May 10, 1991
Okay, I’m looping back a little here. I initially skipped SWITCH because it didn’t look very fun to me. But as I think about MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE and a couple of the movies coming up later I’m realizing that changes in the portrayal of women in pop culture will be a major theme of this series, so it seems like a mistake not to look at a movie about a sexist guy waking up in the body of a woman. Also, Bryan in the FX2 comments wrote, “I don’t blame you for not wanting to review SWITCH but I was excited to hear your thoughts about it. It seems it could teach us a lot about 1991.” Good point. So I’m doing it.
SWITCH is late period Blake Edwards. That’s not a period held in high regard by anyone I’ve come across, but I did kind of like BLIND DATE (four years and three movies before this), which got terrible reviews. So you never know.
Steve Brooks (Perry King, CLASS OF 1984, MANDINGO) is “one hell of an advertising man,” which of course means he’s introduced in his office putting golf balls into that thing that business assholes putt into in all ‘80s and ‘90s movies. Then he gets an an unexpected call. Three of his ex-girlfriends, Margo (JoBeth Williams, POLTERGEIST), Liz (Lysette Anthony, KRULL, Bryan Adams videos) and Felicia (Victoria Mahoney, Brewster Place) invite him over for “a surprise party.”
He assumes – and they imply – that it’s a threesome, which he’s excited about because he was sure they all hated him. He doesn’t see it coming when they try to drown him in the hot tub to punish him for how he treats women. Suddenly he finds himself naked, covering his junk in the black void of Purgatory. God (who has both male and female voices – Richard Provost and Linda “Teela from He-Man” Gary) explains that he almost could make it to Heaven except every single women he ever met hates him. So he gets a chance to come back to life and “try to find one female who truly likes Steve Brooks.” Then the Devil (Bruce Payne, who had HOWLING VI: THE FREAKS the same year and PASSENGER 57 the next) convinces God to make it harder by turning him into a woman. So Steve goes to take a piss and discovers that he is Ellen Barkin (in her followup to SEA OF LOVE) all the sudden.
After the initial shock wears off, Steve-in-woman’s-body goes around in baggy Miami Vice clothes feelings his boobs, then switches to a mini-skirt but doesn’t know how to keep his legs crossed or walk in heels. Although people are very suspicious at first, he convinces everyone that he is Steve’s half-sister Amanda, who Steve asked to stay in his apartment before “going away to find himself,” and then fills in for him at the office and hangs out with his co-worker Walter (Jimmy Smits, on L.A. Law at the time) while tracking down women he previously slept with in hopes of finding one that doesn’t think he’s a piece of shit.
There’s a good trio of well known actresses I didn’t expect to be in this. First, Catherine Keener (who had been in SURVIVAL QUEST and a couple TV shows and stuff) shows up as Steve’s secretary who breaks down in tears to hear that he’s gone away, but explains that it’s tears of happiness because she hates him so much. Then Tea Leoni (whose only previous credit was on Santa Barbara) has a scene as Connie, a model Steve previously slept with. And Lorraine Bracco (who had just been in GOODFELLAS) plays Sheila, a client of the agency who’s a lesbian and makes moves on Amanda. I thought this would work out well for his womanizing, but his homophobia causes him to be grossed out by it. It’s a weird position to be in because you’re mad at him for being so afraid of gayness but you know that he as a woman shouldn’t be required to make sexual transactions to succeed in business.
When Sheila brings Amanda to an upscale lesbian club she gets manhandled by a gigantic bouncer who I want to mention only because I looked her up, her name is Faith Minton and she’s a former wrestler whose acting credits include “Female Boxer” in PENITENTIARY III, “Bouncer” on Alien Nation, “Size 12” in RAGE AND HONOR, and most importantly “Carla” in SUDDEN DEATH. The one in the mascot costume! Also she voiced Asia the Invincible in a dub of SWORDSMAN II.
Of course there’s some time spent on Amanda being a victim of the kind of casual sexism he was once prolific in, including being catcalled by construction workers. It’s cheap but often amusing to see him bluntly tell sleazy dudes to fuck off, or sucker punch them. And I genuinely laughed when a jogger (Jim Lovelett, F/X) started to say hi and Amanda immediately knocked him into some water.
Walter, who seems like he’s supposed to be much nicer than Steve, describes his pal as “a smart, funny, charming, dyed-in-the-wool male chauvinist who brags about most things that other guys are afraid to admit themselves.” He also claims he does nice things for people but keeps it on the down low. This seems like a kind of desperate attempt to either trick us into thinking we like this guy even though all we know about him is that he is a piece of human garbage, or to make sense out of him being almost allowed into Heaven. Either way I’m not buying it. But Barkin is kind of throwing herself into this dumb role and remains dedicated to carrying herself like a man the whole time, and that does make the character slightly likable.
I did not generally find this to be funny or dramatically compelling, but often the themes and morals of comedies like this can be interesting to analyze decades later. That is true in this case, and not in the ways I was expecting.
