Jodie Foster was all over movie screens in 1976. She made FIVE films that year, and 1976 is the year that saw her transition from a child actor to something entirely different; maybe not a grown-up, but definitely something more mature. Foster had been a Disney kid, one of the handful of young people that had been under contract for Disney’s live-action family fare during the early seventies. But by 1976, Foster was shedding her Disney image with appearances in films like Echoes of a Summer, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, and Bugsy Malone, which we just might talk more about in a few weeks. Then, of course, was her Oscar-nominated turn as a child prostitute in Taxi Driver, a role that launched her career into the big leagues. So Freaky Friday (which was made in 1976 but technically didn’t hit theaters until January of 1977) feels kind of like Jodie Foster saying goodbye to a certain kind of movie.
I’m a real sucker for these live-action Disney movies. I know they get dismissed out of hand for being brainless junk, but I actually think there’s a lot going on in some of them, especially during this period in the company’s history. Freaky Friday is no exception. In case you aren’t familiar with the plot, it’s pretty basic. The story takes place on Friday the 13th, because even before we were all worried masked killers, Friday the 13th was still a day of profound unluckiness when anything could happen. Jodie Foster is a teenager who feels like a freak in her pubescent body. Boys don’t seem to pay any attention to her, her clothes don’t fit her changing body, and she’s sure that no one understands her. Barbara Harris plays the mother of two, faithful wife, and devoted homemaker who is sure that no one understands her. It seems like she’s always clashing with her daughter, and the two just can’t seem to get along. When they wish they could switch places, the magic of Friday the 13th makes their swap a reality. What follows is 100 minutes of real silliness.
On the other end of the spectrum is Barbara Harris (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Grosse Point Blank). I have no idea what she’s going for here. When she’s in her “kid” mode, she acts absolutely nothing like Jodie Foster. Frankly, Harris mostly just seems to be acting drunk. Maybe she’s basing her performance off of a child of her own? And that child was a constant drunk? Because what she’s doing is as big and goofy as it gets. It could only be made more obvious if she occasionally went “hic!” and staggered around. Barbara Harris is most definitely the weak link of this movie. She’s glamorously beautiful and willing to go out on a limb with her performance, but she seems to have never even met Jodie Foster. You’d think her ability to ACT LIKE Foster would be important for a movie where she’s supposed to actually BE foster. You’d think wrong.
Having said that, once you adjust and let go of expectations, there’s goofy fun to be had here. A lot of it comes from a very clever script, which has a lot of wry humor. Yeah, this is a Disney movie, so there are definitely some big pratfalls and broad comedic elements that one expects, but most of that comes in the third act in the form of water skiing, hang-gliding, and a chase scene involving a Volkswagen Beetle. The rest of the movie has little moments of cleverness that mostly come from the script, written by Mary Rodgers, adapting her novel. When a neighborhood kid (played by Marc McClure of Superman and Back to the Future fame) comes by the house to make a delivery for Barbara Harris, he notes that there’s a dollhouse and a canopy bed in what he thinks is a little boy’s bedroom. Barbara Harris (playing her daughter) describes her son as “a very peculiar boy. He’s liberated.” LIBERATED! I think this line is hilarious.
Equally edgy but much less fun is the weird “grown-ups having romantic feelings for underage teenagers” vibe that runs through the whole movie. I suppose it’s unavoidable, and the movie definitely makes sure not to linger on what could be really creepy, but it’s undeniably there. We have a middle-aged mother of two fawning all over a boy that’s her daughter’s age. Thankfully, there’s no physical manifestation of any of this, because that would have been too much. This is a problem that every other version of this story, including the 2003 remake, starring Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis, also couldn’t shake.
But I still insist that if you strip away the silly stuff that was aimed at the tweens and below crowd of the mid-seventies, there’s a lot of good stuff here. Plus, it just feels a little bit wild. Not a lot…but it’s there. I’ve mentioned before that the world of 1976 was different from the one we live in now, and the wholesome vibe was a lot looser, especially for a family film from Disney. These teenage girls walk the streets of their town unsupervised, fully confident, strutting around Main Street like they own it. They climb on the city bus to get from place to place, with nary an adult chaperone in sight. This is a more unprotected world that we’d see even a decade later in our entertainment. These kids are unsupervised. They’re making their own decisions.
I also have to give Disney credit for what is essentially a very pro-feminist movie that appeals to the entire family. Though Foster again speaks in her reflections about what SHE thinks this movie is (which doesn’t seem to be much), I would again argue that this movie goes a long way to offer a realistic view of evolving gender roles as they existed in 1976. It’s not all about the women, either. Big credit goes to the leading ladies, but also to the fine work done here by John Astin and Sparky Marcus, the little boy who plays his son and Foster’s younger brother. Disney movies are ultimately about understanding and building relationships and bridges, and that’s exactly what happens here. There’s a message of understanding wrapped in the supernatural silliness. It’s a very progressive little flick.
Before I wrap this up, I have to give special mention to a few of the supporting actors. Live action Disney is always fun for spotting character actors and background players, and Freaky Friday is no exception. Watch for Dick Van Patten (Westworld, Spaceballs), Alan Oppenheimer (the voice of many cartoon characters from the eighties, including Skeletor and Man-At-Arms from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe), comedian Kaye Ballard (frequent guest on Hollywood Squares), and Sorrell Booke (Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard). When you add in Jodie Foster, Barbara Harris, John Astin, and Marc McClure, you’ve got a movie filled with recognizable faces. The director of this movie, Gary Nelson, went on to helm The Black Hole for Disney, and would later make Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold for Cannon. He also was the original director hired for Nighthawks, the 1981 movie starring Sylvester Stallone and Rutger Hauer, but was replaced after a week of filming.
But Freaky Friday from 1976 was important for its time. The movie is a lot of things. It’s goofy family-friendly fun with some ridiculous aspects and some very silly special effects. Why exactly do we need to have a grown woman on a hang-glider? Oh, because it’s Disney. But it’s also an early attempt by Disney to make a statement about equality in the household. Remember, feminism isn’t about anyone being superior; it’s about equality, as in “everyone is in this together.” On that front, I think the movie succeeds, and it did it during a time when not everyone was saying that. It’s a shame that one of the lead performances isn’t better, but it’s hard not to look at Freaky Friday and see at least a partial success.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!