#ThrowbackThursday – The Witches of Eastwick

Original US release date: June 12, 1987
Production budget: $22,000,000
Worldwide gross: $63,766,510

George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick is a film I remember hearing quite a bit about as a child, but my viewing of the film in preparation for this column was the first time I ever actually watched it.  Despite having heard so much about it, back when it was released, all I could really remember without researching is that it starred Cher.  Despite being a Michelle Pfeiffer fan, I had forgotten about her involvement and I somehow even managed to forget that Jack Nicholson was featured front and center.  I’m not sure that the film has really maintained any sort of pop culture relevance or reputation, but I wanted to check it out for myself and see exactly what I missed, all those years ago.

When the film concluded, I still found myself wondering what I had missed.  Based on John Updike’s novel of the same name, the story follows three single mothers and friends Alex, Jane, and Sukie (Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Pfeiffer, respectively) who, while drunkenly lamenting their romantic misfortunes, jointly describe their ideal man.  As they do this, a new and eccentric lifelong bachelor by the name of Daryl (Nicholson) moves into town and immediately creates a stir by buying and inhabiting a respected property in their town of Eastwick.  As the women get to know the stranger, he manages to charm them and free them from their inhibitions.  Yet, other more negative consequences of his presence begin to manifest themselves and the women must reevaluate their relationships with him and each other before things go too far.

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I can’t deny that The Witches of Eastwick is a fun time.  It is certainly a product of the eighties, complete with overt sexuality (though no outright nudity, which is surprising for the time, considering the subject matter), wacky townspeople, and a comedy styling that can perhaps best be described as situational absurdity.  I don’t think I actually laughed out loud a single time, but I was definitely amused.  The tone is lighthearted and fun, and nothing is meant to be taken all that seriously, which I can appreciate.  I like movies that exist solely to entertain as that was the purpose for which the art form was invented.

With that being established, there still exist some slight undertones and social commentary if one chooses to look.  The way in which Nicholson’s Daryl manipulates the women for his own needs is easily interpreted as a commentary upon men’s tendencies to view women as existing for their own purposes and not as independent human beings.  He clearly cares about no one but himself, while all three women are strong, capable, complex people who are deserving of better.  The film acknowledges and addresses this, with that idea being the narrative core of the film.   At the same time, this movie probably wouldn’t go over too well with many modern day viewers.

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Those who are quick to find fault and jump to conclusions would hammer the film simply for its willingness to tell the story of three women who all want to find husbands. Those who live and die by the Bechdel test would absolutely claw their eyes out, here.  While I certainly agree that women should have concerns in works of fiction outside of finding a man or mate, we also need to keep in mind that finding someone to love is a biological imperative that we all feel and neither shouldn’t nor can’t be completely jettisoned from stories.  And, whenever someone is feeling that desire, they’re going to talk to their friends about it.  And, sometimes, that makes for a good story.

Secondly, as I mentioned above, the overall message of the film is that the women, in fact, do not need a man.  So, looking at the big picture is important, here, though often inconvenient for those with a chip on their shoulder.  Lastly, this film was released in 1987, before such things upset people.  Keeping context in mind is paramount and holding artistic works of yesteryear up to a modern social standard is neither fair-minded nor particularly informed.  This isn’t a case such as with a previous #ThrowbackThursday where the time of release was irrelevant to the issue at hand.  This is much more subtle and perspectives around this have changed slowly over a long period of time.  In other words, I can appreciate where people might be coming from with such complaints, but they really don’t apply to a well-meaning comedy from 31 years ago.

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Yet, even with good intentions, a fantastic cast of classic actors (though can we agree that Nicholson plays the same character, virtually every time out?  I have no problem with that, especially since he does it well.  But why does he win acclaim and awards for it while others earn indifference and criticism?), and an enjoyable, escapist atmosphere, I’m not really sure what I watched.  I felt like I had completed a jigsaw puzzle but the central twenty-five percent was missing, entirely.  I looked under the couch, inside the cushions, within the box, in the closet, and everywhere else I could think of, but I couldn’t find the remaining pieces.

So much is never explained that I felt as though I might be misinterpreting everything I saw.  The implication is that the three women somehow summon or maybe even manifest Daryl during their get-together, but he is nothing like the man they describe.  And why do they have powers?  And who or what is Daryl, exactly?  And why do certain things happen to specific supporting characters but not others?  These are just a few of the questions that go unanswered.  But, in order for everything to hit home entirely, these questions need answers.  I even read a plot synopsis after I finished watching the film, just to make sure I didn’t miss something.  Nope.  Or, at least, if I missed all of these things, so did the writer of the synopsis.  Also, the climax features some attempts at special effects that simply weren’t allowed by either the budget or the technology of the time (or both).  If you can’t do it, don’t try it.

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So, while I’m not really sure I understand anything I saw, I still had a good time watching it.  I suppose that makes The Witches of Eastwick the epitome of a mixed bag.  Honestly, with the addition of a clearly defined set of rules for the universe that were then strictly followed throughout the narrative, I would have unabashedly loved the movie.  Even without that, I enjoyed seeing youthful versions of Pfeiffer, Cher, Sarandon, and a less-old version of Nicholson doing their thing and clearly having fun with it.  Even recent Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins was part of the festivities.  I guess I ultimately would suggest catching it if you haven’t seen it before.  It’s worth it for the exuberant performances.  But don’t expect to have a clear understanding of anything that occurs.

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