With a less domestic and more contemporary heroine, "Bewitched" the film was written with a strong take on female empowerment.
Growing up as a kid in Australia, the daughter of bohemian intellectuals, the girl who wanted to "play Sylvia in 'The Women' " while all her classmates lounged on the Sydney beaches, Nicole Kidman religiously worshipped at the altar of TV suburbia. Every evening at 6, she'd settle in to watch "Bewitched," the 1960s TV show about a witch (Elizabeth Montgomery) married to a mortal (Dick York, then Dick Sargent). "It was quite comforting hearing that 'Bewitched' music and my mom cooking in the kitchen.
"It represented the perfect household and that's why I liked 'The Brady Bunch' too. My family was a little different, and anything that seemed really conformist and normal I was drawn to," recalls the Oscar-winning actress, her lightly ironic Australia accent swelling with fondness. "She's trying to be normal and yet she's mischievous, and she has this whole other world she's trying to hide from her husband."
Twenty years later, Kidman, now 37, still isn't the kind of actress one would expect to be trolling through the latest TV show to hit the big screen. In the era of "Charlie's Angels," "Starsky and Hutch," "The Dukes of Hazzard" (due in August) and the recent bomb "The Honeymooners," Kidman, arguably one of the best dramatic actresses of her generation, seems a little high-toned to be rolling around in nostalgic TV glop. But her "Bewitched" in which she stars with Will Ferrell, and which opens Friday isn't simply a gigantically more expensive version of an icon, or a "reimagining" as Hollywood likes to say euphemistically, or even a wink-wink jokey version of the show.
Taking a page from Charlie Kaufman (or as its more historically versed writer-director Nora Ephron says, [Luigi] Pirandello, the Nobel-winning Italian playwright who died in 1936), this film version is the tale of a witch who yearns to be normal so she moves to the Valley, where she meets a wildly narcissistic, on-the-skids movie star, who casts her opposite himself in the new TV version of "Bewitched."
Ephron, the urbane, pointedly New York-based director of such romantic comedies as "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail," admits she dreamed up the idea in "three or four minutes," after getting a phone call from her friend, Sony Chairman Amy Pascal, who announced that she had a meeting with Kidman the next morning to talk about "Bewitched," but after 13 years of development, and numerous screenwriters (including Richard Curtis, Douglas Carter Beane and Ellen Simon), they still didn't have a plot for the movie.
"I said, 'Call me in the morning,' " recalls Ephron. "So I hung up and instantly went 'the nose!' She's got Elizabeth Montgomery's nose. It would be funny to hang a plot of the movie on that. What if she's someone who gets cast in the remake only because she has Elizabeth Montgomery's nose?"
Ephron, who wrote the script with her sister Delia and an uncredited Adam McKay (Ferrell's writing partner), then conjured up her heroine's peculiar love interest "that kind of actor who I'm afraid is all too common. It's not just that the guy wants three trailers (which he does in the film) but these guys pretend they want the woman to speak a few lines in the movie but they don't really. That's not unlike real life, by the way."
The movie turns into a battle of the sexes between a shy witch who can literally have everything she wants and a movie star who thinks he deserves anything he wants. The real TV show "Bewitched" turns into a self-conscious leitmotif and later a form of deus ex machina to reunite the comically paired lovers.
At 64, Ephron seems to be the only member of the "Bewitched" creative clan to have seen the original before reruns. Today, she's ensconced in her temporary offices on the Sony lot, wearing jeans and a very expensive white blouse with lots of slashes above the bust, an outfit that manages to be both hip and unexpectedly ladylike. In her younger days, Ephron says, she knew about "Bewitched," but was more of a Mary Tyler Moore fan.
"That's almost the same era. I was around. I was single. That was my show. This already felt way too much like doing the dishes. One of the things I liked about the solution to the problem was it was a way to make it contemporary and not have it be domestic the way that show was domestic."
Watching the show again, the Ephrons were struck by the push-me-pull-you nature of Samantha and Darrin's relationship, and the witch's and the show's ambivalence about Samantha's witchy powers. "It was about not giving in to your powers, but then giving in to them, but then not giving in to them, and that's a really interesting thing. How powerful can you be in a relationship with a man without turning him off? That's really a great question," says Ephron.
