Here are my two biggest disappointments of the past year:
1. the re-election of George W. Bush
2. the movie version of “Bewitched”
Perhaps comparing the two sounds a bit over the top but after taking Leah to the film yesterday I see a direct parallel between the misguided plans and colossal waste of money that defines both the war in Iraq and the remake of this classic TV show. Perhaps no lives will be lost because of the lousy film, but American culture has clearly taken a beating in both cases. Who is to blame for the abomination of this film? Nicole Kidman seemed like the perfect 21st century Samantha. She looked just right for the part and performed it with her usual skill, class, and humor. Will Ferrell was a fun choice for Darrin, especially as played in this story of a movie actor with a sinking career being cast in the remake of the “Bewitched” TV show. Shirley Maclaine as Endora? Perfection, down to her hair, costume, and speech patterns. Michael Caine couldn’t be better as Kidman’s warlock dad. The film was directed by Nora Ephron and written by Nora and her sister Delia. Who could ask for a better pedigree? So why did the film stink up the joint? Here are some of the reviews I read after seeing “Bewitched” for myself:
“Unrivaled in modern times for smugness, vapidity, and condescension. To spend even 10 minutes in the movie's universe is to experience the Sartrean nausea of an utterly hollow head and heart.”
-- Michael Atkinson, VILLAGE VOICE
“It's one of those movies where you smile and laugh and are reasonably entertained, but you get no sense of a mighty enterprise sweeping you along with its comedic force. There is not a movie here. Just scenes in search of one.”
-- Roger Ebert, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
“It's so lightweight that the wind from a passing broomstick would collapse its foundations."
-- Jeffrey M. Anderson, COMBUSTIBLE CELLULOID
“A travesty of monumental proportions.”
-- James Berardinelli, REELVIEWS
What really makes me fume is that not only have these incredibly talented people made one of the worst films of the new millennium, they also have come close to doing serious damage to a pop culture mainstay that didn’t deserve to be so maligned.
The REAL “Bewitched” premiered in 1964. I was five years old and I was hooked from the very first black and white episode. The pilot was supposed to begin filming on November 22, 1963 but was postponed because of Kennedy’s assassination. John F. Kennedy was a friend of producer William Asher’s and in television terms JFK’s death seemed to punctuate a transition from the more homespun family sitcoms to the spate of shows that relied on a magical or supernatural subplot to keep the action moving. “Bewitched” would be soon be followed by "I Dream of Jeannie,” “Nanny and the Professor,” “The Munsters, “The Addams Family,” and many others, but “Bewitched” led the pack, consistently making its way into the Top Ten. There were a total of 264 episodes in the show’s 8 year run and I’m sure I saw every one of them several times.
Actress Tammy Grimes had originally been cast as Samantha Stephens but, thank God, turned the role down to do a Noel Coward play on Broadway. Enter Elizabeth Montgomery, Bill Asher’s wife and the daughter of 1930s movie star Robert Montgomery. Like Laura Petrie before her, Elizabeth’s Samantha was a TV icon who straddled two worlds: the traditional patriarchy that would have her wearing a cocktail dress and pearls as she did her daily vacuuming, and a burgeoning awareness that women’s roles were undergoing radical changes that would lead to all sorts of opportunities beyond the family home. One thing everyone agreed on—Elizabeth Montgomery was hot! In those days our pop culture proto-feminists still had to be drop dead gorgeous, it was the early 60s after all.
