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Take Me Away: Jamie Lee Curtis' Spot-On Teenage Talent in Freaky Friday

Take Me Away: Jamie Lee Curtis' Spot-On Teenage Talent in Freaky Friday

As one of the original scream queens and an irreplaceable dramatic presence today, Jamie Lee Curtis has never faded from view. Her strongest performances have often been her simplest – Joey Keogh looks back on the physicality Curtis masters as the teenager-cum-grownup opposite Lindsay Lohan in Freaky Friday.

Jamie Lee Curtis is an intensely physical performer, whether she's fighting off Michael Myers or seducing Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even when sending up her own image in a wacky callback to Psycho's infamous shower scare, Curtis throws herself into every role with such gusto it belies just how much effort she's putting in. Even when falling apart, she's expertly controlled. 

The actress offers the ideal foil for a body swap comedy because she's so adept at swapping her own body for somebody else's, in physically demanding films as wide ranging as they are deeply personal. No two Jamie Lee Curtis roles are ever the same.  

Body swap movies live or die on the ability of an impressive switch to surprise an audience. The charming box-office smash Your Name works brilliantly, as the anime plays the anatomical switch of its two teenagers in Tokyo and the rural countryside respectively for laughs, while still conveying tonnes of heart and earning its tremendous emotional denouement. But then The Change Up, in which Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman are both utterly unlikeable as “regular” dudes, is saddled with bad and obvious jokes about how lame both men are. The film follows a predictable story that goes nowhere, making it a chore to get through. 

The lively Freaky Friday reboot in 2003 paired an already-established Jamie Lee Curtis (she of Halloween, Trading Places, and A Fish Called Wanda fame) with a fresh-faced Lindsay Lohan, then on the cusp of mega stardom following dual leading roles in The Parent Trap. The 1998 film evoked cosy, Nancy Myers-esque wish fulfilment (a scenic Napa vineyard; a mooted trip to get “lost in Harrods”) to tell a sweetly PG tale of twin sisters separated at birth and then reunited as pre-teens. Freaky Friday, on the other hand, placed Lohan firmly on the jagged path to adulthood. 

The young actress went from playing the pair of doe-eyed almost-12-year-old twins, to becoming a spiky, eyeliner-sporting rock chick and grumpy teenager. Curtis plays her mother, the prim and proper psychiatrist Dr. Tess. As the teen-daughter-turned-mother, whose body has been swapped for Tess’s older, more decrepit one (according to Anna), Curtis ostensibly has the easier job. Anna’s mannerisms are pantomimcally pronounced, from the way she slouches her posture to the insistent habit of dragging her school bag down by her ankles. 

For the transformation in Freaky Friday to convince, stroppiness was vital. Dr. Tess is controlled, Anna is loose. But the potential for disaster was high: if Curtis played it too loose, the performance would have been more farcical than funny, as an obviously grown woman cavorting around pulling faces. In her portrayal of the strait-laced psychiatrist with five different mobile devices on the go at all times, Lohan falters by playing it too straight. There’s a rigidity to her performance, so controlled that the character never feels completely real – while Curtis inhabits Anna’s psyche to such an extent she appears to have actually transformed into a teenager herself.

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Curtis is the powerhouse supporting Freaky Friday, fully committed to every ridiculous moment with deliberate ease. Hers is an incredibly physical performance; slumping over to appear shorter than Lohan and committing to Plasticine-like facial expressions – as a 16-year-old kid, Anna simply cannot comprehend that she has to behave, regardless of which body she’s in. Curtis' cadence also changes, aping Anna’s laid-back California drawl and age-appropriate slang (“Could you, like, chill for a sec?” she asks her mother’s fiancé). 

When Tess is first introduced, she's sitting bolt upright, meditating in a perfect lotus position. Everything about her is controlled – except maybe her messy haircut, which suggests she’s been too busy to visit the hairdresser, and which is subsequently, hilariously, chopped into the haircut audiences have already known and loved as a staple of Curtis’ regular look for years. When Anna takes over her body, everything instantly relaxes, from her shoulders to her feet – which are now in a pair of killer knee-high boots.  