It helps when the prince in question is to be played by 37-year-old funny man Ferrell, although the pairing of the former "Saturday Night Live" star and the Oscar-winning actress wasn't the most obvious.
Approached to play the male lead back in the days before "Elf" made him a superstar (although Ephron points out the deal didn't manage to get done until after, hence jacking up the price tag on the $85 million movie), Ferrell had to, in a sense, be vetted by Kidman for the part.
Ephron recalls the moment the two met.
"She was doing 'Stepford [Wives],' and she was at the Astoria studios. Will and I went out there together. He was wearing baggy Bermuda shorts and a great big T-shirt and sneakers, and she received us, and I mean, that's what it was," recalls Ephron. "She received us in an all-red dressing room red couch, red walls and she came in in a white cashmere pencil skirt and a white cashmere sweater with this blond hair, and if you've ever seen her, whatever you think she's going to look like, it's even better. He was totally taken with her. He stared at her in that goofy way he does in one of those scenes in the movie. She'd seen 'Old School' and had decreed he was the funniest man on the planet. She was so ethereal and he was so earthbound, I just thought, 'Oh this would be great if we could get this to work."
"It was kind of pleasantly awkward, only because it just felt real," says Ferrell. "We were both nervous to meet each other. Although I don't know why she was nervous to meet me. Afterward, Nora said, 'Isn't she lovely? Oh my God, we have to do this movie.' I said, 'If you're sure it's going to work and it's not going to be Nicole Kidman and some schlub?' "
"He was not so schulbby," says Kidman. "He did wear shorts. He has funny skinny legs, which made me smile."
Once they actually started working together, Ferrell tried to be "as silly as possible around Nicole whenever I could think about it. It helped me feel not nervous. I figured people probably aren't that silly around her."
He explains, "Someone would have set up a place heater in front of her, and I'd pick it up and move it to in front of my chair. She would be like, 'What are you doing?' I'd follow her around the craft service table. I like to think it was why we got along so well."
"He would make me giggle," says Kidman, with a laugh. "I'm very shy. With someone like Will, with a comedy like this, when dealing with people so adept with it, I felt like a fish out of water. They're going to look at me to fire me. Which is what I always think anyway. He would coax me out of my shell."
"It was funny, he's so big, he makes her seem like a tiny little doll," says Lucy Fisher, who produced the film with her husband, Douglas Wick, and Penny Marshall. "It's a funny way to see her. He warms her up. She's so beautiful, she seems aloof. He's all about giving her a big tickle. They did some improvising and she was good at it."
One thing the women behind the film seem sure of is that the message of the movie is 180 degrees different from the message of the TV show. Sony Chairman Pascal has been in fact steadily updating some of the iconic and culturally dated women-driven TV shows of the past, starting first with "Charlie's Angels," now "Bewitched," and moving on (if they ever nail a script) to "I Dream of Jeannie."
"When the television show was made it was about men wanting women to not use their powers, and if we had just done that, if we're constantly saying to her, 'Don't use your powers, Sam don't use your powers, Sam,' it wouldn't work," says Pascal, referring to one of the show's refrains. "That's not a conflict in a contemporary movie." Making a movie about the making of the TV show became a way to pay homage to the original, and yet provide "a kind of positive message about female empowerment."
Kidman adds that the new resolution is a direct result of "the women behind this film. In a sense, as a woman, you're not going to make a woman change yourself, stifle who you really are ."
While today, girl-empowerment (formerly known as feminism) seems as natural as Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions, Ephron, for one, remembers the dark days. "If you grow up in America when I did, you always have moments of forgetting that your career might be just as important as his, until you learn that," she says.
She muses about another well-known Hollywood figure who's just made her screen comeback. "I was fascinated reading the Jane Fonda book because she's just such a parody of a certain kind of woman of my generation who keeps marrying her identity and keeps becoming the person she married. It's flabbergasting. I would have never married a Republican or anything, but I certainly remember when I went to college, most of my classmates were going to marry their politics and marry their lives and their geographic destinations, and that's when 'Bewitched' was a show on television."
Life isn't like that anymore. Says Ephron: "It's getting better."
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