The day screenwriter Deborah Dean Davis got her first residuals check for It Takes Two, she had to take a second and sit on the floor.
“I think the Olsen twins sold more It Takes Two videos than Tom Cruise’s [Mission Impossible],” Davis told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the film’s 25th anniversary. “Those little cassettes were played and played and played and played and played and played.”
Over the years, Davis has worked with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich, Barbra Streisand, and Ivan Reitman. Some of her scripts have gotten made, some have languished in development purgatory. But none, she says, gets the same kind of awed reaction from women as when they learned she once wrote for the Olsen twins.
Once upon a time, before they disappeared into the world of boho bags and cigarette smoke, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were the ultimate sleepover movie stars. They watched over a generation of young women sharing their secrets in the dark, fighting sleep to rewind the VHS tapes over and over again. They made us laugh, they made us cringe, but most of all, they made us feel seen. Their movie love interests were my first on-screen crushes, their fashion choices were my ultimate fantasy, and their preteen troubles echoed my own.
But while Billboard Dad, Our Lips Are Sealed, Passport to Paris, and Holiday in the Sun are all masterpieces in their own right, no Olsen twin movie has been as defining as 1995’s It Takes Two. Released in theaters 25 years ago, the snappy rom-com prompted little girls all over the world to search for an identical stranger to get in trouble with, and dared us to dream about finding that “can’t eat, can’t sleep, reach-for-the-stars, over-the-fence, World Series kind of love.”
Critics hated it, adding Andy Tennant’s feature directorial debut, written by Davis, to the trash heap of overlooked movies explicitly made for young girls, and therefore unworthy of much attention. Hal Hinson at the Washington Post wrote, “With their perilously wide, Walter Keane eyes, the Olsen twins are cute enough, but compared with other child performers their charms seem forced.” The New York Times piled on, with Stephen Holden writing that, “The Olsen sisters lay on the icky-poo cuteness with several trowels, often delivering their lines as though they were reciting the alphabet.” In the critical equivalent of a “meh, you won’t die of boredom if you’re forced to watch,” Edward Guthmann at the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “Take The Parent Trap, the old Disney summertime chestnut with Hayley Mills, toss it with Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, and you've got the formula for It Takes Two, a harmless caper that ought to thrill girls under 12, and offer modest diversion to their parents.”
Did we watch the same movie? It Takes Two may technically be for kids, but it holds up incredibly well. Davis’ script is thoughtful and funny, the performances are memorable, and having devoted an hour and a half to it on Election Day 2020, I can personally attest to its healing powers of delight and distraction. Sure, you have to embrace the bizarre, never quite explained fact that two identical strangers (not twins, as in The Parent Trap) could not only exist, but what’s a little suspension of disbelief in this year of chaos? We gladly do this for Netflix’s The Princess Switch, soon to be a trilogy with three identical Vanessa Hudgenses.
It Takes Two kicks off with Amanda Lemmon (Mary-Kate Olsen), a 9-year-old orphan living in New York City. The closest thing Amanda has to a parent is Diane Barrows (Kirstie Alley), the orphanage caretaker who loves the smart-talking tomboy but can’t legally adopt her because she’s a single woman making almost no money. Instead, Amanda is taken for an interview with the Butkises, a Staten Island family who, as one fellow orphan tells her, “collects kids.” Before hearing back about the adoption, however, Amanda gets to go on the annual trip to Camp Callaway, an upstate New York getaway for underprivileged children founded and funded by zillionaire widower Roger Callaway (Steve Guttenberg).
His daughter, Alyssa (Ashley Olsen) is everything Amanda isn’t: A rich English boarding school student, a classically trained pianist, and a lover of very frilly dresses with matching sun hats. (Emily in Paris would approve.) She’s also a dead ringer for Amanda, as the two discover when they accidentally swap places one day. A misunderstanding sweeps Amanda into the Callaway mansion, smack in the middle of the drama of Roger’s engagement to evil blonde socialite Clarice Kensington (Jane Sibett), while Alyssa experiences her very first Sloppy Joe at camp. When the two girls finally meet, they immediately discover the potential of their doppelganger status. What if they worked together to make Diana and Roger fall in love?
