Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The Witch has us staring deeply into our bubbling cauldron, in search of other superb movies about witchcraft.
In The Witches Of Eastwick, director George Miller and his talented collaborators manage to spin John Updike’s novel into a buoyant, absurdist, sensually comic exploration of stifled femininity. The narrative pivots on the notion of witchcraft as representing a male pretense for punishing and destroying females—a pretense that, in this film, serves to ironically bring about real witchcraft.
Alexandra (Cher), Jane (Susan Sarandon), and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) are three beautiful and talented single women, with children, who are wasting away in the small, conservative, patriarchal town of Eastwick. Like many people in the grips of sexual frustration, they’ve grown to resent their need for sex. If only a real man, not a schmuck, a moron, or a henpecked drone, were to somehow arrive in Eastwick. The feverishness of the women’s yearning, unleashed by the pitchers of martinis they have one night, somehow conjures Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson), a man who favors red slippers, signs his name “D,” and seems to have a touch of the satanic about him.
Daryl’s also a lout, though he’s wealthy, eccentric, intelligent, confident, and fully imbued with the post-modernly masculine “Jack”-ness that dominated many of Nicholson’s performances after The Shining. One of the film’s great jokes is that the women are sexually actualized by a man who theoretically repulses them, illustrating that our politics, aesthetics, and hungers aren’t such convenient bedfellows. The actor rips into this role with caricaturized zeal that’s pronounced even for him—he’s so broad he’s almost subtle. Nicholson’s playing with conventional male and female fantasies, both of which are associated with his own stardom: Men wish they could get away with his flagrant self-love, while women want to be heard and stimulated, above and below the belt.
But The Witches Of Eastwick appropriately belongs to Cher, Sarandon, and Pfeiffer, who reveal dimensions of need and sexual agency that are simultaneously poignant and erotic. Sarandon has a particularly lovely moment, as Daryl pushes Jane to reveal her sense of stymie and suppression to him. Her body moves almost imperceptibly forward, toward him, then stops, Jane then reverting to innocuous questions. Jane’s disappointment in herself when Daryl says, “So, we’re going to have a polite conversation” is heartbreaking. The film understands sex as a pleasure that’s often blocked off from us, cruelly, by internal civil war.
Availability: The Witches of Eastwick is available on DVD or Blu-ray from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital streaming services.