Its portrayal of gay characters is very different from MANNEQUIN: ON THE MOVE, but similar in that it seems iffy now but positive by the standards of 1991. On one hand, its two gay characters are the aggressive lesbian and a buffoonish new age psychic guy played by Jim J. Bullock. And Amanda calls the latter a slur on two separate occasions. On the other hand, Margo calls him “a macho homophobic,” and I believe the movie agrees with this criticism.
Ignorant attitudes are also displayed by assholes in the movie who are not meant to be “smart, funny and charming.” Some jerks at a bar question Amanda’s gender because of a short haircut. They don’t know that there actually is an ambiguity here, they’re just dumb assholes who happen to choose that as their bullying method.
I don’t think it’s properly set up, but it’s interesting that the movie deals with the idea of consent. After a night out drinking, Amanda and Walter fall asleep in the same bed, and in the morning she sees that he has no underwear on. He says they “made love,” and Amanda calls him a rapist, says she was unconscious, it was date rape.
This is obviously supposed to mean that Steve has grown from his experiences as Amanda and learned a lesson – so are we to assume he was out there raping all the time, before he knew better? You can still get into Heaven that way? Hmm. Also troubling – after the movie had the balls to bring up this issue, there is no further discussion or consequences for Walter. In fact…
okay, SPOILER WARNING FOR THE CRAZY TURN OF EVENTS AT THE END OF THE MOVIE SWITCH (1991)
…Amanda becomes pregnant from it, and wants to keep the baby, but is warned by doctors that he may not survive giving birth, so he asks Walter to raise his daughter. He even agrees to Walter’s demand to marry him (though snorting with homophobic amusement during the ceremony).
And yes, Amanda dies giving birth, and if you haven’t figured it out yet the daughter is the “one female who truly likes Steve Brooks,” so that’s how he gets into Heaven.
Now here’s the part that surprised me most. At the very end God asks Steve/Amanda to decide whether to become a male or female angel… and he/she/they can’t decide! So the movie ends with the male/female God allowing Steve/Amanda “all the time in the world” to decide on a gender going forward.
Wow! I really thought that a 1991 comedy about a man in a woman’s body would seem extra offensive in this time when many of us are expanding our understanding of what gender can mean to different people. So I did not expect it to be a movie where a sexist jerk learns to embrace being both male and female… with the full endorsement of the literal God! If this came out today the ending would set off loud wokeness sirens in the homes of all those columnists and pundits who bravely patrol the college campuses policing the p.c. police.
In other news obviously I gotta point out that Jimmy Smits is gonna raise the daughter, and that’s why he was cast as Princess Leia’s adoptive father Bail Organa in the STAR WARS prequels. It is widely known that George Lucas is a huge SWITCH fan.
In most ways this one seems older than the other ’91 movies I’ve been watching. It doesn’t seem very ‘90s that it opens and closes with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now,” for example. (It’s a version by Paul Young/Clannad, not the one I know by my mom’s favorite singer Judy Collins. Her version was used in HEREDITARY, as a reference to SWITCH, because HEREDITARY is also a huge SWITCH fan.) But I guess there’s a Jody Watley song, and like another movie I’m about to review it has a montage set to Bruce Hornsby. The score is credited to Henry Mancini, but apparently they replaced his music (it was eventually released on CD for the true SWITCH-heads).
SWITCH debuted at #2, below FX2. But it was poorly reviewed and only made a little more than its budget. Nevertheless, Barkin was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress in a musical or comedy. (She lost to Bette Midler in FOR THE BOYS.)
Edwards’ only subsequent movies were SON OF THE PINK PANTHER (1993) and a 1995 TV movie remake of VICTOR/VICTORIA (more gender switching).
If my unsupported claims of SWITCH fandom don’t convince you it has a legacy, how about this: This is the movie debut of Victoria Mahoney, playing Felicia, one of the three murderous exes. She quickly followed it up with WILD ORCHID II: TWO SHADES OF BLUE, and she was later in WILD OBSESSION and THE FIRST 9 1/2 WEEKS. But while working as an actor she wanted to be a filmmaker, and in 2011, after a bunch of screenwriting fellowships and time at the Sundance Institute, she wrote and directed YELLING TO THE SKY starring Zoe Kravitz, Sonequa Martin-Green, Jason Clarke, Tim Blake Nelson and Gabourey Sidibe. She has since directed episodes of shows including Queen Sugar, Claws and Lovecraft Country, and was chosen by J.J. Abrams to shoot second unit on THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (they made a big deal about her being the first woman to direct anything Star Wars related). She’s now attached to direct a movie based on the graphic novel KILL THEM ALL. If it’s good, then SWITCH prevails.
Cultural references: “Hell, if I’m gay, Clint Eastwood is a transvestite!” “You tip toe louder than Gregory Hines tapdances.”