Tablet is counting down their list of 100 Greatest Jewish Films ever, and since nobody is countering with a list of 100 Greatest Lowbrow Films Starring Jews, I just had to say a few things along those lines.
Actually, I just have one thing to say: why aren’t we recognizing the sheer brilliance that is the Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker comedic partnership? The Divine Miss M. and the unofficially divine Miss S have only shot two films together, The First Wives Club and Hocus Pocus, but they are two of the finest (and most re-run) comedies of the 1990’s.
In 1993, Hocus Pocus told the story of a young boy saving the children of Salem from a trio of predatory witches. This is a fantasy film produced by Disney, so it is superficially meant to be about good conquering evil; however, a cursory viewing reveals the obvious: the villainous witches–The Sanderson Sisters–steal the show. Bette is Winifred ‘Winnie’ Sanderson, the eldest, ugliest and angriest of the trio. Kathy Najimy plays Mary, the sweetly dim middle sister. Sarah Jessica plays Sarah (creative!), the youngest and only beautiful sister. Like Mary, she is painfully stupid, but her crystalline voice lures children to their cottage, so Winifred humors her in a way she will not afford Mary.
Bette’s on-screen magnetism is no surprise, considering that by ’93, she had already won several Golden Globes and proved herself in Beaches, The Rose and For The Boys. She dons a set of awful buck teeth and crowds the screen screeching and yelping and wiggling her fingers in a very sinister way, showing off a formidable aptitude for slapstick physical comedy. My apologies to Kathy, who makes a decent effort to foil Bette’s electric wit, but Sarah Jessica is the only other actress able to keep pace with Winnie the witch. In ’93, Sarah was post-Square Pegs but pre-Sex and the City, just a nice Jewish girl from Ohio with a Brooklyn nose and a Broadway voice. Bette is Hocus Pocus‘ marquis attraction, but Sarah Jessica is the movie’s pleasant surprise. She imbues her silly character with a lightness and fluidity that I am convinced couldn’t have come from the script. Even more impressive is her performance during the film’s musical number (that I’m sure came from Bette’s contract) where the Sanderson sisters perform a rousing interpretation of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” Sarah keeps pace with Bette just fine, even escaping with a solo in the form of the film’s ridiculous “Come Little Children.” Bette’s film credits may squash Sarah’s, but Sarah successfully achieves a level of creepiness that neither Winnie nor Mary ever come close to matching.
Hocus Pocus is a children’s movie, but Bette and Sarah interpret rather light material in a very serious, artistic way. The payoff is how delightfully funny the whole affair is–how can you not laugh at Carrie Bradshaw and the Divine Miss M. zooming around on straw brooms? If The Sanderson Sisters are The Three Stooges, Winnie is Moe and Sarah is Curly.
Winnie: WHY? Why was I cursed with such idiot sisters?
Sarah: Just lucky, I guess.
Their on-screen chemistry is heightened by the fact that they even look a bit alike, with Sarah’s features a younger mirror of Bette’s even beneath the special effects makeup. I would have watched Hocus Pocus 2: Sarah and Winnie Take New York, but alas, the sequel never got the green light.
Someone must have agreed with me, because in 1996, Sarah was cast as Bette’s foil in The First Wives Club. The film also stars Hollywood royalty (and five different Oscar winners) like Goldie Hawn (Elise) and Diane Keaton (Annie), but Bette’s portrayal of Brenda Morelli-Cushman (Sicilian/Jewish) has always stood out as my favorite. Unlike her sisters at arms, Brenda’s revenge on ex-husband Morty (Dan Hedaya: another Jew) is carried out swiftly and systematically, and there is little doubt that she will come out on top. Brenda gets all the best one liners, and her strength, combined with her perfect comedic timing, keeps her from becoming a caricature of a spurned woman, unlike Elise, the alcoholic starlet, and the deeply obsessive and insecure Annie. Morty’s Achilles heel, and Brenda’s comedic foil, is a foxy young thing named Shelley. Shelley is, of course, played by a lithe Sarah Jessica Parker, having traded her witch’s robes for a dress seemingly spray painted onto her hips. Shelley is blessed with a great body, bad taste and poor judgement, and Brenda, knowing all of this, eventually wins Morty back without really trying.
Shelley and Brenda share very few scenes in the film, but are still perfectly at odds with each other. Brenda constantly disparages Shelley (“Princess Pelvis,” “Where’s Shelley…glove compartment?”) and Shelley criticizes Brenda (“Why don’t you try on one of these in your size?”) in front of Morty. Even though they don’t have a lot of screen time together, we get a lot of critical looks at Shelley by Brenda, which are delightful because Brenda is our Greek Chorus; she is articulating everything the viewer is already thinking about Shelley, who is, in turn, artfully acting out those things. The two are equal only in their dramatic overreactions to mostly everything, the skill that unites them in their craft (as Bette and Sarah) and in the film (as Brenda and Shelley).
So why aren’t we seeing more of Bette and Sarah? Is it because the screen can barely contain the volume of talent present when the two are together? Or perhaps contemporary comedies only want to cast one Divine Diva, if they cast any at all. The First Wives Club was a considerable commercial success, due in large part to Bette, and I would thank Sarah as well; so why haven’t other directors tapped the two to play mother and daughter? Boss and employee? If Ben Stiller and Robert Deniro can make it work, I see no reason why Bette and Sarah shouldn’t be following the same trajectory. Here’s hoping for another movie celebrating my favorite comedy duo, and I’m crossing my fingers that it will be a franchise. Until then, we have this: