Movies in the Real World

Oz, the Great and Powerful (Sexist)

The first couple of months of the year are a terrible time for cinema-goers (at least in terms of Hollywood fare).  The Oscars season is gone, and the advent of the summer blockbusters is a ways away.  Mostly, January, February and March are used as Hollywood’s dumping ground for dramas that weren’t going to win any awards and action flicks that would be ignored during peak season.  Admittedly, I could have sought out an independent film (which might have been more in keeping with this class), but the assignment is called “Movies in the Real World,” and I decided to pick a film that was as in the world, or rather, in the dominant culture, as I could find.  I felt that it might be interesting to turn an observant eye on the cinema-going experience that we all know so well through experience but perhaps never think critically about; I would actually now appreciate an opportunity to critically observe within a very different cinema context, to note the differences.

I saw Oz, the Great and Powerful by myself the Saturday after it opened at a matinee showing in The Rave, on 40th and Walnut Street, basically right on campus.  (I admit convenience was a factor.) Rave Motion Pictures, the company owning this theater, is a large US theater chain based in Dallas, Texas.  The University 6 Rave was up until recently called The Bridge, which I remember from when I was a freshman, but the theater has since changed hands.  The Rave is a fairly large theater, and seems to add new conveniences every day; now they not only sell typical theater food, like popcorn and candy and soda and chips, but they also have a little restaurant where you can get burgers and beer, and a lounge-type area for while you wait for the movie.  I eschewed all of that seeing as how they’re just out to rob you and I’d already paid $11 for my ticket.  Admittedly, I could have paid less, but I chose to see the film in 3D, not so much because I like seeing films in 3D but because I was already certain I would dislike the film and I wanted another reason to later abuse it.  So it was with 3D glasses in hand that I wandered into theater number 2, and placed myself somewhere in the middle of the upper rows.  It wasn’t too crowded, it being a matinee; one way to tell is if no one has sat in the bottom rows near the screen, which will give you a terrible crick in the neck.  There were mostly small groups of friends, and many couples, and a pretty even mixture of what seemed to be students and West Philadelphia residents.  It was quite loud through the initial round of TV promos and theater advertising, quieting down a bit for the trailers, although everyone seemed to think it was worthwhile to comment to their friends after each trailer to indicate whether they would or wouldn’t go see that film.  There was a burst of applause after the Iron Man 3 trailer, which I think was the most enthusiastic reaction during the entire cinema experience.

Oz, the Great and Powerful is a not a terrible film, but it is also not very good.  I had actually been paying attention to the film for a while, because the project originally had Robert Downey Jr. signed on to be the lead.  He dropped out, however, and was replaced by James Franco, who seems miscast.  The role of Oz, a sleazy, smarmy, slick conman magician, is simply ill-suited to Franco’s particular brand of understated charm.  Lines like “I am Oz, the great and powerful” take a particular brand of hammy charisma to pull off.  Franco just sounds like a kid playing with a cape and top hat in the basement.  He was so underwhelming in the role that he was actually upstaged by Zach Braff’s flying CGI monkey.  The (mostly CGI) landscape was pretty, but very fake looking, and the action sequences had a videogame aesthetic in that they were too fantastic to really be believed.  Scenes in which the main characters are running from pursuers while the ground literally crumbles under their feet seem to be de rigeur in action-adventure fare these days, at least if this film and The Hobbit are anything to go by.  As typical of the genre, attempts at humor were common, but very few of the laugh lines got much more than a tepid response, and I think that my fellow viewers were being generous much of the time.  Light chuckles (mostly at the monkey) were much more common than hearty guffaws.

The most alarmingly awful thing about the film, however, was its backwards and eye-roll-worthy treatment of its female characters.  Oz has three important female characters, a trio of witch sisters, all the daughters of the powerful wizard who had ruled the Land of Oz from the Emerald City.  To summarize the backstory, the wicked witch Evanora poisoned the wise and good wizard father, and then framed her good sister Glinda, who was cast out.  Oz does not, apparently, allow for female rule, because Evanora then takes charge of the city as a “caretaker,” while the kingdom waits for the “great wizard” that the witch sisters’ father had prophesized to come and “save the kingdom.” This “great wizard” turns out to be Oz, from Kansas, to whom we are first introduced while he is seducing a female assistant, who is absolutely mesmerized by him.  It turns out that this is a habit of his, and he winds up being chased out of the circus he performs with by the angry partner of another of his conquests.  He gets in a hot-air balloon to escape, and then is born by a tornado to Oz, where the first person he meets is Theodora, the third witch sister, who promptly falls in love with him.