Of course the entire premise of “Bewitched” screamed for a Betty Friedan intervention. Samantha Stephens was a witch who voluntarily gave up her powers so she wouldn’t outshine her mortal husband. How many millions of women in Samantha’s generation had denied who they were because the men in their lives felt threatened? It is inconceivable to me that the new movie version of “Bewitched” didn’t exploit this premise at all or give it a modern spin. But while Darrin Stephens did everything he could to stifle his wife’s individuality, Samantha was no pushover. Sometimes she metaphorically told Darrin to go to hell such as the episode when the two are fighting in their bedroom. Sam is brushing her hair and staring straight ahead into her mirror ignoring Darrin as he rants and raves about something she had done. Samantha doesn’t even glance his way or miss a brush stroke as a small wave of her hand magically sends Darrin to the downstairs couch for the night. Now that's power! I spent most of the eight years of the show wanting to tell Darrin to take a flying leap for his intolerance of his wife’s heritage. At least the first Darrin, Dick York, seemed to truly love his wife. Things got worse with Darrin #2, Dick Sargent, whose criticisms of Samantha’s witchcraft didn’t seem to be accompanied by much tenderness. I remember thinking, what if Samantha and her family were Jews instead of witches? What kind of intolerance was the show promoting? The Stephens' daughter Tabitha, however, was an early civil rights advocate. Remember the episode when she gives her black friend white polka dots and gives herself black polka dots so that they could "be the same"? Okay, so they stole the idea from a "Star Trek" episode, but at least Tabitha was trying!
The cast of the sitcom was without equal. Most had come from successful film or stage careers. Maurice Evans (Samantha’s father) was a highly regarded Shakespearean actor. Agnes Moorehead (Endora) was part of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and starred in films like “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Alice Pearce (Gladys Kravitz) played Lucy Shmeeling in the MGM classic “On the Town” and George Tobias (Abner Kravitz) also appeared in some of the best films of the 1940s and 50s including the original “Ninotchka” with Greta Garbo and the musical remake “Silk Stockings” with Cyd Charisse. Paul Lynde (Uncle Arthur) was very funny back then and seemed to come out of the closet on “Bewitched” years before he had the courage to do so in real life (Darrin #2 was the other famously closeted cast member). Marion Lorne (Aunt Clara) was a beloved character actress who had a great scene in “The Graduate” along with fellow “Bewitched” alum Alice Ghostley (Esmerelda). And don't forget Samantha's counterculture dark-haired hippy cousin Serena who flaunted authority and espoused free love! Of course Serena was also played by Elizabeth Montgomery but she was listed in the credits as Pandora Sparks. Sparks would get her own fan mail each week and rumors would fly whenever Bill Asher left the studio with his wife still in her Serena wig!
Are there other geeks out there who remember that the Stephens’ address was 1164 Morning Glory Circle? The house still stands today at the Warner Brothers Ranch in Burbank although the interiors were shot at the Sunset Gower Studios miles away. Sally Field’s 1965 “Gidget” lived next door to the Stephens and several scenes from the show provided a color preview to Darrin and Samantha’s home when “Bewitched” was still being filmed in black and white. The Kravitzes' house across the street was also home to the Partridge Family and the Stephens' house was featured in many episodes of that show. Down the street was the home of Major Anthony Nelson of Cocoa Beach, Florida. This house was also the residence of the Andersons in “Father Knows Best” as well as “Dennis the Menace” and “Blondie.”
The list of squandered opportunities in the movie “Bewitched” are too numerous to mention. Casting brilliant Amy Sedaris as busybody neighbor Gladys Kravitz and then giving her absolutely nothing to do? Implying that Maclaine's character, an actress hired to play Endora, is really a witch and then dropping this plot point without explanation? Arrrgh! Was this a case of too many studio executives tinkering with what was once a decent script? Everyone should save their money and rent the DVDs of the TV show which are now available. I remember how much I loved the time travel episodes such as when Sam goes back to the First Thanksgiving, gets stuck in Salem during the witch trials, almost becomes an ill-fated wife of Henry VIII, and befriends a range of historical figures from Leonardo da Vinci to Benjamin Franklin.
I just saw an interview with Erin Murphy who played Sam and Darrin’s daughter Tabitha on the show and still looks the same even though she’s now the mother of six boys. She said that she finds herself telling people that her dad was in the advertising business and then has to remind herself that McMann & Tate doesn’t really exist and that Darrin is not her father! She did marry a man named Darrin, however. She said that original cast member Bernard Fox was supposed to reprise his role in the movie but was canned at the last minute. Too bad—I’m sure he could have helped save that piece of junk.
“Dr. Bombay! Dr. Bombay! Emergency! Come right away!”