Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Freaky Friday
The last time Jodie Foster was in this column, she was crushing on a faux-Indian boy and his camel in the 1973 Disney Minus One Little Indian. By the end of 1976, a lot had changed. She’d appeared in two films for director Martin Scorsese, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver. Her performance as a pre-teen prostitute in the latter went on to earn her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress early in 1977. She’d starred in Alan Parker’s gonzo musical Bugsy Malone and the underrated Canadian thriller The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane. In November of that year, she hosted Saturday Night Live, at the time the youngest person to do so. In many ways, it appeared that Jodie Foster had left child stardom behind and didn’t really need Disney anymore. And yet, here she was, back in Burbank to make what appeared to be just another Gimmick Comedy. But, as Freaky Friday teaches us, appearances can be deceiving.
Disney did not invent the body-swap genre although it sure seems like they should have. Examples date back to at least 1882 when Thomas Antsey Guthrie published the novel Vice Versa: A Lesson To Fathers under the pseudonym “F. Antsey”. That book, about a father and son who swap bodies thanks to a magic rock, had been adapted to film and radio several times, including one in 1948 directed by our old friend Peter Ustinov. Given its popularity, it’s hard to imagine Walt wasn’t aware of Vice Versa. Perhaps the rights were too expensive or tied up elsewhere, because it would seem to be a perfect fit after The Shaggy Dog (essentially a body-swap movie itself) ushered in the Gimmick Comedy Era.
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If Walt had slept on Vice Versa, his studio made no such mistake when Freaky Friday was published in 1972. The book was written by Mary Rodgers, the daughter of legendary Broadway composer Richard Rodgers and his wife, Dorothy, a businesswoman and inventor of, among other things, the Jonny Mop. Mary started her career following in her father’s footsteps, writing songs, commercial jingles, and musicals like Once Upon A Mattress. She also composed the music for The Mad Show, an Off-Broadway revue based on Mad Magazine that had been an early success for Jo Anne Worley, who went on to star in The Shaggy D.A. All roads lead back to Disney.
Producer Ron Miller hired Rodgers to write the Freaky Friday screenplay herself. She used the opportunity to add a few things but the movie is more faithful to the book than a lot of Disney adaptations. The director was a newcomer to Disney features. Gary Nelson had directed a lot of television in the 60s and 70s, including a few two-parters for The Wonderful World Of Disney: Secrets Of The Pirates’ Inn, The Boy From Dead Man’s Bayou and The Boy Who Talked To Badgers. Freaky Friday was Nelson’s first theatrical feature for Disney but he’ll be back in this column with a much bigger one.
When Freaky Friday came along, Jodie Foster still owed Disney two movies. At the time, she was reading for George Lucas, who was considering a much younger Princess Leia for Star Wars. Foster’s contract helped prevent her from traveling to a galaxy far, far away and it helps to explain why she returned to the floundering studio when her star was ascending so rapidly. It doesn’t quite explain why Disney waited three years before enforcing that contract. Granted, they didn’t make a lot of movies Foster would have been appropriate for in that time frame. But she could have easily been cast in Escape To Witch Mountain or The Apple Dumpling Gang. Whatever the reason, both she and the studio picked the right project to come back for.
To play Foster’s mother, the studio cast Barbara Harris. Harris was a Tony Award winner (for The Apple Tree) and Oscar nominee (for Who Is Harry Kellerman And Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?). She’d also recently appeared in Robert Altman’s Nashville and Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot. Considering Disney’s usual penchant for casting newcomers, TV stars or past-their-prime actors hungry for work, Harris was a big get.
The core cast was rounded out with a few more Disney newcomers. John Astin, the once and future Gomez Addams, played Foster’s dad and Harris’s husband (or maybe that’s the other way around). Sparky Marcus, who’d made his acting debut opposite Foster’s Napoleon And Samantha costar Johnny Whitaker on Sigmund And The Sea Monsters, played annoyingly perfect little brother Ben “Ape-Face” Andrews. And Marc McClure, who went on to personify Jimmy Olsen in Christopher Reeve’s Superman films, made his feature debut as Boris, Foster’s crush from across the street.
Nelson only used a few members of the Disney repertory company in supporting roles, including the ubiquitous Dick Van Patten and the always delightful Iris Adrian. Some of the notable newcomers include Patsy Kelly as alcoholic housekeeper Mrs. Schmauss, Kaye Ballard and Ruth Buzzi as rival field hockey coaches, and Sorrell Booke (the future Boss Hogg of The Dukes Of Hazzard) as Principal Diik. We’ll be seeing most of these folks again.
You’re probably relatively familiar with Freaky Friday, certainly in comparison to some of the deeper cuts in this column recently. As a refresher, Jodie Foster plays Annabel Andrews, a 13-year-old tomboy who loves field hockey and waterskiing, barely tolerates school and her little brother, worships her dad and is constantly at war with her mother, Ellen. Ellen is a harried housewife who feels underappreciated by her entire family but especially Annabel, a total slob who seems to do nothing other than hang out and play games.
One fine Friday the 13th, Annabel and Ellen have a blow-up before Annabel heads out to meet her friends at a diner near their bus stop. Annabel’s complaining about her mom while, back at home, Ellen is carping about Annabel to her husband, Bill. At the same time, they both say, “I wish I could switch places with her for just one day.” A few groovy 70s-style optical effects later, their wishes are granted.
