George Miller’s THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK is from a John Updike novel, adapted by Michael Cristofer (THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES). It’s a comedy about women in small towns, not the #1 topic I want in a George Miller movie. And yet it’s very much a George Miller movie. The town of Eastwick could be the New England sister-city to the location-less town in BABE. Looks old fashioned and storybook-like, people act nice and family-oriented, but many of them are uptight and judgmental of non-conformists. The title trio don’t intend to get involved in witchcraft, and when they do that’s not even what turns them into pariahs. It’s actually just them being accused of being hoes.
Our heroines are women left single in three different ways: Alex (Cher) is a widow, Jane (Susan Sarandon) just finalized her divorce, and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) was simply abandoned with her pack of daughters. They’re all kind of sad about their situations but they have each other, they hang out together and vent and have fun. When they’re real old I’m sure they’ll have cheesecake together and then open a hotel in Miami called The Golden Palace.
The supernatural element comes in in a great scene that also establishes both the surface and the underlying truth of Eastwick. Poor Jane has been working her ass off rehearsing the elementary school band to play “America the Beautiful,” under the sleazy eye of the ass-grabbing principal Walter Neff (Keith Jochim) [the same character Fred MacMurray played in DOUBLE INDEMNITY?]. They play it at an outdoor ceremony when he’s gonna make a speech, and when he thanks them he laughs and condescendingly says on mic, “They have their work cut out for them.” It’s one of those ultimate dick moves where you say something mean about little kids and frame it as a joke to try to trick everybody else into laughing and accidentally co-signing your cruelty.
Miller raises a storm of filmatism around this asshole’s speech, emphasizing the children squirming, falling asleep, dropping a cymbal as he drones on and on, flipping through page after page of typewritten notes (with punch-ups in pencil), unaware or uncaring that not one person gives one single shit what he’s talking about. And Jane stares up at the big open sky as clouds drift in and open up a deluge, sending the people fleeing for cover as he tries to stay composed and keep going.
This is only the first accidental conjuring by this inadvertent coven of single ladies. The next comes from a night of commiseration when they fantasize about the type of man they wish would come into town, shake things up and sweep them all off their feet. Sure enough, such a man does arrive and move into the long vacant Lennox Mansion. We hear legends of him before we see him. An exotic foreigner who buys up the entire stock of Alex’s home made fertility statues and requests Sukie interview him for the local paper. Of course he turns out to be Jack Nicholson as Daryl Van Horn, sort of a demonic Great Gatsby who meets and seduces each of them in turn.
He’s a stealth Don Juan though. I’m sure there was a time when Nicholson was a sex symbol, but this was probly not it. Check out his seduction pose:
Van Horn is a weirdo, he’s brash and tacky, and they first witness him interrupting the symphony with loud, animalistic snoring. He talks a good game about how terrible men are and how powerful women are but his goal turns out to be to have them all live with him and make babies. Alex turns him down and gives him a soliloquy about how repulsive he is, but is unable to resist his rebuttal.
At first I was a little disappointed in what these gals were doing, but never underestimate Imperator George Miller. This is a story about how they don’t need some fantasy man to come make their lives worthwhile. They’re actually better off – much better off – with themselves and each other. Not because of an unorthodox lifestyle and some craziness going on in that mansion – that stuff was fine – but because he’s an asshole. And they learn that if they all laugh they can literally fly. Letting themselves be joyful, and have a good time, gives them power and sets them free.
Meanwhile Richard Jenkins and Veronica Cartwright play sort of a less lovable version of the Hoggetts from BABE. He’s a quiet, calm husband who patiently tries to support his excitable wife. Unfortunately her current mission, caused by some combination of prudeness, supernatural victimization and bone marrow leakage, is to warn the town about the “evil” of the trio and the goings-on at the mansion. This leads to him having to drag her out of Sunday service while she’s yelling at the congregation about anal intercourse.
She’s a good, crazed stick-in-the-mud, but I also have sympathy for her. Her figurative pearl clutching leads to a literal plague of dropped pearls that send her tumbling down a stairway. Daryl’s voodoo shit causes her to puke up cherry pits and stems. She might deserve a de-starched collar, but not this. And it’s kind of like a possession, she doesn’t mean to be yelling out this shit.
