By Lawrence Ferber
They say the nose knows. In Nicole Kidman’s case, it guides a career. In 2002’s The Hours, a prosthetic nose helped transform her into lesbian author Virginia Woolf and win an Oscar. Now, her adorable schnozz – and an ability to wiggle it around – was responsible for landing Kidman the role of Samantha in director Nora Ephron’s Bewitched.
“They said it was my nose, yeah,” Kidman laughs. “And I really do [the wiggle]! I should have been fired if I couldn’t do that.”
On the air from 1964-1972, repeated in syndication since, and now available on DVD (Season One), the original “Bewitched” sitcom starred Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha, a suburban housewife who worked magic with a “wicka-wicka-wick” twitch of her nose. Samantha’s mortal husband, Darrin, was first played by Dick York (gay actor Dick Sargent took over the role during the show’s final few years). Her equally magical mother, Endora, was played by gay icon Agnes Moorhead, and flamboyant Uncle Arthur portrayed by the mincing, very gay Paul Lynde.
Directed by Nora Ephron (“You’ve Got Mail”), today’s “Bewitched” is by no means your typical TV-to-film update/adaptation. Will Ferrell plays Jack Wyatt, a vain, pompous Hollywood actor playing Darrin in a new version of “Bewitched.” Insisting that the show be HIS star vehicle, Jack demands that a no-name be cast as Samantha – one with the adorable Montgomery nose, of course. Enter Isabel (Kidman), an actual witch who wants to live a normal, magic-free life… and has that literally magical nose.
Thinking that Jack means to settle down with her, she puts away the broomstick and accepts the role. Of course, Jack is merely using her. She never has any lines, and every joke on the show is designed to give him full attention. When Isabel overhears a conversation that makes clear that she’s been Jack’s puppet all along, she starts “wicka-wicka-wick”-ing in revenge! But could there be a genuine magical spark between the pair? A magic called…love?
Adding to the chaos and merriment is Shirley MacLaine as Hollywood diva Iris, Michael Caine as Isabel’s cheeky warlock father, Nigel Bigelow, Kristin Chenoweth as Isabel’s best friend/neighbor Maria, and Jason Schwartzman as Jack’s sycophantic agent. Amy Sedaris makes a brief cameo as Gladys Kravitz.
Kidman first became a fan of the original “Bewitched,” which aired in Australia, while she was a little girl. “I think [I liked it because] she could do magic,” Kidman says. “Samantha was always fighting herself not to do it but I think for a young girl that’s your dream. That you could wiggle your nose and make anything happen.”
Years later, hearing that a film was being developed by producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher, Kidman announced her interest in playing Samantha. As if she had wiggled her nose and made it happen, a meeting was set – but an actual script and fresh spin was still missing. So Columbia Pictures chairman Amy Pascal tapped lauded romantic comedy writer/director Nora Ephron for input.
“The first thing I thought was how Nicole had the same nose as Elizabeth Montgomery,” Ephron recalls. “Wouldn’t it be funny to cast her as someone who gets cast solely because of her resemblance to the nose? This disembodied nose. And everything came from that very quickly.”
Ephron co-wrote the script with her sister, Delia, and Adam McKay, over three months. Delia says that they decided to go with their multi-dimensional show-within-a-film approach rather than just reinvent the show itself because “when you do a movie of a TV show that’s so beloved, if you just do some imitation, it’s a pale version in some ways.”
Kidman agreed. “I think the way Nora wrote the script she incorporated quite cleverly the series, yet with them being able to invent new characters for us,” Kidman notes. “Rather than us trying to mimic Darrin and Samantha, we were able to have an essence of them and set it [in the present]. If you just stick to the original series then its actual story doesn’t warrant a feature film. The concept was, I think, the thing you needed to launch this.”
A great supporting cast ensured that the project got into its orbit. Well known for his twisted comedic turns in “Anchorman,” “Elf,” and “Starsky and Hutch,” Ferrell was introduced to Kidman on the set of “The Stepford Wives.”
“It was this kind of sight gag, the two of them together,” Ephron, present for the meeting, recalls. “He was dressed in unbelievably baggy plaid Bermuda shorts, a baggy shirt, and these boats that are his shoes. And Nicole received him in an all-red dressing room where she was wearing a white cashmere pencil skirt and top with this blonde hair and the perfect makeup. It was like seeing an orchid meeting a houseplant. They were so different and so great together, so instantly adorable together, they loved one another.”
Ephron says that Ferrell’s improvisational methods rubbed off on the typically script-specific Kidman during rehearsals, and the pair whipped up many new comedic bits that were incorporated into the final script and film. In turn, “Nicole gave Will a certain amount of courage as an actor,” Ephron adds.
Of course, the original “Bewitched” series is a longtime gay favorite, and The Complete First Season DVD set is a great refresher to that end. Two characters that gays adore do reappear in the new “Bewitched,” and with plenty of queer appeal. Steve Carell, of TV’s “The Daily Show” and “The Office,” portrays Paul Lynde’s Uncle Arthur character, while MacLaine plays Iris, a campy, ostentatious Hollywood diva who plays Endora.
Ephron instructed Carell not to imitate Paul Lynde, but instead to “channel him.” “I said that to Shirley [about Agnes Moorehead] too,” Ephron notes. “Of course when you say that to Shirley you’re in serious channel time!”
MacLaine, well known for her outspoken beliefs in the spiritual world and powers, says she was interested in playing Iris/Endora because she had long wanted to play a witch. “Everyone thinks I’m one, too,” she grins. “It’s an entertaining thing and I love the idea of doing something that utilizes magic powers.”
Although the character of Iris was only supposed to be an actress playing a witch, MacLaine requested that she – like Isabel – actually be a bona fide witch. The change resulted in at least one great payoff: one of the film’s funniest highlights is a scene where Iris, trying to stop Nigel from flirting with younger women, makes girls say extremely off-putting things to him like “I have Hepatitis C!”
Another reason MacLaine took the role was an opportunity to work with Kidman, an actress whom she ranks in the “Meryl Streep category.” “She’s that good,” MacLaine insists. “And a very interesting person to observe if you’re a student of human nature, which I am. She’s almost not of this world. She has a quality of elusiveness in real life that is necessary for her to act. She needs to act. She needs to be other people probably because that talent is so profound it bubbles up and needs to be recognized and used.”
Now that Ephron has helped a new generation delight in the powers of “Bewitched,” (and through digital magic we’ve seen Nicole Kidman fly through suburbia on a broom), would she consider bringing another TV show with a witch to the screen? Say, “H.R. Pufnstuf,” with its lovably loopy dyke icon, Witchiepoo?
“I don’t know,” Ephron responds, bemused. “Not right away. I’ve had my ending with the special effects, thank you.”
“Bewitched” is in theaters nationwide on June 24. “Bewitched: The First Season” is out on DVD on Sony Home Entertainment on June 21.