Every so often I like to write about texts that have inspired me, be they books, plays, films or TV shows. This week I’ve revisited a film that I adored as a teenager, and as an adult I watch from time to time, too. I showed it to my younger daughter yesterday, as I was reminded of it after Twitter told me that it has been six years this week since Rik Mayall died suddenly and the world lost one of its brightest talents.
As a romantic novelist, and a genuinely hopeless romantic, I’ve often joked that I can see the romance in anything, and, although DDF has its problems as a narrative (not least the conflict between Fred as childhood friend and Fred as part of a more adult relationship), it’s still an utterly charming film in so many ways. As a young teenager, I loved the anarchy behind Fred’s madcap takeover of Lizzie’s life; the friend who could take you out of your comfort zone, to help you break the rules was irresistible. And who wouldn’t admit to being that little bit misty eyed at the end, when they have to say goodbye for good?
As a forty something ‘grownup’, of course I see different things now. Lizzie’s whole life is problematic: the controlling mother, the philandering husband who, for god only knows what reasons, she’s desperate to win back, the appearance of a crazy entity who may be all in her head, or may be some stalkerish, anarchistic presence, but is, either way intent on ruining her life rather than improving it (with the coercive undertone that ‘I can’t leave until you’re happy’ being particularly uneasy). I mean, ‘Fred’ sinks Lizzie’s best friend Janie’s houseboat for Christ’s sake! Fred is a destructive manifestation of her subconscious, and may very well be the personification of Lizzie’s nervous breakdown. This film, on a psychological level, is DARK.
And yet…Fred. Sigh. Yes, Lizzie’s psychosis notwithstanding, Fred is completely and utterly irresistible. Indulge me for a moment…please. A lot of the appeal, obviously, comes from the late, great, force of nature that was Rik Mayall. He explodes into this role, and you kind of get the feeling that every take for every scene was never the same. The mad, manic, cosplayer’s dream that is Drop Dead Fred in Mayall’s hands makes the movie more palatable than it should be. And Phoebe Cates’ Lizzie is the perfect blend of vulnerable and utterly exasperated with Fred/Rik’s antics. I wonder how many of her reactions were spontaneous, too! They play off one another wonderfully.
But, for me, if the film had merely been a series of slapstick, gross out moments sewn together to make kids laugh and scream, it wouldn’t have stayed for so long in my heart. No. there’s more. There are two scenes that elevate it above just a slightly grim comedy. And because of those, I can forgive the upskirt gazing and the dog poo.
The first scene that begins to take Drop Dead Fred into gentler territory is the crisis of the movie, at the end of the second act. Lizzie is trapped in her childhood bedroom, under the highly dubious care of her mother and a psych nurse, and she’s crying. Fred appears and, far from trying to joke her out of the emotions she’s feeling, he’s gentle, tender. He reminds her of the letter she wrote to him when her mother banished Fred into the Jack in the Box, never to be seen again. There’s something about the way Fred notices the details – picks the fluff from Lizzie’s knee, and just silently understands, that makes this the beginning of the epiphany for Fred’s character, There’s no mania there, there’s the beginnings of calm.
And then, of course, we get to the film’s resolution. After Fred takes Lizzie back to the house in her mind, with that beautifully gentle flight through the clouds, after she’s climbed the tree, pulled the stopper out of her husband’s car and stood up to her mother, there’s…Fred. And Fred can’t come back to the real world. She has to go it alone. She has freed her younger self, both physically and metaphorically, and now she must leave. And this is the point at which all of the dark undertones, all of the poo and snot gags, and all of the shouting doesn’t matter any more. It’s just Lizzie and Fred. Alone. One final time. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:
And this scene is one of the most perfect expressions of love I have ever seen on film. Maybe it’s the obvious contrast between the mania of most of the film up to this point, and this absolute stillness that does it. Rik Mayall’s eyes here say more than a thousand physical movements ever could. He’s totally still, eyes shining in the half light, gentle, serene, and so dreadfully sad. His voice is a far cry from the shouty, who cares expressions of Fred that have gone before. It’s gentle, understated and shot through with feeling. Phoebe Cates’ response to him, the eyes widening, the ‘I don’t want to’ line is the perfect response. And as the lights go out in the dreamlike world of her subconscious, and Fred approaches for one final goodbye, it’s just beautiful. Watch carefully and you see those little gestures – the foreheads coming together, the noses bumping, Rik Mayall’s exhalation after the kiss and into the hug that show the beauty of the acting and the chemistry here. It’s such a brief moment, but one that is absolutely loaded with emotion. And as an adult, I adore it.
So, although there’s a lot to be picked apart about the rights and wrongs of the themes of this film, I do have to admit that I’m happy to sit through the ickier moments, just to get the payoff of that one, final kiss. And although I’m tempted to write, and write, and write, my version of what happens to them next, a part of me just wants to love it for what it is. That moment, that beautiful, shining moment of connection, is worth all the bogey wiping in the world. If you want me, I’ll be making mud pies.