“Do you think God knew what He was doing when He created woman?….Or do you think it was just another one of His minor mistakes like tidal waves, earthquakes, floods! You think women are like that?”
Thus roars Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) in the center of a scandalized church audience, in his wind blown pink overcoat, covered in dirt and feathers, vomiting cherry stones between punctuated lines of a raging monologue, begging us to consider: just what are we to do about women?
Witches of Eastwick (1987) remains (maybe disconcertingly) relevant after 30 years, unapologetic for its own satire. Three women from the town of Eastwick find comfort in one another’s company after finding themselves without husbands. These women… they are different. Alex Medford (Cher) is the local sculptress—bohemian chic, widowed single-mother, and assertive. Sukie Ridgemont (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the frazzled single-mother of five—no, six!—children, deserted by her husband. Jane Spofford (Susan Sarandon) is the tightly wound music teacher, divorced from her husband after she cannot produce children. Each of them serves as a stark contrast to the pearl-clutching, god-fearing women of Eastwick, modestly dressed in muted colors and button-up blouses. What fate, after all, could be worse than being an unmarried woman? Being a literal witch, of course.
The trio unwittingly conjures up their ideal man after a night of reflection that concludes in the conviction they will not give up on love. And whose ideal man isn’t Jack Nicholson? In a cast as stunning as this one, it seems criminal to afford any one person the credit of carrying this film, but Nicholson’s scenes alone are worth revisiting this film. His portrayal of “horny little devil” Daryl is so earnest, vacillating between moments of seduction and bestial rage. His absurdity is both charming and disarming, so when he sprawls out on a four-poster bed in a silk robe, paunchy and arrogant, claiming he “likes a little pussy after lunch,” you have to wonder how Cher kept a straight face.
This adaptation of John Updike’s novel by the same name strays from the original plot in some significant ways, but maintains the assertion that women are powerful beings, capable of realizing this power only after they’ve “unloaded” a husband. The witchery in the film is a literal manifestation of that power, allowing the women to escape boring sermons and float above pools. Director George Miller—yes, of Mad Max acclaim—includes interludes of whimsy with floating tennis balls and showers of pink balloons, providing visual opposition to the rigidity of the upright citizens of Eastwick. And yet, some of the scenes are still all too recognizable. As Jane strolls through the supermarket in a tight pink sundress and high heels, a pickle in her mouth, tossing double-fudge cookies and whip cream into her basket, she is scowled at by the other women and called a “slut.” One of the incredible triumphs of the story is the subtlety of this villainy. It’s women who tow the line of propriety and women who inflict the punishment when that line gets crossed.
Veronica Cartwright’s role as Felicia Alden, instigator of judgment, is so wrought with conviction it’s at times difficult to watch. Felicia cries for the townspeople to fight this evil, calling Jane, Sukie, and Alex whores. She repeatedly emasculates her husband with scathing judgment. But in a moment of recognition, she also lifts the veil shrouding our true villain saying, “We have to help these poor women.” It is, after all, someone preying on a woman’s fears that turns her against another. Fear of being alone, being judged a whore, or disappearing altogether. Daryl is but a brief respite for loneliness, but not an answer to that deeper longing of belonging which the women find in one another.
The last quarter of the film devolves into true absurdity, with laughable special effects and a rushed climax that concludes in a disappointing end. Each of the women has borne a son by Daryl. While this mostly serves to underscore the inherent power of women (you know, motherhood and all that), it also can’t help but hint at the propagation of maleness and the cycle of judgment it perpetuates. Is this how women find their power? Daryl is a satirical stereotype, so to judge him earnestly would be a disservice, but he serves as nothing more than a tangible representation of the beastly nature of man, preying on a woman’s fears under the guise of pleasing her.
At the end of his church monologue, Daryl asks:
“So, what do you think? Women. A mistake? Or did He do it to us on purpose? Because I really want to know! Because if it’s a mistake, maybe we can do somethin’ about it! Find a cure! Invent a vaccine! Build up our immune systems! Get a little exercise! You know, twenty push-ups a day, and you never have to be afflicted with women ever again!”
Ah, if only. 30 years later and still no cure for women, but Witches of Eastwick is worth a revisit for the questions it asks and the playful ways it asks them, rather than its answers.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.