I’ll mark this paragraph SPOILER because I didn’t know this was coming. Time Out London at the time said “the last 20 minutes dive straight to the bottom of the proverbial barrel with a final crass orgy of special effects. Such a shame.” I would put it differently: to my delight, Daryl gets briefly transformed into a giant, animatronic demon beast that I was not surprised to learn was created by Rob Bottin, the effects genius behind John Carpenter’s THE THING. Miller lamented that the studio wanted “a special effects movie,” but he did a great job of making a solid picture that occasionally uses these flourishes as exclamation points. Or as an ellipses followed by three question marks, in the case of the weird floating Nicholson-faced whatever the fuck it is that hovers outside of the window at the end and then disappears in a poof.
Apparently there was another big animatronic effect of a convulsing, vomiting Veronica Cartwright for the earlier cherry scene, but they cut it after it disgusted test audiences too much. Thanks alot, test audiences. I hope you’re proud of yourselves.
I read a little about the book, and it sounds real different. Apparently in the book Van Horn is gonna marry their friend and they get jealous, so they cause her to die of cancer, then he runs off with her little brother. Then they use magic to attract themselves ideal new lovers. I’m sure there’s more to it, but from the sounds of it the movie story seems more satisfying. They learn that attracting some dude is not crucial for happiness. And when he tries to insinuate himself on their sons through TV they switch him off with a remote control. That would not be cool in a standard divorce case, but this guy is different, he’s literally a monster. The boys are better off without him.
This came two years after MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME. It was an odd period in Miller’s career, his brief flirtation with Hollywood. This and his segment of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE are the only for-hire gigs he’s ever done. According to EASTWICK producer Rob Cohen on a recent (amazing) episode of The Movie Crypt podcast (seriously, I give this episode my highest recommendation for what he says about THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS alone), Miller almost did THE GOLDEN CHILD, but when he went to meet Eddie Murphy at his house and Eddie left him there for hours while he went out to lunch with friends Miller decided to forget it. Unfortunately he wasn’t treated much better on this one. Producer John Peters tried to get him to put an alien in the movie because of the success of ALIENS, and he and Cher didn’t get along at all. Though he’d used Tina Turner so effectively in THUNDERDOME he was not happy about having someone he saw as just a pop star pushed into his cast. He said she “behaved like a movie star–like a child, in fact.”
Cher has not spoken highly of him either. “I was in tears with him,” she said, “because he kept saying he didn’t want Cher–he used to make quotation marks in the air whenever he used my name–to ruin his movie.” She says he called her on her 40th birthday and told her “Jack Nicholson doesn’t find you sexy.”
I’d rather think of Dr. Miller as a saint, but he admits “Before long, I also started to behave badly, throwing tantrums, being manipulative, which was the most effective way to get things done. Hollywood penalizes you for good behavior. You meet directors and actors with terrible reputations and find that they’re perfectly reasonable and sane.”
The experience was frustrating enough for him that he “made a promise not to direct again until I was ‘called’,” which ended up not being until LORENZO’S OIL five years later. Don’t worry though, the other George Miller, the one known for ANDRE and ZEUS AND ROXANNE, did THE NEVER ENDING STORY II: THE NEXT CHAPTER and six TV movies during the intervening years. So we weren’t completely George Miller-less.
(By the way, let’s call that one George W.S. Miller to avoid confusion.)
And now I must discuss the ending in order to note a George Miller motif. In the end, after they have defeated Daryl, we see that the three ladies and all their kids and Daryl’s manservant all live happily together in the mansion, like one big weird family, or a commune. This is basically the exact same ending he gave BABE: PIG AND THE CITY, where Babe brings back all the animals he met from the hotel and they live together on Hoggett Farm, apes swinging from the trees, little poodle-bull terrier puppies running around. In fact, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD implies a more badass version of this same scenario, with Furiosa and the surviving wives and Vuvalini apparently living together with the war pups and the nurses in the Citadel.
Conclusion: George Miller is so good that even his miserable compromised sellout studio movie is pretty damn good. Take that, other directors.