When it comes to female characters there appears to be an odd belief that there are few examples of them in comedy, specifically examples who could be held up as comedic role models. I seem to have some extra time on my hands right now and rather than rearrange my wardrobe I have decided to dedicate an essay each to the fictional girls and women who deserve more recognition for their comedy.
Being the straight man in comedy takes real skill. You have to get the joke, even be the joke sometimes, without ever letting on. One knowing look to the audience can ruin the whole thing, which means only very generous, confident and funny performers can play the straight man successfully. Why? Because they have to a) be willing to make space for the comic character, b) trust that if they perform well it will be clear that while their character might be clueless, they are not and c) know where the humour in the scene is coming from. Like the hare and the tortoise, the straight man often wins the race with the biggest laugh – though it may be on him.
This is a very long-winded way of explaining why I have picked Drop Dead Fred’s Elizabeth Cronin for this week’s comedy icon. Is she a clown? No, far from it, but she holds her own next to Rik Mayall’s completely wild Drop Dead Fred without hamming up her performance.
Played to perfection by Phoebe Cates, Elizabeth/Snotface was a sad little girl who grew up into a sad little woman. She was such a sad little girl with such problematic parents that she imagined (OR DID SHE?) Drop Dead Fred into her life. At some point in the growing up process, Drop Dead Fred disappeared from Elizabeth’s life, however, now her cheating husband has left her she is bereft and her overbearing mother has come to take her back to her childhood home where Drop Dead Fred returns (released from a taped up jack-in-the-box; symbolism much?) to wreak havoc.
Now, I realise some people absolutely hate Drop Dead Fred, it’s a very odd film. I didn’t like it as a child, but I like it now as an adult and I honestly can’t tell you if it’s supposed to be a kids film or not. Some people simply cannot see past Rik Mayall’s bogey flicks and Phoebe Cates’ childlike wardrobe. You either think Fred is kind of a bully or that Snotface needs to get a grip and some more age-appropriate clothes. In fact, as I write this I realise Drop Dead Fred acts as a predecessor to Ally McBeal in which the eponymous lead also has a rather infantile wardrobe and had an imagination that ran wild.
However, Carl J Schroader put it best in the Mystical Movie Guide: “The imaginary friend is cavortingly rude for a reason; he served to push the girlchild to do mischief for attention and as a cry for help. Now grown up, the woman has forgotten and is about to lose her soul, so events call for some kind of literal return of her demon to force the exposure of her pain. This psychic crisis is poignantly realistic… The creature who is visible only to the woman is like a poltergeist energy of her repressed self, a problematic ego container into which her powers of assertion and creativity were poured and stored. The movie’s resolution is startlingly beautiful.”
Where some actors might have tried to bring the humour by acting all put-upon or babyish, as Elizabeth, Cates plays it straight. When Fred is funny she laughs, when he is childish she is bemused, when he misbehaves she is horrified, when he treats her like a puppet she is mortified. It is clear that it is the emotional abuse she endured from her mother and in turn her husband has loosened her grasp on what is normal behaviour rather than Fred’s influence.
Elizabeth Cronin is a comedy icon. So, I suggest if you’ve run out of films and box sets to watch over lockdown, that you make yourself a romantic salad and give Drop Dead Fred another go.
An honourable mention should also go to the legendary Carrie Fisher, who plays The Best Friend Janie who probably got the best lines in the entire film (fun fact, Fisher re-wrote some of her dialogue, so that explains that) and certainly has the best home, albeit temporarily, out of all the characters.
If you have a character you’d like to suggest for this, then tweet me @funnywomened
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