In physics, 1905 is known as the Annus Mirabilis. Over the course of that year, Einstein published four papers. Each is in its own way part of the basis of modern physics. I don’t pretend to understand them all, but the fourth, Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?, introduced the equation “E=MC squared.” So that’s important. 1976 is . . . not as important, except to me personally inasmuch as it’s the year I was born. But I would argue that it’s Jodie Foster’s Annus Mirabilis, the year in which she made Taxi Driver, Echoes of a Summer (the most forgettable of the lot), The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Bugsy Malone, and this. Heck of a year for a girl who didn’t even turn fourteen until that November.
Annabel Andrews (Foster) is a typical suburban fourteen-year-old girl for the most part. She has a younger brother she detests, Ben (Sparky Marcus), whom she’s dubbed Ape Face. She adores her father, Bill (John Astin), and disdains her mother, Ellen (Barbara Harris). Her mother does not understand her, idolizes Ape Face, and gets to lie around the house all day, doing whatever she wants. Conversely, Ellen despairs of Annabel, who lives in a pigsty, doesn’t live up to her full potential, and gets much fuss made over her because of water-skiing. Each one simultaneously wishes the other could live in her shoes for just one day. And, magically, they switch places.
We’ll start with Annabel-as-Ellen, mostly because the book never talks about Ellen-as-Annabel at all, leaving those events as a mystery to us. (The book is written in the first person, from Annabel’s perspective.) Ben is off to school already, so that’s not her problem at first. But she’s got to start the housecleaning, which she doesn’t know how to do. She’s got to deal with the maid even though she doesn’t like her. Bill cheerfully suggests that she can “whip up” a little dinner for the ceremony he’s having that evening to celebrate the opening of his new project at work. She does have to pick Ben up from school. Oh, and drive—she’s supposed to drive.
Ellen-as-Annabel, conversely, has to negotiate Annabel’s day at school. Typing class, which is mostly about wacky hijinks from broken equipment. The hazards of finding the middle ground between too smart and not smart enough—too smart for her friends and the dread Not Living Up To Her Potential from the teachers’ perspective. She has a field hockey game, and while she doesn’t really know how to play field hockey, Annabel is so good that the other team’s coach (Ruth Buzzi) tells her players to kill Annabel. She does get her braces off, and she persuades Bill to let her use his credit cards and get a makeover. Oh, and of course there’s the water-skiing show she’s supposed to be putting on for Bill’s opening.
An interesting point is that Ellen-as-Annabel has to negotiate Annabel’s friends, but Annabel-as-Ellen doesn’t have the same, because we never see any of Ellen’s friends. Even in the park with Ben, she doesn’t connect to any other parents. In part, this may well be because Annabel would have the same trouble with them that Ellen has with her friends, but we don’t actually see any other mothers. Annabel-as-Ellen talks to Mrs. Schmauss (Patsy Kelly), the maid. She talks to Boris Harris (Mark McClure), the boy down the street on whom Annabel has a crush. But for the most part, she does not need to figure out how to negotiate social interactions as an adult, because for the most part, she doesn’t have any. She leads, at least for that day, an isolated life—and it seems expected.
Still, even though she has a maid, we see that Annabel’s beliefs about her day don’t hold up. The maid has a long list of “I don’t do that” that Annabel didn’t know about before, or anyway didn’t think about. Annabel doesn’t even know how to do laundry. And, yes, Bill expects her to be able to throw together dinner for twenty-five with no notice when the caterers fall through. Which is, can I just say, insane? The time he gives her isn’t enough to throw together a formal dinner for five, given she would have to go grocery shopping to start. But, sure, last-minute “I rest my career on your abilities” dinner for twenty-five. Why the heck not? And the movie makes sure we get the point; Annabel calls him a male chauvinist pig several times.
But Annabel’s own life isn’t exactly free from expectations. She has an incredible schedule to me; we see her in marching band, typing class, photography class, history class, and gym. That’s three electives, physical education, and only one academic class. Well, all right; it’s easier to think of wacky set pieces for a typing class than a math class. Fair enough. But her history class is covering the Korean War (I only remember one history class that got that far in my entire grade school career, and that was California history), and she decides to use the knowledge she has as Ellen. The teacher is impressed, but her friends call her a show-off. Which, let’s face it, she kind of was. But her friends seem to think that any answering of the teacher’s questions at all would be showing off. She isn’t supposed to show academic prowess, but the adults shame her for not.
I don’t think the people at Disney, including screenwriter and author of the original book Mary Rodgers, set out to make a feminist masterpiece, but I do think that’s pretty well what they did. Okay, “masterpiece” may be pushing it, but still. It’s a damn fine piece of feminist thought. It’s about the expectations put on people whose lives seem pretty easy—the teenager and the upper middle class suburban housewife. (I don’t know if they think of themselves on those terms, but they can after all afford a maid, it’s implied every day.) It turns out they have a lot of work to live the “easy” life people think they have, and the expectations on them are almost impossible to negotiate.
What’s more, Ellen must have literally forgotten how to be a teenager, because I don’t think life had changed all that much in twenty years. I grant you that much of what Annabel doesn’t know how to do over the course of the day is reasonable—the driving thing comes to mind again—but it wouldn’t be a bad idea for a person her age to know how to do laundry, at least a little. I think Ellen and Bill are doing that “I want my kid to have a better life” thing in some ways that are actively bad for their kids.
The movie shifts the action from the original Manhattan apartment building setting to the suburbs, and I think it in many ways works better. No, we don’t all know how to negotiate dealing with the maid, but I think Ellen’s isolation becomes more clear if she isn’t in a building full of people in a city full of people. Ellen’s isolation is one of the things that raises this above many of the other body-swap comedies. For the most part, the pair’s lives are believable. Annabel is a typical teenager, for the most part, and her mother is a typical suburban housewife, for the most part. The implications can be a little worrying, if you think about it.
I thought, incidentally, about using a still from the animated credit sequence for my article image. I miss animated credit sequences, and this movie has a particularly fine example. It’s a summary of the film’s events, in a lot of ways, and really gives away a fair chunk of the plot if you think about it, but it’s still really well done. And it’s not as though the plot is full of shocking details anyway. It’s also under a song, “I’d Like to Be You for a Day,” performed by Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster. So that’s nice, too.