Understanding the Misunderstood – Drop Dead Fred at 32

Because I have been sick this last week, I didn’t go to the movies over the weekend and that means I am going to be way behind. That’s got me feeling a little down as there were a number of intriguing titles I’ll have to play catch-up on, but the break has also given me time to tackle some things I had been putting off. One of those things is reconsidering how and why I write about film.

My friends Seth and Michelle over at the “Movie Friends” podcast brought it to my attention that they were looking for someone to contribute a few words for a bonus episode they were doing on Drop Dead Fred and I couldn’t resist, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to expand on that idea.

I have seen Ate de Jong’s Drop Dead Fred many times over the years, from childhood to adulthood, and it’s more than fair to say that it is one of my favorite movies. It is one of the films that influenced my creative decision to launch the “Bad Movies We Love” podcast. I had most recently watched it in my mid-to-late 20s (I think), so over 10 years ago if not longer, and was fairly confident I could see the conviction through the clutter then. But in the name of due diligence, and to give Seth and Michelle the most well-informed opinion I could, I decided to watch it again to see if my position had wavered but found it to be just as good, if not better than ever. 

While it may be easy to get put off by the admittedly childish and outright cartoonish vulgarity of its slapstick approach or be dismissive of its substance as a result, there is a lot more going on than it might appear. This isn’t a story about magic or fantasy despite being about a young woman and her troublesome imaginary friend. This is really an allegory for childhood trauma.

The character of Drop Dead Fred is Elizabeth’s trauma response to the abuse she receives at the hands of her mother. Fred doesn’t really exist. He isn’t a genie in a bottle despite popping out of a jack-in-the-box and appearing to pull off some impressive party tricks. He is a coping mechanism that was born out of the necessity for Elizabeth to protect herself from the emotional abuse she received as a child. That’s why he operates in the crude and immature way that he does because he is a manifestation of Elizabeth’s childhood mind. That is why he’s still juvenile even when he reappears to Elizabeth when she’s an adult.

Fred exists only in her mind but in rewatching this time I saw some pretty clear indications that he is the manifestation of her id. Sigmund Freud characterized the id as the most selfish part of the mind that’s only there to satisfy immediate desires saying, “[the id] knows no judgments of value: no good and evil, no morality.” Fred is there to help her fulfill her basic needs and wants for things like fun, playfulness, affection, and even the unconditional love she didn’t get from her mother. He is the part of her that stands up for herself, believes in and loves herself, has fun, and lashes out against those who aim to harm her, namely her mother and unfaithful husband Charles.

When we meet Elizabeth as an adult, her husband has just left her, her purse gets stolen out of her car, her car subsequently gets stolen, and then she gets fired from her job for being late. She is at rock bottom and her mother then wrestles control of her life away once again. It is that series of events that is the catalyst for Fred’s return and when first reminded of him, the first thing she recalls is that he was always looking out for her. Then when he first materializes again to her adult self, he tells Elizabeth very matter-of-factly that he can’t move on until she’s happy. His literal purpose is to make sure that Elizabeth is truly happy and there is no way for him to know that unless he is part of her. From that moment on, what we’re really witnessing is her inner child struggling to break free from the constraints placed on her by her mother and the definitions of what her mother deems to be a “proper woman”. 

Marsha Mason is great as Elizabeth’s mom, Polly. She is always negging her daughter in some way. To her, Elizabeth is never nice enough, girly enough, smart enough, and always a problem…always crazy. When Polly’s husband leaves, well you know she blames her daughter for that too. So, naturally, when Charles leaves she says that is Elizabeth’s fault too. No wonder the poor young lady is so meek. She’s been conditioned to think that everything is her fault…that she is always the problem…her whole life. No wonder Fred calls her a Mega-Bitch.

Her mom even hires security to make sure Elizabeth stays put.

What I love about how the screenwriters handled their relationship was its subtlety. While not a straight-line comparison, I thought about Carrie a lot while watching this. In Brian De Palma’s film, he brings Stephen King’s story to life with a very pronounced vision of the tumultuous mother/daughter relationship. Elizabeth Livingston, Carlos Davis, and Anthony Fingleton don’t get nearly enough credit for shaping a different and probably a lot more common picture of a toxic and abusive parent-to-child relationship. They understood that it doesn’t have to be loud and/or violent to be traumatic and it’s a really smart piece of writing to acknowledge that back in 1991 when an idea like that wasn’t being talked about.

