“Where do alchemy and acting meet?”
Perhaps the definition of a great screwball comedy is that it is an outstandingly funny film for which no real script is conceivable. For instance, the comic high point of Trouble in Paradise (1932) consists of two characters clicking their fingers at each other, while their faces move close together. But why do back-to-back clicks equal chemistry? Did the writers know that a click could be shorthand for “There’s electricity between us” — a way of putting a charge in the air, giving an edge to flirtation? And how did the actors manage to convey such specific things with their clicks: Kay Francis’ is snappy, a kind of “That’s that,” while Herbert Marshall lingers with his, then makes a sudden zoom — it’s almost a parody of the virile character he plays. (In Marshall’s hands, a click instantly brings the word “pizzazz” to mind.)
Or, to take another example, what’s the source of magic in that scene in The Awful Truth (1937), where Cary Grant is given the wrong hat, and is told it doesn’t fit because he’s not “putting his ears up”? How did Irene Dunne know to adopt the look of a prim terrier when talking about keeping one’s “ears up,” as if it was the most natural thing in the world? (The line would never have worked otherwise.) When Lucy says, “That’s why, your ears are all down,” she gives a straining little laugh that makes alert ears seem like a social responsibility; we look across to Grant, and he does look a little draggy — Dunne is the first performer in history to make Cary Grant seem louche. When it comes to erotic finger clicks or mobile ears, it’s difficult for us to think of these films in terms of scripting, or stage directions: all the gestures seem to grow so specifically out of the performers’ idiosyncrasies, and the coincidence of their interaction. Screwball tends to rely on the stumbled-upon act — the stray movements of animals, the sense of gesture evolving from personality, even the way Irene Dunne’s hand takes an extra set of turns when describing the course of her marriage. Yet it’s these slender and seemingly incidental details that entire plots rest on — hence it’s hard to fathom how such films could have been written or sketched out. We still can’t understand how a director could have relied on coming up with something so insubstantial on set, then based the energy of a whole film around it.
Bewitched (2005), the adaptation of the ’60s TV series, aims for that level of lightness — it is, after all, a big budget film that exists because Nora Ephron liked the idea of being able to “hang a plot of the movie”1 on the shape of someone’s nose — and although it has many giddy sequences, it doesn’t get everything right. For a start, there isn’t that particular chemistry between stars. Nicole Kidman is the lead, and while she comes up with the occasional fresh expression, for the most part she sticks to her usual repertoire of gestures — the short confirming nod she uses to restate a position (she also does it frequently in interviews), and the “spontaneous” giggle that carefully erupts from her open mouth.2 Yet so much of what this picture does is “unaccountable” — and magical — in the sense of the best screwball that for most of its running time, it seems like that miraculous thing: a studio blockbuster with traces of odd, individual personality all over it.
These days, the presence of multiple screenwriters is enough to generate “bad buzz” on any film — especially on the Internet. While in the 1930s and ’40s it was common for studio comedies to make use of many voices, it’s now seen as evidence of an unfocused, directionless film — as if a single-minded vision was a requirement for humor. In development for over ten years, the script for Bewitched went through numerous drafts and revisions: Richard Curtis (Blackadder) prepared one, and the current version features an uncredited Adam McKay (Saturday Night Live, and Will Ferrell’s writing partner) working with sisters Delia and Nora Ephron. Nothing in either Ephron’s past suggests much subtlety, yet perhaps it’s the variety of influences the project has had that accounts for the film seeming interested in so many things. With its theme of off-hand magic — the film features writers constantly improvising and handing actors’ last-minute lines — its puzzling humor, and its strange, dashed-off plotlines, Bewitched is a success on its own, hybrid terms.
I would say that, in short, the triumph of this film is that it manages to make witchcraft and L.A. seem like a natural match. It has an extremely forthright attitude to sorcery. When Isabel (Kidman) falls down to earth, she lands on a house that looks like a stage set and immediately begins to summon things with a series of straight-armed gestures. We instantly feel aligned with that movement — she’s a pragmatic, straight-arrow witch — and one of the wittiest things about the film is the way it puts this earthy magic side by side with the real glitter of L.A. During the credit sequence, supposedly seen from a witch’s eye, the camera glides over pools and takes a stunned, aerial view of the lights and silvery buildings: it’s as if we’re looking at two kinds of twinkle, star power and enchantment viewed as one. There’s enough whoosh in the imagery to make this work: not only characters who dissolve into shooting stars, but the gleaming homes, the stylized sets, and most of all the effects of the movie industry — the painstaking reproduction of skies, wonders, and miracles all over the city. The Los Angeles panorama is a ready-made that seems to float above and beyond the characters’ perspectives: most notably at the beginning of the film, and during the first love scene between Isabel and Jack (Will Ferrell). We get quick shots of it without any particular reference to a character’s viewpoint: it’s just “there,” like an inserted tableau, moving unsteadily into focus.
