It was because of the “Wizard of Oz” that I started walking around at age five telling anyone who would listen that I was going to be a movie director. But I think it was because of the Wicked Witch of the West that I steered toward fantasy. She terrified me!
And yet I waited anxiously every year for my favorite movie to come on tv at Thanksgiving, and every year I noticed something more uncomfortable and sinister about it’s tale. Much like the candy coated cottage of Hansel and Gretel, Oz is a sugar-laden dreamland with a path that leads you straight to danger. In that realm rules a witch with more cunning and insight than any other witch I know – and she has a crystal ball by which she can see everything I do. She writes threats to Dorothy in the sky, sets her friends on fire, and has evil flying monkeys (FLYING MONEKYS!) to do her bidding. Even though a bright yellow brick road cuts through her forest, the potential for great harm is around every curve. Was it the Witch who hung the live Scarecrow from the pole? Did anyone else walk by the Tin Man and his haunted, abandoned home – and what did she do to them? What horror scared the courage out of the lion? My eyes wander through the trees when I watch the film searching for tigers or bears or something worse – the Witch herself. And then there she is, just when you thought you were safe! She perches on a rooftop, throwing fire at you from her broom, or sends crows to peck you to death, or rain to rust and trap you. She has created the dark world around her and every fearful person in it. She is a Queen of the Shades, with those living under her but fractions of themselves, running for cover anytime she goes for a ride over Oz.
The character created by L. Frank Baum has inspired numerous stories and interpretations over the years and Margaret Hamilton’s 1939 portrayal of her is absolutely brilliant. Over the top? You bet. But not so much so that you can’t sense what she’s plotting in the moment before she speaks. There’s a glint in her eye that makes your blood run cold. In recent decades, the Wicked Witch of the West has been written into a sympathetic character (I loved “Wicked”), as some embrace the trend to deconstruct the “bad guy.” But Margaret Hamilton never drops her selfish intentions, not for one breath. Her Witch knows what she wants and knows how to get it. She plays directly to your weaknesses, she points at you with long branch-like fingers, bores through you with her black eyes, and her voice cuts through your skull like an ax. She doesn’t want, nor does she need your sympathy. And it’s not hubris that brings her down, nor Dorothy’s courage really, but a lucky mistake – when, as a last resort Dorothy throws a bucket of water on her. As the Witch is melting she curses the world she’s created. “What a world, what a world…” Does it get any better?
The wonderful Margaret Hamilton had such respect and focus for her character that I find her to be even more frightening as Ms. Gulch. The Wicked Witch is power hungry, but Ms. Gulch is just downright cold-hearted. Who takes a little girl’s puppy away? And I still wonder if she didn’t come back after the tornado had passed to snatch Toto from Dorothy’s arms. My fear of her and her potential (just what could those shoes do?) has not subsided, but run off on a thousand adventures.
It is Ms. Hamilton’s conviction as an actress and a storyteller that still makes my imagination run between the forest trees, hide behind the rocky castle walls and jump when she appears in a cloud of red smoke. And it was her Wicked Witch that sent my five year old mind to wonder who else was out there? A question I’ve been trying to answer in my creative work, my whole life…
Thank Mr. Baum, Thank you Ms. Hamilton – and wherever you are, Happy Halloween!