The appeal of the Olsen twins is swift and immediate. Mary-Kate, in particular, has the gift of perfect delivery, chomping at her lines with a thick Noo Yawk accent that adds oomph to everything she says. Ashley, meanwhile, excels as her more prim counterpart, and both mug expertly for the camera. Davis, who was raising her 6-year-old daughter when she got the call to write a script for the two most famous child actors in the world, told Refinery29 that she took great care in crafting characters that reflected each twin’s individual tastes and personalities. When the producers dumped boxes of VHS tapes full of footage of the Olsens, she refused to watch.
“I said, I want to meet them,” Davis recalled. “Let's make a play date because my daughter's the same age, they probably have a lot in common. They loved each other. The twins would come over to the house, and we'd go over there sometimes.”
Davis says she was immediately struck by how normal the two seemed, despite their fame. “They were just adorable, sweet girls. The first time I gave them a red soda after they were playing hard, they said, ‘You have red soda?’” Davis told them yes, to which they responded, “Do you have two red sodas” They were shocked that she did. At that moment, Davis remembers thinking, “They don't know they can afford to buy a soda factory.”
“They were very different, she added. “Ashley was always like, ‘Look at me. Have you seen my cartwheel?’" Mary-Kate, Davis recalled, only wanted to talk about horses. The writer specifically asked them what they wanted in the movie; if they had a “big request.” Ashley’s response: a dog; Mary-Kate’s: “Please, horses. That’s all I care about.”
The twins sated with animals and characters well within their ranges, it was time for the second layer of the story: the romantic comedy. Alley and Guttenberg’s easy chemistry, first seen during a wild chase on horseback, is the reason It Takes Two works beyond being a movie for kids.
“The legacy of the film is the empowerment of the little girls.”
Deborah Dean Davis
Let’s pause to address the obvious: Alley is a virulent supporter of Donald Trump, one who has remained steadfast despite his blatantly false claims of election fraud in recent days. She’s admitted to voting for him not once, but twice, and endorsed him during his 2020 campaign. Her political views are reprehensible, and undeniably taint her otherwise charismatic and down-to-earth performance as Diane. I can’t blame you if this knowledge prevents you from enjoying or even watching this movie. But if you can overcome that hurdle, you’ll notice that Diane is a character we might hail as progressive even today (again, not her portrayer Alley). She’s single and confident, charming in a very relatable sort of way, and wears the hell out of an oversized sweater. Also, she appreciates a cute butt and isn’t embarrassed to say so! What’s more, Davis’ sharp writing gives her a lot to say about the unfair societal expectations women face when it comes to child rearing. We’re supposed to be maternal and understanding, but a single woman choosing to adopt a child on her own without the support of a man? Forget it!
“I don't know how to talk about Diane without talking about myself,” Davis explained. “I've been married a bunch of times. I never had trouble getting married, but I don't stay married. I'm an independent woman and I've always been that way. And I raised my daughter myself.”
Still, Davis stressed, Alley brought her own intuitive interpretation, which was so close to her own vision as to be downright spooky. “When Kirstie Alley reached into her sweater and adjusted her boobs in her bra, I thought I was going to [lose it],” she said. “I do that all the time. And we had never met until the premiere. I thought, Did someone tell her I do that? It was so weird. She picked up on so much of the stuff that I wanted her to be like that character.”
Guttenberg, on the other hand, is classically ‘90s dad hot as Roger, who — despite clearly emotionally cheating on his fiancée throughout the film— seems like a very chill and nice guy. Together, he and Alley have an easy banter that quickly makes you root for them. Their quick rapport easily makes the case for the movie’s somewhat unbelievable ending — Roger dumping Clarice at the altar for Diane — despite the fact that the two have only really known each other for a couple of days.