On the surface, it appears that Polly has it together and is well-intentioned. When Elizabeth’s marriage implodes, she’s there to the rescue. However, the first thing she does when they arrive back home tells her daughter to stay off her freshly cleaned carpet. It may not seem like a lot but it’s one of several glimpses of her controlling nature. Her concern isn’t really with her daughter or her well-being during the lowest point in her life, it’s with her carpet. There’s also a line in there where she tells Elizabeth that “snuggling is for teddy bears” just cementing the lack of real affection she has for her daughter.

Rick Mayall and Marsha Mason (Photo: lwlies.com)

As the audience, we should know we aren’t on her mom’s side but it’s understandable to think that people might potentially get distracted from the significance of the subtleties at the core when Fred and Snot Face decided to spread dog shit all over that newly cleaned carpet. It’s a subconscious rebellion and the film continually disguises the gravity of the trauma with humor because…wait for it…humor is often a coping mechanism as well.

That parental relationship bleeds over into all other aspects of Elizabeth’s life and it’s probably why her best real friend is an older woman but, more importantly, also more mature, more confident in who she is, and genuinely more empathetic. Carrie Fisher is great in this role as Janie too. She gets to have fun with some of the best lines in the film but what really stood out to me this time was how good of a friend she is to Elizabeth. Janie may seem like an eccentric who lives on a houseboat, smokes while speed walking, and has affairs with married co-workers but not only did she drop what she was doing to help Elizabeth, she believed her about Drop Dead Fred too and didn’t judge! It’s an important piece of character framing to juxtapose Polly, and it’s not by accident.

Everything about these two is opposite, and Carrie Fisher nails it

Even the two love interests are polar opposites. Her husband Charles, played to smarmy perfection by Tim Matheson, is very much of the same ilk as her mother. Controlling and condescending, which is most likely why Elizabeth would mistake that behavior for a loving relationship. It was conditioned into her. However, her behavior in that relationship was also conditioned to be very childish and she even sort of dressed like a doll. When pressed on why she “loved” Charles, her answer was pretty flimsy and that’s because she didn’t know what it meant to really love someone. That isn’t expressly communicated in the script, but it’s there once you start mining the subtext.

On the other side of the equation, it’s Mickey played by Ron Eldard. He, like Janie and Fred, believes in something about Elizabeth. Maybe it was just a crush that carried over from childhood, but what’s being communicated is that his affection for her stems from knowing her as a kid and knowing that she was worthwhile then. That she mattered at a time when the people around her didn’t tell her that. All of this stuff doesn’t happen by accident.

I know that this movie sort of sent everyone involved into career purgatory but that’s really a shame. The physical acting from Phoebe Cates (Elizabeth) and Rick Mayall (Fred) is fantastic and the scene in the restaurant with Mickey where Elizabeth appears to lose control over her body is the most spectacular example. We also get Ashley Peldon who gives one of my favorite performances from a child actor of all time. It is definitely not a kids’ movie though and I could see how the accompanying score by Randy Edelman might be confusing tone-wise because it almost sounds like Randy Newman.

Ashley Peldon as young Elizabeth with Rick Mayall as Fred

Drop Dead Fred is a lot smarter, deeper, and more genuinely heartfelt than its critics would suggest. There’s a reason why the film’s climax takes us to a hyper-stylized, symbolic manifestation of a twisted nightmare version of Elizabeth’s childhood home, and ends with her literally freeing her child self who is bound to a bed. That act helps her realize her happiness and that means it’s time for Fred to go but when they embrace and he dematerializes from her arms, she is left hugging herself because that’s really what it was all about anyway. The presentation may be a little confusing, but it’s actually a touching and powerful metaphor for learning to love yourself.

This is a film that I would like to see a rated-R director’s cut for. But, in the meantime, I’m proud to stand up for it and lead the Drop Dead Fred Army into battle, and raise the banner for its Bad Movies We Love Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Thanks for reading! I still believe word of mouth is the best way to help, so if you enjoy what I’m doing, please tell somebody. And if you have a comment, I’d love to hear it! Liking, subscribing, and sharing go a long way too. As usual, be well, be safe, and have fun no matter how you get your movies!