We continue comparing The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Wiz (1978), which are film adaptations of L. Frank Baum's story of a little girl who gets lost in the fantasy land of Oz . Click here for Part 1.
WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST vs EVILLENE
There must be a main villain to stir up the pot. In Oz it’s a lady with skin problems and a shoe fetish.
What can you say about Margaret Hamilton's well-known, green-faced bad gal that hasn't already been said in tons of books and classic movie retrospectives?
Because she wants the power that comes with Dorothy's ruby slippers, The Wicked Witch of the West stops at nothing to get it - she threatens small dogs and little girls with death; she has weird little monkey henchmen pick apart Scarecrow; she abducts children. This is a lady with serious issues (and a fitting, dark castle as headquarters), which makes her the perfect, obsessed, fantasy villain.
[The wicked one's counterpart in Kansas, Almira Gulch, is just as frightening because the grump seems like a real person who would take your pet dog to the pound with no remorse.]
In The Wiz, the antagonist (Mabel King) is the proprietor of "Evillene's Sweat Shop: Manufacturers of Sweat" who wants Dorothy's silver slippers and ultimately captures her to get them. Evillene has one of those great villain names, unchecked vanity and a presence right up there with Cruella De Vil and Ursula. She's loud and determined and tells her pitiable workers not to bring her bad news.
It’s a shame that this unhinged villain doesn’t get proper screen time to explore the madness. She shows up near the end of the film and, after a song, is quickly dispatched. We do not spend enough time with her motivations (and the other characters don't talk about her enough) for Evillene to become a truly great villain. Because of this, she’s positioned as merely one more obstacle for Dorothy, instead of her worst enemy.
GLINDA THE GOOD?
Glinda is Dorothy‘s unsolicited mentor in Oz and is (supposedly) one of the “good guys.” However, I have never been able to trust her completely.
Glinda the Good (Billie Burke) in Wizard could have told Dorothy at the beginning to click her heels three times to get home, instead of sending a little girl on a hazardous adventure to the city before she says anything. Dorothy is right to be skeptical of this overgrown pixie's claims of goodwill; the little girl is Glinda's unwitting pawn in the "chess match" she's having with the green one.
Never trust a smiling lady in a pink bubble, kids; she never passes the smell test.
Glinda (Lena Horne) in Wiz is less shrill and less saccharine than Ms. Burke’s Glinda and seems like any normal, nice lady who happens to be suspended in outer space in a glittering blue gown with matching shower cap while turning a blizzard into a tornado. But if you get lost in her long, aggressively sung ode to self-confidence, you’ll miss instructions on how to return home.
At least with Evillene and Triple W you know what you’re dealing with. If I were Dorothy, I wouldn’t trust either of the Glindas.
THE WIZARD IN PUBLIC
During their first encounter with the Wizard, Dorothy and friends are afraid of this powerful being who they hope will grant their wishes.
In Wiz, the public face of the Wizard (Richard Pryor) is a wall-sized, metal cast of a man's head, with a mechanized mouth that spits out fire when it is angry. I'd only be afraid of my eyebrows singeing; this wizard looks silly. He's not even as frightening as, say, the trash cans with fangs in the subway station.
In Wizard, anyone who has an audience with the great Oz (Frank Morgan), is greeted with the sight of a green, floating, disembodied head with a big, booming voice. This thing has a frightening, other-worldly quality. Hands down, it is the better of the two public faces for the Wizard.
THE WIZARD IN PRIVATE
Since the Wizard of Oz in both films turns out to be a mere shell of a con man whose confidence fades when he's without mechanical props, let's see how each movie showcases the wizard's private side.
In Wizard, behind the curtain is an addle-pated, frustrated guy who, with a well-tailored outfit, seems quite dignified. Perhaps it's just my twisted sensibilities, but this little bit of self-possession makes him seem less of an empathetic character and more like the jerk that he is. [What is it with the adults in this film sending a child off on dangerous missions?]
Pryor's Wizard is discovered to be an ordinary guy wearing a shabby bathrobe. I laughed throughout much of Pryor's 5 minute cameo. The movie contrasts the resplendent, fire-breathing persona on one side of the wall with the wizard’s dusty cot and thin mattress on the other side. There's an air of desperation and impotence in Pryor's discovered wizard, which makes him both a comical and sympathetic character - the better version of the Wizard’s intimate side.
TO SUM IT UP
While The Wiz might not be one of the great movie musicals, it is still entertaining. The film certainly grabs the self-confidence theme of the story and runs with it full blast. The acting and storyline are mostly dismal, still there are credible and fun supporting characters. Watch the film for its engaging music catalog and its imaginative urban interpretations of the land of Oz [e.g. The poppy fields in Wizard become a perfumery in Wiz; violent apple trees in Wizard become walking subway station pillars in Wiz. ]. When this films strikes just right, it's a home run.
Wizard is, by far, the stronger, more well-balanced film. Its minor flaws are outweighed by great acting, a cohesive storyline, brilliant color and songs that progress the action. The film manages to be light enough fare for multiple viewings, yet its themes are deep enough not to be dismissed. The Wizard of Oz remains the champ.