Mirror Mirror may not have burned up the box office in its opening weekend. Its estimated $19 million made the family film a distant and weak third, but that won’t stop a trend among Oscar winning actresses from going evil. Not since Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Olivia DeHavilland and other multi-Oscared legends collectively turned to horror films in order to regain boxoffice clout in the early 60’s have we seen so many Oscar winning actresses decide bad is good for a career, at least as far as playing mean queens and witches.
Taking a cue from the billion dollar success of Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland which featured a hilarious turn by Oscar nominated Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, it seems a plethora of Academy Award winning female stars have jumped on the fairy tale evil bandwagon, perhaps in order to prove that Oscar also can still mean gold where it counts, at the boxoffice where none of this award-laden crop have been ‘the fairest of them all’ lately. Mirror Mirror’s conniving queen Julia Roberts is just the tip of the iceberg of this trend. Now with Charlize Theron in June’s Snow White And The Huntsman , Angelina Jolie about to start Maleficent in a couple of months and Rachel Weisz having wrapped playing the Wicked Witch Of The East in Oz The Great And Powerful, we have three other Oscar winners of the past decade jumping into the fray. It reminds me of the famous ad line for the 1949 melodrama Beyond The Forest: “Nobody’s As Good As Bette Davis When She’s Bad”. Well maybe. Although audiences gave Mirror Mirror a B+ Cinemascore rating, top critics on Rotten Tomatoes awarded it a measly 37% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, but Roberts’ game work did get some nice personal notices. So other than the chance to perhaps grab a commercial hit and getting to wear some over-the-top costumes, what is the big attraction in playing wicked for all these Oscar winning stars?
According to Jason Keller, one of Mirror Mirror’s screenwriters, the lure is irresistible. “It’s such an interesting thing. I think that these evil queens represent the most iconic characters and the most iconic roles that have ever existed in storytelling. Every other villain I think in modern narrative at some level has its origins in some way in these iconic characters. I mean who wouldn’t want to play the original evil queen, the evil antagonist? I would bet these actresses are responding to these roles because these were the first stories that enthralled them as kids and I think that becomes fun for an actor to play,” he says.
Keller was in fact specifically enlisted by Relativity Media, the film’s distributor to write a draft after Melisa Wallack’s (who retains a story credit) original that would entice Roberts to sign on . They gave him just four weeks because they had a start date they wanted to hit (no doubt in part to beat Universal’s other competing Snow White project) and needed to cast the Evil Queen. “I didn’t write the actual shooting script in four weeks (additional writer Marc Klein came on closer to production for another draft) but my draft was really all about the evil queen and I really focused those four weeks on trying to give the evil queen a voice that was fun and interesting, and to write something that would be fun for Julia to play,” he says. It worked , and after meeting with director Tarsem Singh she signed on.
“Fun” is a word that seems to come up as a reason these stars like going so bad. Roberts recently told a writer for the QMI agency that she did have inspiration for the part. “Without naming names, I drew from a couple of people I know better than I wish I did and found it very fun and helpful,” she said.
After a Q&A for her writing and directing debut , In The Land Of Blood And Honey Jolie told me she was really looking forward to playing Maleficent, the evil queen right out of Sleeping Beauty, mentioning the strength of the script, its relevance and that she thinks it will be, yes, “lots of fun”. Plus she gets to wear horns!
And while she was filming Oz The Great And Powerful last year Weisz, who won an Oscar for The Constant Gardener in 2006 and has done mostly lower budget indies since, told me she was relishing the opportunity of going evil as much as the opportunity to work with director Sam Raimi. “It’s, get this, the prequel to Wizard Of Oz and James Franco plays the Wizard and he’s off to the Emerald City where he finds the Wicked Witch of the East, me , and my sister the Wicked Witch of the West Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams, the Good Witch Glinda, and it is all just so creative. It’s like the Oz story of how Oz came to be and it’s just such fun. Really fun,” she said.
Theron’s Evil Queen in the June 1 Universal release, Snow White And The Huntsman is a completely different , more fanboy oriented take on the classic fairy tale role as she told me in a recent interview. “In that film I just saw great potential in the character. I mean the director (Rupert Sanders) is really interesting. He’s a first time director, he’s from the commercial world, super visual. But in combination with that, I just thought this is such an iconic character that really was so relevant still. She was so relevant and she’s kind of timeless. She’s like the ultimate villain and so there is great potential in tackling that. There’s a challenge in that,” she said.
Whether channeling their scary dark side takes any of these stars back to Oscar’s podium probably doesn’t matter much. According to Keller it’s the joy of travelling back into the darkest places of our youth that really seems to turn them on to these roles now. “Certainly on a business level these titles and these characters are something studios are obviously interested in. It’s a type of character audiences and actors understand and respond to. These are fairy tales and stories that have been around for six, seven, eight hundred years and there’s a reason why,” he says.