Review: The Witches of Eastwick (film)

By Paula R. Stiles

The_Witches_of_Eastwick1987It was recently reported that the ABC show, Eastwick, didn’t get a pickup past its initial 13-episode run. This means it will end when those 13 episodes run out. However, since there are still six episodes left, we’ll keep reviewing them until the lights go down. And since there’s a two-week hiatus before the show comes back the night before Thanksgiving (nice going, ABC), we’re going to review some related stuff in the intervening weeks. This week, we check out the film version of John Updike’s novel, The Witches of Eastwick (1987), directed by George Miller, with Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jack Nicholson as the Devil.

[spoilers ahoy for the film] Tagline: Three lovelorn women make a wish and get devilishly more than they bargained for.

Review: One boring afternoon somewhere in New England, while at an outdoor town meeting where one of the town fathers is giving a really boring speech about the wonderfulness of the town, three bored women (two of them widows, one a spinster) are listening with their many children. Though not apparently connected to each other in any social way, they somehow simultaneously and collectively make a wish. They wish for a little excitement. They wish for their lives to change. They wish…for a man. And before you can say, “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day,” a sudden windstorm blows up, interrupting the boring speech.

Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson), devilishly-not-so-debonaire millionaire playboy is in town and he is the apparent answer to the prayers of all three women. He crudely seduces earthy Alex (Cher), a local sculptress, after he (sort of) wins her heart by buying up all of her prehistoric Venus nudes. He seduces prim Jane next (Susan Sarandon) by teaching her how to play music with passion instead of just control. He wins Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) over by sweet-talking her and pretending to listen to all of her problems. He is the first “real” man (we are told) that the women have encountered in many a moon. As such, they’re more than happy to share him as they also discover heretofore unknown magical powers in themselves.

Unfortunately, these powers prove inadvertently fatal to a rival, Felicia (Veronica Cartwright, who plays a witch on the show), and soon, Daryl sets them on each other like jealous dogs. He also tortures them with horrific visions and agonizing menstrual pains. Until they finally band together and get rid of him for good. Mostly. And not without a huge, FX-heavy magical war, first.

This is a film that has definite charms and three powerhouse actresses (four, 1pfeiffer-gal-eastwickactually, if you include Cartwright’s antagonist, which you should). Nicholson also seems like the perfect choice for the Devil. And yet…it has problems. Big ones.

Let’s start with the good stuff. The satire of small-town New England life is priceless. Anyone who ever grew up in a small New England town knows half of these characters, at least, especially Puritan Alpha Female busybody Felicia (played exquisitely uptight and overwound by Cartwright). And the scenery is appropriately beautiful (because New England can be stunning in many places and at certain times of the year).

Van Horne’s seduction of Jane is an absolutely brilliant scene on top of being wickedly funny (largely thanks to Sarandon). His criticisms of her cello playing are harsh but apt, and his instruction impassioned and remarkably effective (ditto his entrance in the film where he falls asleep in the middle of her recital, but wakes up to give her a literal standing ovation). She has all of this technical skill, but keeps all of her passion and fire firmly hidden under her bun that’s like an ice cap on a dormant volcano. When the volcano wakes up and Jane goes musically orgasmic, the bun is the first thing to get fried. Yes, Jane gets laid as her reward, but the scene is also one of those classics of what hitting “the zone” when it comes to art (or anything else that requires talent and passion combined to work) really feels like. We all need a muse like that, even if he has a bit of the Devil in him.

I do love the way the women torture Van Horne “unknowingly” toward the end with the voodoo doll and his subsequent rant about women in the church (with stuff like feathers puffing out of his mouth). He completely deserves it at that point. I could wish that their final victory over him were a little more intentional and a bit less half-assed, but the final scene does have a great image of how to turn off an annoying man with a TV remote. Can I have one of those?

But this isn’t offset by the problems. If anything, the good stuff shows us where the eastwickproblems are. It’s not just things like the fact that Felicia’s demise, with all those cherry pits coming up, is unnecessarily gross and humiliating. We get it, already – Van Horne is manipulating the women into doing Very Bad Things with their powers to their (and his) enemies. But that doesn’t justify how Felicia exits the film. In a weird way, Felicia is a witch of sorts, herself. Just a witch on the other side (and I don’t mean on the side of Good because Good and Evil, strictly speaking, don’t exist in this film).

Then there’s Jack Nicholson. Yes, he’s entertaining, but the film’s called “The Witches of Eastwick” not “The Devil of Eastwick”. As such, is it really appropriate to give him top billing and let him chew scenery in every single scene he has? See, that’s the problem with Nicholson: he’s definitely a Star. He’s charismatic, funny and dominates the screen. But he’s not a terribly good actor because every character he plays (unless he’s reined in by a very strong-willed director – say, in Five Easy Pieces) ends up being a variation on the persona he’s built up over the past four decades. Nobody can do Jack like Jack, but Jack can’t seem to do anybody but Jack. I’ve never understood the admiration so many actors have for him (especially the ones who are better than he is and are nothing like him in their screen presence – thank God). He’s just not that great an actor and this role needed an actor, not a Star.

Of course they cast Nicholson and gave him top billing, though, because this film suffers from the same problem that other “angry women” films (be they Thelma and Louise, The First Wives’ Club, The Craft, or Practical Magic) have, which is that male directors and producers cannot allow angry women to express their anger on screen in any positive or creative way. And it’s especially frustrating, considering the fact that you’ve got three strong, hugely-charismatic actresses in The Witches of Eastwick who are kinda treated like crap. So, we invariably get the women in these films dithering over using their power (or anger, in non-magical stories) until the super-rushed climax where they fumble it all over the place or get all nurturing about it (First Wives’ Club wanting the women to have their revenge then hate getting it, for example). That might be why it takes all three of the witches in Eastwick to take out one “horny little devil”. And we always get the scene in these films where they turn on each other. Always. Because that’s what women aways do, right? [rolls eyes]

Look, Hollyweird, I get that The Women was a classic of its day and gave some The-Witches-of-Eastwick-001juicy roles to some great actresses, but that was seven decades ago. Move on. Update. Where are our Ocean’s Elevens? Our Dirty Dozens? Our Great Escapes? Our Magnificent Sevens? These were all films with ensemble casts of Angry Male Characters getting revenge or fighting oppression in some way without turning on each other. Why can’t women have that? Why can’t we have films where women are allowed to get angry and just cut loose? And why do we always have to be fighting over a man?

And what a useless man Van Horne is, too, in The Witches of Eastwick. Seriously, this is the director’s view of what a real man is like? Of what women are really looking for? Someone who is rude and crude, and runs roughshod over our feelings, all the while vampirically feeding off our mojo? I dunno. Maybe that’s what we thought we were willing to put up with 22 years ago, but we sure have moved on. Call me crazy, but if my Handsome Devil ever does magically show up at the door, I hope he’ll have at least bothered to bathe, first.

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About Paula R. Stiles

Paula is not at all paranoid about government conspiracies after six years in EMS, two years in Africa for the Peace Corps, a few summers with the Park Service, and ten years studying the Knights Templar. She's seen governments in action. They couldn't cover up a toy picnic table, let alone evidence of alien visitation. Writes about science for fun, history for money, and zombies for the company. You can read her sober-as-a-judge book about Templars in medieval Spain, Templar Convivencia, on Amazon. You can find her homepage at: http://thesnowleopard.net.

Paula R. StilesReview: The Witches of Eastwick (film)