Friday, August 5, 2011

Gab and Switch

Werth: Hi, Wise.  Would you mind grabbing this jumper cable?  

Wise: It depends on what you plan on doing next.  

Werth: The Jason Bateman/Ryan Reynolds comedy The Change Up opens today and I thought we could have a little fun if we switched bodies for the day and learned valuable lessons about each others' lives.  

Wise: You mean you want me to spend the day loving Joan instead of Bette?  

Werth: Exactly.  

Wise: Why don't we just discuss our favorite body swapping comedies instead?  

Werth: But just think how much more fun Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? would be.  

Wise: Freaky Friday (1976) is the granddaddy of the life switch comedies and stars Jodie Foster as teenage tomboy Annabel and Barbara Harris as her frazzled mother.  After a quarrel, they both wish they had the other's life, and suddenly (and with no explanation), they do.  Annabel spends the day contending with all the frustrations of running a house, while her mother has madcap adventures adjusting to the complexities of being a teenager.  Of course, this being a late 70's Disney film, the action devolves into chaos, a car chase of unlikely vehicles erupts and lessons are learned.  

Werth: Disney always wanted you to learn something. Look at That Darn Cat! (1965)

Wise: Right, but Freaky Friday does have a lot of charm.  Based on the book of the same name, it was adapted by its author Mary Rodgers, daughter of legendary Broadway composer Richard Rodgers, who also had a successful career writing music for the stage.  

Werth: Nepotism, I say. Nepotism.

Wise: Released the same year as Taxi Driver, Foster eschews the adolescent sexpot routine in favor of a fresh-faced earnestness that's sharpened by coming of age in a post-Betty Friedan world.  She's a star of the field hockey team and an ace in her photography class, but she still has time to indulge her crush on her neighbor Boris (Marc McClure).  

Werth: Who later played Jimmy Olsen in the Christopher Reeve Superman films.  

Wise: While Annabel is the central role in the movie, Barbara Harris makes the most of what could have been a dowdy hausfrau.  An early member of Chicago's The Second City comedy troupe, Harris had a successful career on Broadway before turning to film.  In Friday, she plays something of a stereotypical homemaker, caught up in housework and certain that Annabel would be much happier if she ditched dungarees for dresses.  
But the transformation has a subtle effect on her—at the least the way Harris plays it—because it liberates her perspective and she blossoms not just into a better mother, but a better human being.  

Werth: There are no better human beings in my favorite switch movie, which should please you because it stars Bette Davis.  

Wise: She's always the tonic for what ails me.  

Werth: Dead Ringer (1964) showcases the aging actress as not one, but two greedy ladies. In what was hoped to be a triumph of mid-60's technical and acting achievement, Davis played identical twin sisters Edith and Margaret.

Wise: I just hope the Olsen twins never hear about this.  

Werth: Edith is a down-on-her-luck bar-owner who runs into her well-to-do twin sister at the funeral of Margaret's husband. Of course, Margaret stole her now-dead hubby from Edith 18 years ago, and, of course, Edith is still sore about it.  

Wise: Of course.  

Werth: So, of course, Edith takes this opportunity to murder Margaret and switch identities.  

Wise: Um, of course?  

Werth: This whole movie is full of weird plot points. But what makes it truly watchable is Davis. After her comeback turn in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962),  Davis seemed to relish roles where she could be ugly. In this film she plays not only the greedy, spoiled sister, but also the greedy sister who wants to be spoiled. 
With a plethora of state-of-the-art '60's film tricks like doubles, voice-overs, reverse over-the-shoulder shots and split-screens, Davis smokes and vamps her way through this Doublemint feature. With total abandon, she screeches, pops her eyes, laughs grainily, and says lines like,"a wino" in her legendary patois, "a why-no!"  

Wise: Careers have been made on a lot less.  

Werth: Davis was never known for subtlety, but some of her post-Baby Jane movies took her performance to the level of camp, with only a few moments of genuine regret for murdering her sister visible in this performance. Despite that, Davis' iconic mannerisms are worth the watch—like when Edith creatively uses a red-hot firepoker to solve the quandary of how to sign documents like her dead sister.  

Wise: I'm assuming that doesn't involve taking a penmanship class. 

Werth:  Dead Ringer is one of those films that you can't help laughing at, unintentionally.  Still, you wonder if, while Davis was cashing the paychecks, she knew what she was doing—slyly winking at the audience as she took yet another drag from her cigarette. So you're sure you don't want to attempt my jumper cables idea?  

Wise: Why don't we just plan a double feature of Burnt Offerings and Trog?  

Werth: Fine, as long as we're back next week for more Film Gab.


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