Curtis is taller than Lohan, but she shrinks herself to fit the character. A big kid uncomfortable in this new, grown-up body, Mom-as-Anna walks delicately down the stairs, almost floating, while Anna-as-Mom moves with comical over-exaggeration, like her feet are too big for her body. She's so out of sorts she can't even figure out how to move properly.

Curtis’ physicality is played for laughs throughout the film. After discovering the only way to fix the situation is to find common ground, Anna slumps onto her mother and cries like a baby. The visual gag here comes from the sight of a fully-grown JLC weeping on the much shorter Lohan’s shoulder while she rubs her back. 

It’s through Anna’s interactions with her crush, Jake, that Curtis' transformation really shines. She fully sells her smitten schoolgirl, fiddling with a wrapper, fluttering eyelashes, as the two excitedly discuss their favourite bands. Curtis' adult body is too big to be sitting opposite a lanky twenty-something, so she overcompensates by leaning over into him. 

When it dawns on Anna-as-Mom what she's doing, the realisation stings because it's tinged with the embarrassment of her adult body. She’s not her petite, grungy self. She’s a middle-aged woman more used to wearing power suits than baggy jeans (or, in this case, a fabulous, age-appropriate floral dress). On the back of Jake's motorbike, though, she lets herself go, folding herself around him like she's actually, well, Lindsay Lohan. 

Still, the show-stopping moment of Curtis' successful regression is the big guitar solo, at a gig audition for Anna’s band. Although both actors learned to play guitar for the film, it’s Curtis who impresses here. She plays with such unapologetic confidence, it’s as though she’s been fronting bands her whole life. Anna comes into her own when she finally gets her chance to prove what she can do.

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The initial argument that led to Anna and Tess’s body swap involved this particular audition, and the fact it happened to fall on the same night as the rehearsal dinner for Tess’s wedding. Anna feels as though her mother doesn’t care about her band – a riot grrrl style pop-punk group with an earworm of a song called “Take Me Away” that is played in full during this sequence – and Tess thinks her kid is too selfish to understand the rehearsal dinner is just as important, too, or maybe even more so.

Although it takes a lot for a clearly terrified Tess to take the stage in her daughter’s place (“Okay, maybe I saw The Stones once!”), the way the pair teams up, understanding their share of each other’s point of view, gives this pivotal moment its triumphant energy. 

Throughout the movie, Lohan’s Tess reiterates who she is by acting like a stick in the mud – but it never really sticks. It’s not that Lohan isn’t convincing, she just isn’t as convincing as Curtis who, from her first exasperated cry of "get away from me, you clone freak!", embeds herself in the teenage mould. She has the showier role, but it never feels forced in any way. 

Curtis had already impressed audiences as a teenager for real. In 1978, her first role saw the actress battling serial killer Michael Myers as the shy and timid Laurie Strode in Halloween. Curtis actually auditioned for several roles in John Carpenter’s seminal slasher movie, and was somewhat disappointed at being cast as Laurie (as opposed to her randy buddies, Lynda and Annie, who get laid while she gets popcorn for her babysitting charges). Freaky Friday’s Anna is wild in contrast. And, 40 years on, Curtis proves she still knows exactly what it's like to be a teenager. Finally, she gets to play someone edgy, even if Anna isn’t exactly enjoying post-coital cigarettes (like Lynda) or getting stalked while doing laundry (like Annie). 

It stands to reason that Curtis would make playing a teenager look completely effortless. Anna is too cool to even wear long trousers. Anything resembling actual effort simply wouldn’t do.  

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a freelance journalist from Dublin, with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast to every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.

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READ ME is a platform for female-led writing on film commissioned by Girls on Tops. Louisa Maycock (@louisamaycock) is Commissioning Editor and Ella Kemp (@efekemp) is Contributing Editor.

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