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three pairs of lovers with space



This is the fifteenth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.


Men in boys’ bodies – and Vice Versa

David Moscow in Big (1988)

We ought to mention here the painful rash of so-called body-switch comedies which pocked eighties multiplexes, “updating” F. Anstey’s classic Victorian romp “Vice Versa” for an America which still holds to the fool nostrum that if a story is worth telling at all, it’s worth relocating to the US of A. Several of these were authentic man-and-boy tales (with their obligatory distaff imitations) toying with the culture clash between boyhood and manhood, but self-evidently not Special Friendship titles, since the hook was for father and son merely to switch bodies, or as in “BIG” (88), for a young boy’s errant wish to leave him ensconced in the body of a grown man, the obverse of which being “JACK” (96), where Robin Williams played a 10-year old boy who has the hormonal age and size of an adult man.

These do have their sociological interest, particularly viewed back to back, for the way they chronicle the shifting adult-child power ratios, for the language and behaviour they represent as “normal” and contemporary, for the adjusted social métier in which boyhood (or girlhood) life is now played out.  Their central theme – the grass is always greener on someone else’s lawn – gave ample scope for articulating the “generation gap” and disarticulating it, but their very superficiality lays them bare for examination of other codings, as do all “teen comedies”, all “kids’ adventures”, all “family movies”.  Rarely are the writers busy on a quieter level with other, less predictable themes. A degree in psychology is hardly required to recognise these titles for what they are, less a parody on the parent-child battlefront, and more a manifesto from an adult society where everybody wants to remain eighteen for life, and will spend top dollar on plastic surgery to preserve that self-deception.

Vice Versa (1947)

“VICE VERSA” was first filmed in 1947, with Anthony Newley and Roger Livesey exchanging bodies, and James Robertson Justice as the fearsome boarding school headmaster into whose tender clutches father must now return. It has been adapted several times for television, in 1981 with Paul Spurrier and Peter Jeffrey. Fred Savage and Judge Reinhold played the parts in a barely recognisable 1988 remake. Both stars were amusing in their pastiche of the other generation, but the film itself was lame and formulaic, seeking refuge from acute observation in acute sentimentality.

To these we must add “FREAKY FRIDAY” (76, Jodie Foster and Ellen Andrews), “LIKE FATHER LIKE SON” (87, Kirk Cameron and Dudley Moore), “18 AGAIN!” (88), “13 GOING ON 30” (2004) and others. The kernel of philosophical truth behind all these stories is one that does not reduce so easily to comic romp level – that every boy already has a man inside him, every man still has a boy inside him. The Berlin Wall dividing those states – those social classes – is largely illusory. We may all nurture the melancholy wish for eternal youth, but one part of our minds, our personalities, was always an adult, another part will always be a child.  And Anstey’s original thesis still has legs, that packing dad off to the horrors of school again might not be a bad thing for him at all, exposing son to the rude awakening of working life a very good definition of worthwhile education.

Danica McKellar and Fred Savage in The Wonder Years (1988)

A more inventive variant of body-swapping was the lynchpin of “SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE” (72), the hero of which becomes “unstuck in time”, shunting back and forth between different moments in his own lifespan, past present and future, forced to relive old traumas over again, but helpless to change the direction of his own history. And television’s popular “The Wonder Years” was a vicarious body-swap excursion. Purporting to be a nostalgic reminiscence of early sixties boyhood life, the series was all too plainly fixated on the preoccupations and values of the 1980s, and a ubiquitous voice-over by the boy’s adult self re-interpreted for us all those childhood experiences through the sensibilities of a parent.  So poor Fred Savage must ignore all the interests and passions that genuinely did govern the lives of early sixties boys, and spend every waking moment instead mooning over the girl of his dreams.  Audiences seemed to like it, but it was as phoney as phoney could be, and didn’t look or sound remotely true to the period it was pining for.  Nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be.


 Continue to the next chapter: Cuckoos in the Nest




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