Director Tennant, whose credits include Ever After: A Cinderella Story, Sweet Home Alabama, Hitch, and Fool’s Gold — all impeccably credentialed sleepover movies — has knack for hitting that sweet spot between slapstick comedy and romantic tension, and gives the adults their moments while never losing track of the kids’ perspectives. A scene in which Diane and Roger jump in the lake to wash off a food fight devotes just enough time to their horny stares before toggling back to Amanda and Alyssa, watching through a stack of canoes, which of course, come crashing down mere moments later, interrupting the forthcoming kiss.
The movie does suffer from a certain amount of ‘90s-itis. The idea, repeated throughout the movie by both Diane and Roger, that children need a mother and a father to thrive, is outdated. Clarice’s evil stepmother shtick is extreme to the point where you can’t quite believe that Roger would really go for her, even though I’m a sucker for anyone channeling Cruella De Vil. Interestingly enough, that part wasn’t in Davis’ original script. “I didn’t have an evil stepmother [character] because I didn't want to undermine the character of the dad,” she said. Still, Guttenberg’s casting smoothed over any lingering doubts — “Any other actor in that part, it would have been so gross,” Davis noted — and she’s happy with how it all turned out...
In other ways though, the movie is wildly ahead of its time. Take Roger, for example, who made his fortune “buying airwaves” for cell service, and founded a company called Callaway Cellular. He’s a tech billionaire! It also isn’t afraid to face some hard truths: As Diane says early on in the movie, most couples want to adopt babies, not fully grown children. And then there’s the Butkises themselves, a couple allowed to adopt countless kids that they force to work in their scrapyard, while Diane struggles to make a case for herself as a single parent.
Davis did her research, and spent a day at the now closed and much-criticized MacLaren Hall, a Los Angeles-based center for orphaned children. “That was one of the hardest days of my life,” she said. A little girl said to me: "Oh, they don't come here to get people my age. They come for babies.” That line eventually made it into the film, and Davis made sure it stayed in the final version. “I told [the producers], ‘You can change this or that. But if you take this line out, I'll kill you.’"
Another, perhaps more modern, movie might have focused more on the privilege Amanda enjoys compared to her Latinx best friend Carmen (Michelle Grisom). But It Takes Two refrains from making blanket statements about the horrors of being poor, or waxing poetic about how desirable it is to be rich. Amanda may have fewer material comforts, but she has friends, and she’s loved and well cared for by a woman who fiercely looks out for her. Her stakes are obviously higher — she has nothing to fall back on, and no security — but that doesn’t mean Alyssa has it easy. Having lost her mother as a baby, she’s incredibly lonely. Her dad has been adrift in his grief for years, and she’s relied on the kindness of butler Vincenzo (the always wonderful Philip Bosco) for affection and attention. All of that adds an extra layer of pathos to her desire to get rid of Clarice and find someone who might ground her dad in the present.
Today, the Olsen twins have moved on from their Hollywood career. They’ve spent much of their adult lives trying to make people understand they’ve closed that chapter, choosing to focus on The Row, the ready-to-wear line they co-founded in 2006. They are, of course, entitled to a shift. But the legacy they leave behind is significant, and not easily erased. Not only were they inspirational on-screen talents, they were behind-the-scenes industry heavyweights. In 1993, the twins co-founded their own production company, Dualstar Entertainment Group, to release their films and manage branded merchandise like books, clothing, fragrances, dolls, and makeup. They were six years old. By age 10, they were reportedly already millionaires.
It Takes Two was produced by Dualstar, as was almost every single one of their films, and is the only one that’s easily accessible via streaming. And though the twins themselves didn’t act as producers on that particular project (they would take more active roles in the company as they got older), it’s a significant stepping stone on their journey to becoming savvy and successful businesswomen, taking charge of their image and their careers long before Hollywood — and the fashion world, for that matter — claimed to want women to do so.
“The legacy of the film is the empowerment of the little girls,” Davis concluded. “There's nothing more you can ask for as a writer [than to feel like] your message has been heard.”
According to a study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's series, Writing Critics' Wrongs, our woman movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.