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The Boston Phoenix Return to Oz

A wizardly take on the old favorite

By Peter Keough

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  Years later, I can now see that the terror instilled in me as a child by repeated viewings of The Wizard of Oz drove me to become a film critic.

Every holiday season the film would be broadcast on television, and with the rest of the family I would be obliged to watch. Was I the only one who had nightmares about twisters languidly, inexorably lolling across the Kansas grayness, the phallic funnels looming over the closed, womblike shelter of the storm cellar? The macabre spectacle of the Wicked Witch of the East's feet, robbed of their Ruby Slippers, shriveling up under Dorothy's house? Or the Winged Monkeys, their formations filling the sky like a cross between Goya's Sleep of Reason and the Luftwaffe, off to their hideous dismemberment of the Scarecrow? Or the appalling realization that one's entire experience, in living color yet, might be no more than a dream? These were things, like sex and death, no one spoke about. Year after year I watched, the terrors unspoken, until the ritual of film reviewing could sublimate them.

Now the Wizard is back, and I am watching it for the first time on the big screen and with an audience consisting mostly of hundreds of prepubescent girls dressed in Dorothy's blue-polka-dot gingham dress. My biggest anxiety is that the film, like the genial shaman of the title, might prove a humbug. It did not, but perhaps I did. Where was the terror, and the delight?

It didn't help that my first ever theatrical experience of this cinematic archetype was foiled: the theater manager apologized that the print he'd received was "not compatible with Sony's lenses," and so we had to be content with a postage-stamp projection on the big Cheri screen. Or that the youthful audience was well-behaved -- no crying, squealing or laughter, a few clap-alongs with the tunes, and only polite applause when the Wicked Witch of the West melts. And so, not even the cyclone got a rise out of me. Instead, I analyzed. How did Dorothy's quest with her three needy, dysfunctional friends relate to current pop-psychological issues of empowerment and passive aggression? Was the film a Freudian, feminist, or Marxist allegory? Was the man behind the curtain a metaphor for the dubious magic of the motion-picture industry itself?

Well, so be it. The key to growing up, as Dorothy realized, is discovering that one's fears and desires are mostly special effects and hokum and resigning oneself to the fact that, except for an inconsequential sojourn for a couple of hours to a gaudy two-dimensional somewhere over the rainbow, there is indeed no place like home, the humdrum monochrome of the familiar, oppressive, and hopeless that one returns to after the flickering illusion is over.

That home is Dorothy's Kansas, ruled over by landowning capitalist Almira Gulch (the oddly sexy Margaret Hamilton, later to sell us Maxwell House coffee), a barren matriarchy (that Auntie Em is a coldblooded taskmaster, despite her crullers) served by bumbling, ineffectual males (I still laugh at Uncle Henry's line, "Oh, she bit her dog, eh?"). When the sole spirit of rebellion, Toto, asserts himself, Gulch sentences him to death. This summons the fertilizing male principle -- that inevitable cyclone, which propels Dorothy, home and all, into a realm of endless possibility, where the conflict between independence and conformity can be resolved through kitschy fantasy and some catchy production numbers.

Oz, though, is merely Kansas transformed by Dorothy's libidinous wish fulfillment (she is, after all, the 16-year-old Judy Garland) and early Technicolor. In this Utopia, she has slain the mother oppressor, the Witch of the East, and usurped that tyrant's power in the form of ruby footwear (with the intervention of dotty Billie Burke's oddly detached Glinda the Good Witch of the North); but she still requires patriarchal assistance to defeat the vengeful Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton, again, seductive in green).

That assistance includes the three Kansas farmhands metamorphosed into types of their own inadequacy: the Scarecrow with no brains who is the brains of the outfit, the Tin Man whose crying threatens to rust him into immobility, and the Cowardly Lion, terrifying in appearance but terrified within. While these three hide their capabilities behind the guise of debility, the goal of their quest, the Wizard himself (Frank Morgan, in one of five roles -- think of how the film would have played if W.C. Fields had not held out for more money) veils his powerlessness under the veil of omnipotence.

Or is it powerlessness? When he is exposed by the indefatigable Toto, the Wizard reveals that ultimate Hollywood secret, that the reality doesn't matter as much as the image, that illusion is as effective as truth if believed in, if only for 90 minutes of screen time. That's the recognition that Dorothy takes back to Kansas, where all else remains unchanged (whatever happens to Toto?). As for me, there's no place like home video.

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