Are You A Good Witch Or A Bad Witch?

8 Dec

Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”

Tomorrow marks the 111th birthday of Margaret Hamilton, better known to most of the world as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West in the classic 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.” You might be surprised to know that Miss Hamilton’s Witch had twelve minutes of screen time in the film and in those twelve minutes, she gave life to a character that continues to terrify children almost 75 years later. Her Wicked Witch of the West has become a part of popular culture around the world, introducing phrases like “I’ll get you my pretty…and your little dog, too!” and “I’m melting! Melting!” into the popular vernacular with people often attempting to imitate her distinct Witch’s voice and laugh. Her green skinned, hook nosed Witch, thanks to the work of costume designer Adrian and makeup designer Jack Dawn, has become the standard look for a witch. Her Witch is the highest-ranking female villain on AFI’s Top 100 Film Villains list, topped only by Hannibal Lector, Norman Bates and Darth Vader.

Like most Americans, I have a very strong connection to “The Wizard of Oz.” I remember watching it on television every year and specifically I remember watching it one year at my aunt and uncle’s house. It must have been around Halloween because I remember the adults being in the living room watching “Psycho” while my cousin Meredith and I watched “The Wizard of Oz” as we played “school” in the room next door. When the Wicked Witch made her first appearance in Munchkinland, Meredith started getting a little skittish. By the time she set the Scarecrow’s arm on fire along the Yellow Brick Road, Meredith was gone. She actually chose to go watch “Psycho” – “PSYCHO!” – because Norman Bates was less scary to her than the Wicked Witch of the West. (Didja hear that, AFI? You might want to reconsider your Top 5 Villains, thankyouverymuch).

In 8th grade I was cast as Uncle Henry in a school production of The Wizard of Oz. It was my first lesson in the heartbreak of Show Business – I so desperately wanted to play the Scarecrow or Tin Man, but no such luck. Once a character actor, always a character actor. Our choral teacher, Mrs. Nellis, was kind enough, though, to let me sing a song – “I’ve Been Workin’ On The Railroad.” You may have missed it in the film because, well…it wasn’t there. I sang it a cappella while I raked up…something. We never established what it was that I was raking…horse poop, perhaps? What do you want from me? I was 13 and it was my acting and singing debut. What did I know? I was just so excited to be a part of it.

The night before our opening I was at church hanging out with some friends after the service while our parents socialized. One of the things we liked to do was to run across the concrete parking curbs, trying to test our balance. Apparently mine wasn’t very good because I fell and cut my knee open on some iron rebar that was sticking up through one of the holes in the concrete curb. I laughed about it with my friends, trying to hide my embarrassment and horror at the fact that I had torn the knee of my jeans. I stopped laughing, though, when I started to feel something running down my leg. Blood. Lots of it. Someone ran to get my Dad and I started having a panic attack. I was scared because I was bleeding, but also because I was afraid I’d get in trouble for having to go to the emergency room for stitches. But most of all I was scared that I’d miss the show.

Dad took me to an immediate care center not far from the church building and I was sobbing the entire way there. I begged him to call my teacher to tell her what happened because I didn’t want to let anyone down and I wanted to see if there was any way possible that I could still do the show, all while someone was poking around inside my knee with needles. I couldn’t have cared less about that – there was the show to think about! My Dad was able to get in touch with Mrs. Nellis and they agreed that he’d keep her updated on what was happening. I ended up getting several stitches and going home, where my parents had to make sure I kept my leg elevated and the bandages clean.

The doctor said I should be fine to do the show as long as I didn’t bend my leg, so Mrs. Nellis and my Dad had the idea that I could use a cane. Uncle Henry was supposed to be an older guy, so that should give me depth of character…right? So, in true trooper fashion, I hobbled out onstage with my cane, picked up my rake and began my first solo in front of an audience. And I was good – all my family said so.

