The witches of Oz
Rachel Weisz, star of Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, talks feminism, witches and Elizabeth Taylor
Rachel Weisz as Evanora in Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful
You need not be waist deep in Angela Carter (though such immersion probably helps) to know that fairy stories – both ancient and contemporary – have much to tell us about the impenetrable dynamics of gender relations. Take Sam Raimi’s rather nifty prequel to The Wizard of Oz . As is often the case with such beasts, Oz the Great and Powerful presents its female characters in strictly binary form. One witch is an evil monster. Another is a divinely maternal Madonna (the religious figure, not the Michiganian pop singer). A third starts good then turns bad.
Rachel Weisz, who plays the irredeemable fiend, should be the person to disentangle this for us. The versatile English actor did, after all, study English literature at Cambridge. Nobody takes our Rachel for any sort of patsy to the patriarchy. Nobody calls her Aunt Tom.
“Well, L Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz books – none of which I have read – and he was an early feminist,” she explains. “His mother-in-law was a famous suffragette. His books all have powerful women. They are not just powerful; they are women with power. But they are fairy stories. So, there is no moral ambiguity. My character certainly hasn’t any of that. She’s just bad, bad, bad and more bad.”
Weisz makes a fair point. Unlike, say, Carter’s revisionist stories – or the hit Oz musical Wicked – Oz the Great and Powerful is not seeking to inject any contemporary values into the stories. It breathes much the same air as the immortal 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz .
“Is it a feminist film?” she ponders. “Well, it’s got three terrific roles for women. I get to fly. I don’t know too much about the relationship between feminism and witches. But there were a lot of women who were killed for being ‘witches’. As I say, it’s a fairy story.”
Weisz was raised amid the middle-class surroundings of Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London. Her dad, Hungarian-born, was an engineer who made his fortune designing pneumatic medical equipment. Her mother, born in Vienna, worked as (what else with that national heritage?) a prominent psychotherapist. It sounds like a secure environment in which to grow up. She remembers dad as a proud British industrialist who would only buy goods from his adopted country.
“But he had the strongest Hungarian accent you’ve ever heard,” she chuckles. “That was very sweet. He walked the shop floor and knew the name of all the hundred or so workers.”
Who were her female models in culture? I would bet she was the sort of kid who preferred Emily Dickinson to the girls of the Chalet school.
“I liked Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet ,” she says. Mind you, I don’t know if she did anything that made her into a role model. She rode ponies very well. What else happened in that film?”
Oh, come on. She won the Grand National disguised as boy. Poor wee Mickey Rooney was left standing by the rails.
“Disguised as a boy? She won the Grand National? Did she? Thank you so much. I couldn’t remember why I loved it so much. The most important thing is that she was disguised as a boy because women couldn’t ride in the Grand National. That’s right.”