Drop Dead Fred
By Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D.
Directed by: Ata de Jong
Year of Release: 1991
Fred did not drop dead. He lives on --
in the minds of many women and in the notes of many therapists.
Drop Dead Fred is a movie. A
great movie? No, no, no. Is it a new movie? No, three years
old, in fact. Was it a major release with lots of hype and
controversy? Nope, it came and went, small ads and dismissive
reviews. Was it, at least, staggering under the load of humongous
star salaries? Unh-unh, it starred Phoebe Cates and the ever-popular
Mayall Rik as the eponymous "Drop Dead Fred."
So why are women renting the video and
why are their therapists renting the video? Just what is Drop
Dead Fred all about? Well, it is about Elizabeth, a young
woman trying to make it in the workaday world who is having
nothing but trouble with her job, with her mother and with
her fiancee. If you are a Mary Tyler Moore Show fan, this
is Mary Richards' worst nightmare. Unlike Mary, Elizabeth
cannot make it on her own.
Elizabeth needs help and help she gets.
Not from a gruffable, avuncular Lou Grant, but from the most
ID-iotic white knight ever to rescue a damsel in distress.
Returning to her mother's house after her life completely
collapses, Elizabeth "inadvertently" (think Freudian
here) releases her invisible, imaginary childhood friend,
his name -- "Drop Dead Fred" -- to do battle with
the "meanies" who bedevil her young adulthood.
That's right, Fred is not real. Well,
he is and he isn't. Drop Dead Fred, hereafter fondly referred
to as DDF, is the undernourished ego dominated by the never-socialized
Id; the angry, vengeful child in the adult body. Thus, DDF
is a crazy mix of Beetlejuice and Don Quixote, a monster-hero
who deals more in improbable nightmares than in impossible
DDF reads Elizabeth's every wish and every
annoyance and gives life to them. He encourages her to do
whatever she wants -- abandon impulse control, seek revenge,
be spiteful, etc. All this to get Elizabeth to stop wimping
out and take charge of her life.
In the end, DDF brings Elizabeth up to
speed. Their journey over, he must heed the voices, the needs
of other children. Most amusing in this regard is the film's
hilarious revelation that DDF is not alone as a guardian pest.
There is a virtual labor union of such beasties who drive
parents nuts, and whose futile exorcism has spawned a cottage
industry of therapists.
Of course, therapists treating invisible
forces is nothing new -- think of all the past-lives therapists
shingled in Southern California. But the conceit of therapists
trying to exorcise imaginary spirits who are quite real and
quite spirited, is mocked deliciously.
But back to the point, Drop Dead Fred,
the being, is the rebel to end all rebels. He thumbs his nose
at authority, at convention and at "adult" reasoning
and leaves Elizabeth, his corporeal host, to accept the blame
which, of course, she doesn't. In her own mind she is a blamed
but blameless bystander. This movie's curious appeal to young
women, then, (refreshingly) has nothing to do with sex and
romance. It is about having a guardian "multiple,"
an alter-ego, or "other."
Training and experience teaches us that
MPD does not have its origin in adulthood. It may first appear
in adulthood but it originates in childhood, perhaps as an
invisible friend, but always when the ego is developing, pliable,
unfixed, when splitting into multiples is made possible by
the plasticity of the underdeveloped ego. Uninitiated adults
can only resort to the small potatoes of dissociative reactions,
such as fugue states or amnesias. The ego's hold on reality
is too strong, the sense of self too entrenched for the truly
exotic and awesome dissociations. But children, ah, there's
the fertile ground for splitting.
When impulses are repressed in childhood,
unable to be part of a total personality, they do not mature
with reality-tested experience but exist instead in a personality
gulag. Should they take expression in the form of a multiple,
the expression, like Stevenson's Mr. Hyde, can be truly monstrous.
The intemperate, dominating, signature persona of such an
overdriven personality trait becomes Eve Black, Mr. Hyde or,
yes, the less malevolent Drop Dead Fred.
It is no mystery why certain films have
appealed to patients over the years. Birdy, for example, appeals
to patients who want to take flight and escape. I Never Sang
for my Father and The Great Santini, cut to the quick of father-son
relationships. Ordinary People captures the essence of ice-queen
mothers who are quietly schizophrenogenic. Looking For Mister
Goodbar, Sybil, Mommy Dearest, you know the DSM drill there.
But Drop Dead Fred is a new cinematic therapy tool
and should be better understood. It is tapping into something
less than clear but very volatile.
Curiously, none of the young men I know
who saw Drop Dead Fred understood the film's appeal
to women beyond it being another rescue fantasy. Indeed, at
first blush it does seem as though Elizabeth is not so much
empowered as a woman in the film as she is rescued by a man.
But once Elizabeth decides to take control, she and DDF meld
into each other, an integration not only of "multiples"
but also of the Anima and Animus, the Yin and Yang.
Perhaps Drop Dead Fred appeals
to young women so much because it promises them that embracing
the shadow adds to the substance of their lives. Or perhaps
it reassures them that somewhere inside all of them, a Mary
Richards is alive and well and waiting to make the leap into