Despite Oz’s fairly evident lack of power and complete caddishness, Theodora and Glinda immediately believe in him.  In fact, every female character who he meets (the witches, the small porcelain girl-doll, the girls back in Kansas) believe whatever he says; the only woman who is immediately skeptical of him is Evanora, who is, of course, completely wicked and desires to rule Oz herself.  In many ways, she fits along the lines of the femme fatale as described by Straayer (although Oz never expresses a particular interest in her); these characters “not only carry the mark of sexuality but also stand charged with deceit and potential violence” (152).  Evanora lies and commits murder to achieve power and, much like the femme fatale is eventually punished for her ambition.  Not only is she defeated and banished, but she is also magically transformed into a hideous old hag.  Similarly, when Theodora realizes she has been lied to by Oz and loses faith in him, she goes mad with anguish and is corrupted by her sister into an evil witch with green skin and a hooked nose; she becomes, in fact, the Wicked Witch of the West, and she too winds up banished.  Glinda, who is always faithful to her dead father and this new fellow who she know almost immediately to be magically inept and a liar, triumphs at his side and gets to make out with him at the end of the film.  It’s a classic dichotomy of ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’ (or, as Hayward points out, “virgin and whore”) in which cultural views of what women are “misrepresented” on screen, and it’s maddening to watch (135-136).  To add to the aggravation, both ‘wicked’ witches are brunettes, while Glinda is impossibly blond.

Early on in the film, Franco’s Oz explains to an ex-lover that he can’t marry her because he won’t settle down and be a good man because “I want to be a great man.”  This, ultimately, is what is at the heart of this film’s weird conception of gender relations; talentless men get to be “great,” while much more powerful women (as in, all the witches) are expected to help them along and get meager rewards or else be cast out of society and rendered ugly and unlovable.  Genuine outrage at being conned and tossed aside is considered unreasonable.  It’s even more irritating because the books and classic Wizard of Oz movie both have really great, strong female characters.  Perhaps the film’s greatest failing, however, is not managing to retain Robert Downey Jr. as its lead; as the Iron Man movies have shown, that man is capable of making even sexism sexy.  Such as it was, Franco was a pathetic consolation prize for the ladies, and the audience and I left the theater visibly underwhelmed.

Works Cited

Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Women in Film Noir. London: BFI Pub., 1998. Print.

“Rave Cinemas – Get Showtimes, View Trailers, Buy Tickets and Coupons.” Rave Cinemas. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2013.

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One thought on “Movies in the Real World

  1. tigomez@sas.upenn.edu

    Hi Sam,

    I too went to see “Oz the Great and Powerful” and was equally as unimpressed by Franco’s (and pretty much everyone else’s) performance as much as you were. Albeit, I watched the movie with a different crowd–this was actually the main event my sister chose for her done for 11th birthday party. While many of my concerns with the film were superficial, basically what you explained in the beginning of your blog post concerning the graphics and casting choices for the film, the arguments you made for the ideologies portrayed to the film are excellent and prove to be problematic as well. I had not considered the role of Evanora as a femme fatale but I think your incorporation of Strayaar really sheds light on the “punishment” that the femme fatale always seems to have to endure. Either by being literally cast out like Evanora or by having their lack of regards for gender norms be a very apparent problem. The inherent gender norms, which are no less stereotypical in films marketed to children, is also something that really irked me when watching this film, particularly because the audience that I was with will grow up with these gender norms in mind. For example, the fact that the ultimate “prize” is to become Oz’s queen and that the women who Oz betrays and does not fall in love with turn “ugly” bothered me a lot and I think you perfectly parallel this with the idea of “good girls” vs. “bad girls” and “virgins” vs. “whores.” Overall, I agree with you entirely in this post and I’m glad to see I’m not the only one not swooning over James Franco’s face because of his participation in a film with such a strong message about gender norms and binaries.

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