catchy theme song, "I'd Like to Be You for a Day." The song, written by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschorn. (the team that gave us the love themes from both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno) is sung by a woman and a girl. The woman sounds a lot like Broadway-trained Barbara Harris, but despite IMDB claims, there's no way in hell that the high, piping voice of the little girl belongs to Jodie Foster. Even on helium.
Title animation sequence by Art Stevens
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
I've never been much of a fan of the way that Disney films, under the guise of providing "family" entertainment, seemed to willfully hold back the hands of time and operate in an air of head-in-the-sand detachment. By 1976 the antiseptic, Leave it to Beaver kind of neighborhood featured in Freaky Friday may have held nostalgic appeal for some, but to me it verged on the witless and indifferent.
What saves Freaky Friday from being a creaky, wish-fulfillment timepiece is how tiny flashes of wit and touches of the off-beat peek through.
John Astin's obvious excitement whenever wife Barbara Harris (inhabited by her daughter) slips and calls him "Daddy" is surprisingly hip comedy for a Disney film
Annabel harbors a crush on the boy next door (Marc McClure), but in the body of her mother, the attraction gets ticklish
Freaky Friday: a kid's movie that's smarter and more perceptive than most comedies aimed at adults; a movie for preteen girls that has a universal message about respecting yourself and others; and a Disney movie with the lunatic comic anarchy of a Mel Brooks comedy. Hmmm...seems like when it comes down to it, labels are no more effective with films than they are with people.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for this review of "Freaky Friday". I stumbled across your blog this past weekend while looking for images from the film version of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and began reading some of your reviews. They're well written analysis with a touch of the personal which makes them fun to read and think about.

    I agree with you about this film. When people ask me what one of my favorite comedies is and I respond "Freaky Friday" I always get blank stares. I go on to explain that Barbara Harris is comic gold in it and the screenplay by Mary Rodgers, based on her equally witty novel, is wry and knowing. The screenplay, in addition to Harris' and Fosters' performances, is the real key as to why this film works.

    It's atypical of a film from Walt Disney Productions in the 1970s to have any verve and whereas this film follows the wacky Disney comedy formula of the time in this one it actually works. Disney's films during the 70s operated under the "What would Walt do?" credo that was successful in the mild comedies of the 1960s which accounts for its detachment from resembling the real world and virtually sunk most of their 70s films.

    Thank you again for this review. It encapsulates everything I love about this movie.

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  2. Thank you, RonNYC for speaking out for adults who think "Freaky Friday" is a wonderful comedy that doesn't need the caveat, "children's move." I'm familiar with those blank stares you speak of, but almost everyone I've turned onto this film tells me later that Barbara Harris' performance is worth the rental price alone, and it is a far wittier and adult comedy than they expected.
    It's nice to read your impressions of the film and I think you're right about that "What would Walt do?" credo. It ignored a changing world and made Disney (at least for a time) seem like a studio who's work didn't matter (The North Avenue Irregulars, Also with Harris, is another favorite from this time).
    Thanks for your kind words and I'm happy you stopped by and hung around long enough to drop a line!

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  3. Barbara Harris - this is my favorite role of hers, followed closely by her performance in Family Plot. Gloriously kooky!

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    1. She is terrific, isn't she? She really made far too few films. Have you ever seen "Who's Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying all Those Terrible Things About Me?"
      A film I didn't enjoy all that much, but Barbara Harris is so good in it. You can catch the full film on YouTube, she appears around the hour and ten minute point. Such a marvelous, quirky talent.
      Thanks for the comment, Angelman! I'm waiting to discover what movies and actors we hold opposing views on. I'm going to have to find out what your favorites on on your blog.

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