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A witch with a new twitch

With a less domestic and more contemporary heroine, 'Bewitched' the film was written with a strong take on female empowerment.

June 18, 2005|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

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.

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