It took Nicole Kidman - and a clever take on the story - to get 'Bewitched' off the ground
Nicole Kidman was having dinner at the L.A. home of actress friend Carla Gugino a couple of years ago. She was standing in the kitchen, eating dessert (before the main course, natch) when the talk turned to television shows that had been made into movies.
What about "Bewitched"? Gugino asked. Yeah, Kidman said, why haven't they made that?
Well, it wasn't for lack of trying. At the time of Kidman's kitchen conversation, nearly a dozen different writers had tried for more than a decade to turn the 1960s sitcom about a suburban witch and her mortal husband into a movie. There were countless screenplays, but no movie.
In fact, the "Bewitched" project was languishing in development hell when Kidman, inspired by her conversation with Gugino, telephoned Columbia chief executive Amy Pascal to ask about its status. Pascal was thrilled that Kidman was interested. Now all she needed was an idea for a movie.
A few weeks later, Pascal phoned Nora Ephron.
"It was, 'Do you have any ideas about how to do "Bewitched" because I'm meeting with Nicole Kidman tomorrow morning at 11 and we have no plot,' " Ephron recalls. "At the time, I had no idea it had been this Bermuda Triangle for a number of other writers."
Ephron offered her solution the next morning. Her whole idea sprang from one thing: Kidman's nose.
"The minute I hung up, I thought, 'You have to make it about the nose,' " Ephron says. "The resemblance between Nicole's nose and Elizabeth Montgomery's is remarkable. And what is the most important thing about 'Bewitched'? What's the one thing people most associate with the show? The nose! The wiggling nose!"
Kidman loved the idea and now, 13 years into the process, "Bewitched" is arriving at theaters. Using the nose as a starting point, Ephron and her sister Delia wrote a story about a witch, Isabel (Kidman), who doesn't want to be a witch, who moves to the Valley and ends up getting cast as the lead in a TV remake of "Bewitched" because she can twitch her nose better than any actress.
Like the TV series, there is male-female conflict between the "Darrin" - in this case, a me-first actor Jack Wyatt (played by Will Ferrell) in a career spiral - and Isabel, who initially considers Jack's interest in her to be romantic.
There are numerous references to the TV series ("It's an insult to our way of life," Isabel's father, played by Michael Caine, tells her) and, given that this is an Ephron movie, a fair share of romance, with the centerpiece scene being set to - what else? - Frank Sinatra's rendition of "Witchcraft."
"It's totally different," Ferrell says of the movie. "You just know the 'Bewitched' purist won't be at the theater wearing their Samantha button, saying, 'What?' "
Adds Kidman: "Why mimic the Darrin and Samantha of the television show? If you stick to the story of the series, it doesn't warrant a feature film."
That had been the problem. Ted Bessell, best-known as the boyfriend on Marlo Thomas' "That Girl," bought the rights to "Bewitched" in 1992. Bessell was a close friend of Penny Marshall's, and Marshall helped Bessell shepherd the film. Screenplays were written. The first, by Monica Johnson, was a prequel to the TV show, telling the story of how Samantha and Darrin fell in love in New York City before marrying and moving to the suburbs.
That basic idea stayed through several other stabs at the story, including versions by Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") and playwright Douglas Carter Beane ("To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar").
"You don't do something like this unless you're creating new life," says producer Douglas Wick, "and, for the longest time, our biggest creative hurdle was that we had a boy-meets-girl story where the husband is suppressing the wife and it felt very passe and not very relevant."
Says Ephron: "Most of the scripts were prequels, how Darrin and Samantha met. If you had said to me, 'Just do a prequel,' I would have said, 'Bye.' What's fun about this is that you can behave as if 'Bewitched' is part of the culture, as opposed to something that hasn't happened.
"The other problem was that there was all the stuff about the witch world," Ephron adds. "The scripts had huge amounts of that, the warlock who broke her heart, left her at the altar, who forced her to come here. And if you remember the TV series, every time Samantha goes to the witch world, it's just appalling and awful. Everyone's wearing horrible caftans and things."
Ephron can say this with some authority because she and sister Delia watched some 60 episodes of "Bewitched" before writing the story. (Adam McKay, Ferrell's frequent writing partner, also shares credit on the screenplay.) Having put in the time, Ephron expresses appreciation for the early years of the series, but can't quite swallow the claims that the show was a breakthrough for women's rights.
"I've read a certain amount of stuff about 'Bewitched' and feminism and I find it kind of amusing," Ephron says. "The show is a weird little Rorschach test for people. Lucy Fisher, who produced the movie, has a theory that every woman wonders if a man will love her if he finds out she's a witch. She thinks we all are. And Amy Pascal thinks you can make a case that it's about mixed marriages.
"I actually think that the question of how powerful you can be if you are a woman was one of the things the show dealt with every single week," Ephron continues. "Was she going to use her magic to help him at the ad agency? Was she going to use her magic to do the dishes so she could get up to the bedroom and they could ... well, you know ...
"But there's also an enormous amount of stuff pulling in the opposite direction. Samantha didn't have a job. Most of her magic is used for household chores. Darrin never, ever, does anything. It's like, 'I'll see you upstairs, honey.' So I have no idea. All that I know is that it was a rich subject and you could have a lot of fun exploring it - as long as you steered clear from just imitating the thing."
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