As in Mulholland Drive (2001), this vista appears to represent a mindset that gets launched at specific times, although Nora Ephron clearly has a different view of it from Lynch. The fact is that this is a film that’s entirely comfortable having its values in the wrong place, though it undeniably has a “heart” of sorts. Characters constantly refer to the iconic stage set as “our place” — the livable sitcom house, with its familiar contours, is the spiritual home of the actors, since a place that has not been filmed would seem too impersonal. The film and its people are happy to invest in a cardboard world without a second thought: much more so than in Down with Love (2003), a clever movie that does keep showing us it’s a sophisticated play on ideas. In Bewitched, there is no “outside” a movie — the film can honestly conceive of nothing more desirable than an entirely artificial world.
As an introduction to a party scene, Ephron shoots a close-up of a tray of purple drinks traveling one way, then a row of green ones zipping in another direction. There’s no “purpose” for these shots other than to show two-dimensional pattern and movement within the frame — the imprint that color and shape makes on our minds. As such,Bewitched is perhaps a test of how pleasurable flatness can be in a movie. The film’s gorgeous and inventive displays of magic are inseparable from movie-making excitement, and nostalgia: the most sublime moments occur when Isabel and Jack are dancing amid suspended stars — actually the white graphic twinkles that lit up the opening for the original series. The movie wants us to know that when it comes to the past, nothing has changed: it’s just that its limits have been redefined. The props that seemed so blocky on TV now look thin, almost paper-textured: the characters sail over domestic objects, and the fence and staircase are no longer constricting but like white scales to be played. The sitcom set is where romantic fulfillment takes place (when an alternative location is used, there’s always some reason for the emotions being “not real”).
The emphasis on performance leads into the genuinely mysterious subplot of whether Isabel’s screen mother (Shirley MacLaine, right) is potentially a witch as well. Is Iris really superhuman — in the sense that her early films must have been what Hollywood buffs suspect: filmed footage of goddesses? Or is it simply that her old-school, classic stage presence equates to sorcery in modern L.A.? Is charisma enough to shift material objects and cause people to reveal their real motives? Where do alchemy and acting meet?
The film has an unusual take on what it means to be spellbinding. Magic, it seems, is an emanation of a character’s personality. If a person is interesting enough, their attention will manifest itself in creative and appropriate acts: as when Isabel’s father Nigel (Michael Caine) appears instead of Paul Newman on a pack of popcorn — one superstar subbing for another — and in another scene, where Caine materializes from a painted backdrop on set, which the crew quickly removes once his presence is established. This shadowy archway, with its columns that recede into the distance, gives a character a lead-in of mystery and grandeur: it’s as if Nigel’s magic is so instinctively apt that he literally gives himself a back-story before entering every scene.
The odd writing choices in Bewitched extend even to its marketing. This may be the first incidence of a product placement that intrigues — a commercial non sequitur. Presumably having been told to mention the name of a café chain (the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf), the writers don’t try to smuggle it under the radar; it’s deliberately incongruous and obtrusive, and the sequence is left hanging. While having a drink with friends, Isabel suddenly looks puzzled and hesitates before saying, as if in a trance, “We’re in the Coffee Bean and there’s no solution.” Pause. Cut to next scene. The remark is out-of-place, yet it’s not an in-joke. This scene has no reason for being here, the film seems to tell us. But we’ve played it out, in a cryptic way — and there it is.
The element of contrivance constantly feeds into the film’s humor — for example, the script elaborately arranges for Kidman to be “bemused” and piqued by a range of subjects, so that she scrunches her nose in the Elizabeth Montgomery way. Some of it is ingenious and some is forced, but on the whole, the jokey references are kept to a minimum and the gags tend be more fascinating than laugh-out-loud.