That’s one of the things that sets Freaky Friday apart from other body-swap movies, including its own 2003 remake. The simplicity of the engine that drives the story. There’s no magic rock. No magic fortune cookies. No Borgia ring or Zoltar or enchanted dagger. They just happen to wish the same thing at the same time and boom. The thing happens. And I’d be willing to bet not a single person has ever walked away from Freaky Friday thinking, “OK, wait a minute. HOW did they switch bodies?” They just do. A whole lot of screenwriters could learn a thing or two about economy of story from Freaky Friday.
Freaky Friday is also unique among Disney’s Gimmick Comedies in that the gimmick is really the actresses themselves. Apart from those polarized flashes and some woefully inadequate greenscreen work in the finale, Nelson steers clear of special effects. It’s left to Harris and Foster to sell the premise and they do an impeccable job of it. In fact, both women earned Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical for their work. Harris was also recognized in the category for her performance in Family Plot but everybody ended up losing to Barbra Streisand in A Star Is Born, which could not have come as a surprise to anyone.
Speaking of the Golden Globes, the movie’s opening credits song, “I’d Like To Be You For A Day” sung by Harris and Foster, also got a nomination. It too lost to A Star Is Born. The tune was written by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, Oscar winners for their disaster movie songs “The Morning After” (from The Poseidon Adventure) and “We May Never Love Like This Again” (from The Towering Inferno). Their contribution to Freaky Friday is a bit of an earworm and not in a good way. It simply drills its way into your brain through endless repetition. This assignment was probably an “oh, by the way” afterthought while they were busy working on a much larger project at Disney. We’ll be getting to that movie very soon.
When Disney made Freaky Friday, the studio policy was to only release G-rated films. Even so, Nelson and Rodgers push gently against the boundaries of the G-rating, as in the delighted twinkle in John Astin’s eye when Harris accidentally calls him “Daddy”. And then there’s the sequence when Annabel (in Ellen’s body) decides to invite Boris over. Her plan is to talk herself up so Boris sees her in a new light when things get back to normal. But it’s immediately obvious that Boris thinks a bored MILF is hitting on him and he’s there for it.
They drew the line at including any reciprocal scenes, however. There aren’t any boys at school crushing on Annabel for Ellen to fend off. The closest they get is when Ellen/Annabel visits Bill at his office and meets his sexy new secretary (Brooke Mills). Foster’s withering glare and frosty reception causes the new girl to frumpify herself with an overcoat and Coke-bottle glasses.
Annabel certainly learns a lot more over the course of the day than Ellen. She comes to appreciate her brother, finds out she’s smarter than she gives herself credit for when she attends her own parent-teacher conference, and sees first-hand how much work her mother does on a daily basis. She also knocks her dad off the pedestal she’d placed him on, referring to him repeatedly as a chauvinist pig.
Ellen’s journey as Annabel is a bit trickier. She gets a refresher on the perilous social gauntlet of junior high and learns to appreciate and respect her daughter’s packed schedule and athleticism. But she also takes the opportunity to give her daughter a makeover that she never asked for. This would seem to undermine the general theme of learning to love and accept your daughter for who she is and not who you want her to be.
The impact of these life lessons is diminished a bit by the slapstick finale. After simultaneously wishing to be back in their own bodies, Foster ends up behind the wheel of Boris’ convertible pursued by the cops while Harris turns up waterskiing at Astin’s grand opening event. Wacky chases are practically mandated by law at this point. But the comedy’s effectiveness is itself diminished by those lousy greenscreen shots and some of the least convincing stunt doubling in motion picture history. It’s a hectic and somewhat slapdash conclusion to what had been, up until that point, a very funny character-based comedy.
Freaky Friday opened in Los Angeles on December 17, 1976, going wide on January 21 of the following year. It did well at the box office, slightly outperforming The Shaggy D.A., but critics weren’t bowled over by it. Since then, however, it’s become one of Disney’s most beloved live-action comedies. The studio has remade it three times so far. The first, a 1995 TV-movie, starred Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffmann. Then in 2003, Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan stepped into each other’s shoes for a theatrical redo. I imagine we’ll get to that one in due course. Finally, at least so far, the Disney Channel premiered a 2018 version based on the stage musical adaptation. That one starred Heidi Blickenstaff and Cozi Zuehlsdorff.
Mary Rodgers wrote a pair of sequels to Freaky Friday. A Billion For Boris, published in 1974, follows Boris and Annabel as they discover a TV that picks up broadcast signals from the future. It was made into a low-budget movie in 1985 that featured Seth Green in his movie debut. In 1982, Rodgers published Summer Switch, in which Bill and Ben swap bodies, fulfilling the promise of the movie’s conclusion. That book was turned into an ABC Afterschool Special in 1984 with Robert Klein and Scott Schwartz from A Christmas Story as the Andrews boys.
Freaky Friday has left a surprisingly large cultural footprint, especially compared to most of Disney’s other films of the 1970s. The title has entered the lexicon as shorthand for an entire subgenre. Jodie Foster herself cites it as a personally important film in her transition from child star to adult actor. It isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination. But at its best, it’s a genuinely funny, good-natured screwball comedy that proves Disney didn’t need a guy in a dog costume to make audiences laugh.
VERDICT: Disney Plus.
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