Why I love Lindsay Lohan in Freaky Friday

20 years on, her performance as an uptight businesswoman trapped in the body of her teenage daughter is still among the best Disney has to offer.


Sarah Cleary

Freaky Friday means something. It has done since 1972, when Mary Rogers first published a children’s novel bearing the alliterative title, and the phrase was further lodged in the pop cultural vernacular when Walt Disney Pictures brought the story to cinemas in 1976 with Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris. But it was Disney’s second big screen adaptation of Rogers’ book in 2003 (there had also been a TV movie eight years earlier) that made “Freaky Friday” a synonym for supernatural body-swapping, at least for people of my generation.

Twenty years on, Mark Waters’ Freaky Friday remains a seemingly immovable touchstone – it’s perhaps the most well-loved and fondly remembered example of Disney’s live-action tween-targeted 00s output (its only real competition is The Princess Diaries). We can see its enduring impact in Lil Dicky and Chris Brown’s distressingly popular 2018 novelty song Freaky Friday and 2020 horror-comedy Freaky, both of which riff on the film’s central conceit as well as its title. On a more personal note, seeing Freaky Friday as a kid constituted a very important step in my cinephilic development. When I was about eight years old, long before I had any robust sense of what might constitute ‘good acting’, this film made one thing clear to me: Lindsay Lohan is a very good actor.

Anna (Lindsay Lohan) is the perpetually grumpy teenage daughter of Tess (Jamie Lee Curtis), a successful therapist. Anna and Tess can’t see eye-to-eye on much of anything, but a particular sticking point is Tess’s imminent marriage to silver fox Ryan (Mark Harmon) – Anna is still yet to fully process the sudden death of her father. As an olive branch, Ryan offers to treat the girls (along with Anna’s troublemaking little brother and Tess’s doddering father) to a meal at a family-favourite Chinese restaurant, only for the mother-daughter bickering to come to a head at the dinner table. It’s then that Anna and Tess each have an especially cryptic fortune cookie thrust in their direction by the restaurant’s meddling-but-good-natured owner (a frankly appalling racist stereotype).

The cookies were, of course, enchanted (described as “strange Asian voodoo”). The next day, Anna and Tess wake up in one another’s bodies. Now Anna (Jamie Lee Curtis) must learn to navigate the adult world and Tess (Lindsay Lohan) will have to hit the ground running as a high schooler. Naturally, shenanigans ensue – but will our heroines be able to learn a handful of lessons about empathy and mutual respect over the course of an especially freaky Friday?

Lohan made her film debut five years earlier in another Disney remake, The Parent Trap, which had presented the then 11-year-old with a formidable acting challenge – portraying two estranged twins who pose as one another. Roger Ebert’s glowing review noted Lohan’s remarkably sophisticated choices, like playing each twin with a “slightly flawed” version of the other’s accent. Lohan had already exhibited a subtlety and thoughtfulness beyond her years, and Freaky Friday’s premise would demand that the young actor (now 16 years old) pull off another magic trick – convincingly portray a 44-year-old woman. This conceit would allow Lohan to further demonstrate her maturity, but it would do just the opposite for Jamie Lee Curtis.

From her rise to stardom in the 1980s, there had always been a mischievous, self-deprecating side to Curtis’s persona, best exemplified in latter-day screwball comedies like Trading Places and A Fish Called Wanda. She seemed to relish any opportunity to undercut her sex symbol status with a bit of silliness – ‘aging gracefully’, in the traditional Hollywood sense, was never going to be her style. In the role of a teenage girl, trapped in the body of a middle-aged woman, Curtis could kill two birds with one stone – she could explicitly acknowledge the passage of time while also affirming that it had done nothing to diminish her sense of humour. Curtis makes these intentions plain in her very first scene as Anna – upon seeing her new reflection she exclaims, in her brattiest tone, “I look like the Crypt-Keeper!” Few leading ladies have been quite so fearless.

As a child, Freaky Friday was in heavy rotation in my household – it was one of a small handful of films that my younger sister and I both loved equally. The premise’s innate appeal to kids is self-evident, but it’s deceptively simple – the film deftly indulges several childhood fantasies at once. Wouldn’t it be fun to live as an adult, and do it better than they can? Wouldn’t it be nice to see your parent subjected to the indignities and frustrations you face every day at school, and have them concede that you’ve been treated unjustly, having seen things your way? But Freaky Friday provides children with more than just catharsis, it also gently encourages them to consider some terrifying realities: the inevitability of change, the onset of adulthood and, ultimately, mortality. It’s this kind of quality that separates the kids’ movies we remember fondly from the ones we cherish.

Revisiting it as an adult, I was relieved to it find it has remained a charming little film, though it’s become dated in ways that are hard to ignore – for instance, I was shocked to see Anna’s threat of suicide during a heated pre-swap argument with her mother played for laughs. The magic fortune cookie (which doesn’t appear in any previous version of the story) is also regrettable – in the 1976 film, the swap is simply induced by each party simultaneously wishing they could live as the other for a day. It’s a much more intuitive inciting incident, and one that could’ve spared us the wince-inducing scenes with Pei-Pei and her mother, played by Rosalind Chao and Lucille Soong respectively. But what struck me most upon my latest re-watch was, once again, quite how good Lindsay Lohan is.

As Anna, Lohan isn’t afraid to be genuinely prickly – she doesn’t read as the cheerleader-type in pop punk drag, instead making for a pretty convincing misfit (well, a Disney misfit anyway). As Tess, her speech patterns and physicality are brilliantly modulated, and she completely nails the rictus grin and wide-eyed desperation of a panicking mother. In terms of the body swap, Lohan’s turn has more nuance and specificity than Curtis’s. Both actors are good, but Curtis only really manages to play Anna as ‘a teenager’ – Lohan doesn’t play ‘a mother’ post-swap, rather she mirrors Curtis’s Tess from the earlier portion of the film. In a film of two performances, it’s hers that ultimately wins out.

Freaky Friday arrived at the perfect moment in two careers, its metatext essentially a passing of the torch from one generation of female star to the next. In the DVD’s behind-the-scenes featurette, Curtis, sitting in her makeup chair, puts it to Lohan thusly: “You’re my Padawan learner, and I’m the Obi-Wan Kenobi.” But, as I’m sure you’re aware, Lohan’s acting career is yet to live up to the promise of her early roles, largely due to personal factors we needn’t revisit here. Curtis, on the other hand, now has an Oscar.

If the film was a career forecast, it has so far proved inaccurate, at least in Lohan’s case. As of June 2023, she and Curtis are set to reprise their roles in a follow-up to Freaky Friday, due to shoot sometime next year. Aging will no doubt be a central theme once again, and it will be interesting to see if this new film will be able to acknowledge its stars’ wildly divergent paths, in one way or another. Regardless, I’ll be rooting for Lindsay Lohan. I always thought she was so cool.

Published 10 Aug 2023

Tags: Freaky Friday Jamie Lee Curtis Lindsay Lohan

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