When the cynical actor Jack sniffs Isabel’s hard, golden handbag while under a love spell, it initially seems like a Saturday Night Live leftover — or Ferrell mugging — but the payoff occurs when Isabel decides to remove the spell, discarding everything that happened under its influence, and the entire sequence is “rewound”: intense feelings, matchless timing, dizzy flirtation included. That rewinding is in line with a whole slew of Hollywood comedies, such as The Lady Eve (1941), or even Remember? (1939), in which Greer Garson and Robert Taylor are able to forget they fell in love, and can thus re-play the highlights of their greatest scenes, this time to satisfaction. In this genre, a couple “agree” to pretend they never had glorious times together; in effect, they say, “Pretend perfection didn’t happen. Let’s pretend all that never happened — and that it wasn’t caught on film.” But, legally speaking, love is not a bell you can unring, and Bewitched is all about the indelible, un-erasable image: not only the rewound sniff, which gains poignancy in retrospect, but the film’s other singular moments which leave their trace. For instance, Kidman giving a cross-eyed look to a dog, then zonking out (followed by a quick cut), is the film’s way of conveying romantic rapture. There’s also a felicity in the rhyming of the actors’ gestures. In an early scene, Jack wants to sidle across to Isabel while seeming cool, so he twirls into her space carefully, keeping his back to her. Later, while under a love spell, he whirls again in the same way, this time towards her, as if wanting to rediscover her face repeatedly. The matching of Will Ferrell’s two whirls is ridiculous, and absurd, yet it corresponds to the film’s notion of spiritual success, as if the stylized move of a Hollywood networker needs only a slight adjustment to become that of a man in love.
I never knew what was coming next with this film. What with the left-field allusions, the sudden arrival of audience “favorites,” and the introduction of crucial characters in the third act, there seemed to be no “rules” of what could and couldn’t appear. Some plots seemed to exist simply to give us a sense of escaped energy — using magic as an excuse to produce highly worked scenes with a secret meaning. The filmmakers appeared to have used the theme of stardust and evanescence as a license to put anything onscreen: to have unreal objects and zany cats popping out of the corner of our eye, and then cut. There was constantly the sense of the personal and the inexplicable trapped within a conventional structure, and then that structure itself appeared to dissolve, leaving us with … what, exactly?
Perhaps a clue comes in the final scene when, having made up, Isabel and Jack now live in a clean, white-painted house, with nosy neighbors peeking in at their bliss — in other words, the original set-up of the series Bewitched. In Hollywood terms, it’s the most satisfying ending possible: the film seems extraordinarily happy to have achieved “nothing” — in fact, to have regressed back to the beginning of series television. It’s the ultimate “rewind” — to have a film wish for nothing more than the perfection of television, and to attain the calm of being “inside” fiction. It’s as if, all along, the film has been struggling with the problem of reality — how to deal with it, how to complicate it with props and back projection, and now it’s finally found a way to eject it. With the blossoming tree in the foreground, the last images of the film are remarkably horizontal and zen. The long frame filled with white and sky blue seems stretched to TV dimensions, and hence implies ultimate contentment.
- Rachel Abramowitz, “A Witch with a New Twitch,” Los Angeles Times, June 18 2005, Calendar Live. [↩]
- Is it just me or have some of the most promising female stars of the ’90s — specifically Kidman, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Julianne Moore — chosen to flatten themselves, one way or another? All three were once interesting because of their unexpected resourcefulness: the lack of technique made each gesture seem uncovered, so that our instinct was to urge them on.
Yet each of them has gained acclaim, and then settled into a competent, critic-proof style. In particular, Moore and Pfeiffer come across as working moms who have pared down their work to a small selection of moves, which insulate them from involvement with other actors. The once fluid Pfeiffer has become a monolith: her features look studded into place, and there’s a drawling, deliberate voice instead of the swoon of The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), or her astonishing variety of purrs in Batman Returns (1992).
Moore, who used to be wonderfully loose — her roar into the delivery room was memorable even in Nine Months (1995) — now wears a small tight smile which is meant to disguise pain in drama (The Hours, 2002) and just seems unresponsive in comedy (Laws of Attraction, 2004, Evolution, 2001). A large part of it is her physical transformation: Moore has made a transition into consistent glamour. From one viewing, I can still remember her five minutes in The Fugitive (1993) because her face looked so ultra-sensitive: the raw skin, and the barely visible brows, straining to take in an incredible story. In Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), her character’s moral hesitancy (her meaning to be kind) was only enhanced by the “iced” look of her skin — the white over the pink. Now her face has become a defined set of planes: we’re conscious of seeing a smile which dimples in exactly the same place. She’s become a compact professional actor, with ironed-straight hair and a crisp inflection for every part.
The reverse case is Sigourney Weaver: so many iconic roles, and still seemingly with everything to unleash. [↩]