Once upon a time, if you asked someone what a witch looks like, they’d probably describe a bent, haggard old woman with huge, hairy moles, crooked yellow teeth, squinty black eyes, an elongated nose and chin and a green complexion. Adjectives such as “craggy” or “hideous” would likely be applied.
Today, the response would probably be, “Witches are hot — like Nicole Kidman.”
In the new film “Bewitched,” the lovely Nicole plays Isabel Bigelow, a real, live witch who gets cast as Samantha — alongside Will Ferrell’s Jack Wyatt as Darren — in a remake of the classic ’60s TV show.
But this is not the first time Kidman has cast cinematic spells. In 1998’s “Practical Magic,” Nicole played one of two sister witches alongside the likewise attractive Sandra Bullock. So: how (and when) did the image of the witch change from hag to hottie?
Maybe the first cinematic depiction of an alluring sorceress was in 1942’s “I Married a Witch.” Veronica Lake plays Jennifer, a reanimated victim of the Salem witch trials who finds herself in love with a cursed descendant of the man who burned her at the stake. (Boy, talk about resentment issues!) The eternally vampy Lake set the template for the glamorous, gorgeous witch in this semi-screwball comedy — no doubt optioned by Tom Arnold for an upcoming remake.
The sexiness was amped up a notch by Kim Novak as Gil Holroyd in 1958’s “Bell, Book and Candle.” In the movie, urban sorceress Novak uses her mystical powers to steal the charming neighbor (played by Jimmy Stewart) away from his undeserving fiancée. Novak slinks through the film in sexy black gowns and robes, until the audience might reasonably assume that her magic is almost superfluous. (She certainly didn’t need supernatural powers to cause Stewart to become obsessed with her yet again that very same year in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”)
It’s safe to assume those two movies served as the inspiration for the TV program “Bewitched.” Premiering in 1964, the show tweaked the convention of the suburban domestic comedy by adding a twist: The housewife was a witch. As this was ’60s sitcom TV, Elizabeth Montgomery had to keep her sexuality in check as the cute but somewhat demure Samantha Stevens. Still, Montgomery got a chance to bring some semi-dark salaciousness to the show in the dual role of Sam’s seductive, devil-may-care cousin Serena. (Hey, where is she in the new movie?)
In 1971, another cute enchantress hit the small screen in the animated version of Archie Comics’ “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” The titular star was a freckle-faced, white-haired teen living with her more traditional broom-riding aunts, Hilda and Zelda. In 1996, Melissa Joan Hart starred in another live-action TV version, which then spawned another cartoon about Sabrina’s adolescent years. Strictly G-rated, these versions all excluded the comic book character of Della, the sexy head witch who was perpetually annoyed by Sabrina’s insistence on being a “good witch.”
Della was no doubt happier with the teenage witches in “The Craft” (1996). Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell and Rachel True play four outcast high school girls who learn witchcraft and go about wreaking revenge on the popular kids who made their pre-witch lives a living hell.
But one of the first things the girls do with their powers is make themselves more attractive and more desirable to the guys who previously spurned them — which makes sense. Admit it: If you had the power to do so, wouldn’t you cast a spell to correct all your imperfections? Or at least make the object of your unrequited crush suddenly notice you?
The quick-thinking Bugs Bunny realized this potential in the 1954 cartoon “Bewitched Bunny,” when he used the hideously ugly Witch Hazel’s potions on her, turning her into a comely female rabbit. Of course, it was just a fling for Bugs, whose climactic aside to the audience, “But aren’t they all witches inside?” belies the misogynistic attitude that’s kept him a bachelor for 67 years.
Maybe the witches of “Hocus Pocus” (1993) were too busy plotting to drink the life essences of the children of Salem, Massachusetts, to be bothered with altering, i.e., bettering, their appearances. All three of the Sanderson Sister sorceresses in the film sport some classic witchy features, from Bette Midler’s razor-like teeth to Kathy Najimy’s horned hairdo to Sarah Jessica Parker’s bumpy, outsized nose. Similarly, the masks worn by “The Witches” to hide their ugly true selves in the 1990 adaptation of the Roald Dahl tale of the same name were disguises, not enhancements. These witches embraced their hideousness.
“The Witches of Eastwick,” however, were far more narcissistic. In the 1987 movie, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher play three bored, passion-starved women who use witchcraft to summon a male plaything. But when the man who fulfills their every hedonistic desire — Daryl Van Horne, played to the hilt by Jack Nicholson — turns out to be Satan himself, they realize that maybe canasta would’ve been a safer pastime. Nevertheless, no Hollywood film illustrates witches using their powers for sensual gain more gleefully than this adaptation of the (even randier) John Updike novel.
In the ’90s, TV threw some more comely conjurers at us in the forms of Willow from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Alyson Hannigan) and the women of “Charmed.” Played by Alyssa Milano, Holly Marie Combs and Rose McGowan (who replaced Shannen Doherty after three seasons — we shall refrain from any imitation-of-life jokes), the Halliwell sisters use their powers to fight the forces of evil, as does Willow. What, TV can’t give us any bad witches anymore?
And really, don’t we already have enough impossibly beautiful women in the movies and on TV? How about a return to a little old-school nastiness? We’d love it if in the next Harry Potter film, for instance, one of his new schoolmates were an ugly little girl with green hair and a nose like a carrot. But we’re not holding our breath. If the classic Krofft Saturday morning show, “H.R. Pufnstuf,” is ever made into a live-action movie, Puffy’s arch-nemesis Witchiepoo is likely to be played by Charlize Theron. Zap!
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