Because of my involvement with the play, I became slightly obsessed with all things Oz. I bought books about the making of the movie, I bought the screenplay, I had posters and puzzles and I watched the movie hundreds of times. I love all of the characters in that film, but the one that stood out to me was the Wicked Witch of the West. She didn’t scare me – she fascinated me and I couldn’t really tell you why. It was her look, her sound and her motivation that intrigued me and she quickly became my favorite of all the Ozian characters from the film. So much so that I decided I wanted to be her for Halloween.

We had a Big Lots near our house and I would go in there whenever I could. As a preteen, I only had the money I got from my allowance and what I made mowing lawns, so Big Lots was a wonderland for a kid with $5 to blow. By the end of August they had started putting out Halloween costumes and makeup and it was then that I decided I was going to be the Wicked Witch. I bought up every shade of green makeup I could find – foundation, lipstick, fingernail polish – a black wig, fake nails, a plastic nose and a pointy hat. I watched the movie over and over, making sure I made myself look as much like her as I could, though in reality I just ended up looking like a kid in a thrown together witch costume.

It never occurred to me that other people might think it was strange for me to want to dress up as the Wicked Witch of the West. I would never have considered dressing up as Dorothy, but for some reason the Witch was different. Yes, she was a female character, but in my mind she was just a character. I suppose I never really assigned a gender to the character, though Gregory Maguire eventually played up her femininity and sensuality in his retelling of the Witch’s story in “Wicked.” I was fascinated by her look – the angles of the face, the color of the skin, the detail in the costuming and how they used cut up bits of celluloid to make her fingernails. I also remember being fascinated and horrified by the story I had read that Miss Hamilton was very nearly burned to death during her exit through the trap door in Munchkinland when the fireball went off too soon and the makeup on her hands and face caught fire (see video below).

I can’t imagine what my parents must have thought when they saw me walk out in full Wicked Witch drag, but I don’t remember them ever saying anything to me about it. They may have despaired and wrung their hands in agony behind closed doors, but I don’t remember seeing or hearing it. I took my brother out trick or treating that night. We came to the houses of a couple of people I went to school with and I remember suddenly feeling uncomfortable being dressed as I was. I hoped that they wouldn’t recognize me under the nose and makeup, but I’m sure they did. When we would come to those houses, I would stay closer to the street so they couldn’t see me so closely.

Halloween that year happened to fall on a church night, so we went out trick or treating early and had to head home to get ready for church. I showered and tried to get all the fingernail adhesive and green makeup off, but when we got there, my friend Wade leaned over and said, “You’ve got some green makeup behind your ear.” It wasn’t a judgement – just a statement. I was finding green makeup around my face and hands for  days. Elphabas of the world, I felt your pain.

As I got older and looked back at that Halloween, I found myself judging my 13-year old self for choosing the Wicked Witch as a Halloween costume. I became embarrassed for something I hadn’t thought twice about originally and soon I began to let go of any interest I had for “The Wizard of Oz” to distance myself from the thing I had become ashamed of. For years, I rarely gave it another thought.

A couple of years ago, though, a friend posted a video on YouTube that really moved me and gave me permission to let go of that shame and embarrassment. It was a video of Margaret Hamilton meeting Mister Rogers on his show. In the segment, she dresses as the Wicked Witch and the two of them talk about the character, trying to make her seem less scary to children. Miss Hamilton explains that the costume is just that – a costume – and that the Witch was the way she was because she had never, ever gotten anything that she’d wanted in her entire life and that made her frustrated. It’s a beautiful piece of television. The part that really was wonderful to me, though, was the discussion they had at the beginning of the segment about wanting to dress up as a witch for Halloween. Miss Hamilton said it was the one thing she wanted to be most for Halloween and what a thrill it was for her to get to be one in the movie and then Mister Rogers said something that really floored me. He said, “Well, girls and boys like to play witches, don’t they?,” and she agreed with him. With that short statement, all the shame and embarrassment I felt about dressing up as the Wicked Witch of the West melted away, if you’ll forgive the pun.

So to the great Margaret Hamilton, who created a timeless character in just 12 minutes’ worth of celluloid, I say “Happy Birthday!”


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