Oz the Great and Powerful (2012)

My Beautiful Wizardness: Masculinity and Oz the Great and Powerful

Despite crucial gains in the second half of the 20th century, American patriarchal culture resisted the full gender transformation for which feminists toiled for 150 years. Consciousness raising groups helped women resist the acceptance of passive roles, but men’s bad behavior continued unchecked. To stop patriarchal oppression, it is necessary to transform men’s attitudes about women and the world around them. To do so, men need to be trained to perform new roles which foreground nurturance, and marginalize dominance.

One of the many achievements of L. Frank Baum’s children’s book, The Wizard of Oz (1900), and the timeless MGM film musical that emerged from it, is its gender transformation of the archetypal journey narrative. The foundational text in this tradition—Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey—and the hundreds of generations of stories that followed in its wake, especially the bildungsroman, focus on a male traveler who wanders away from a feminized civilization. The Wizard of Oz embodies a 20th century vision of two active genders, requiring the female Dorothy Gale, not the Greek male hero Odysseus, to journey to adulthood in order to arrive back home.

Sam Raimi’s new engagement with Baum’s universe, Oz the Great and Powerful, is a terrific film that focuses on the backstory of how the humbug came to become the wizard. In so doing, the new film sculpts The Wizard of Oz paradigm back toward an investigation of masculinity. A womanizing, selfish circus magician at the film’s opening, Oz (a nickname for Oscar in David Lindsay-Abaire’s clever script) must learn through his journeys in the Land of Oz how to love someone other than himself.

Indeed, as a man named after a land, rather than the observe naming by conquest which usually pertains, Oz must learn to explore that which lies outside of himself. The concept seemed doomed from the start. How dare contemporary Hollywood make a film about Oz without Dorothy! Furthermore, the filmmakers do not have the rights to remake The Wizard of Oz film (the novels are in the public domain), so they have to adapt material without a) violating copyright, and b) upsetting the rabid fans of the much beloved 1939 film. Wonderfully, the filmmakers navigate around these roadblocks, and house Mr. Oz’s journey to productive masculinity within a sparklingly cinematic experience.

Oz the Great and Powerful begins with an elaborate circus sequence in which Oz performs cheap magic tricks for his rural mid-American audience. Using 19th century proto-cinematic toys (zoopraxiscopes, phenakistoscopes, and the like) and theatrical stagecraft, Oz delivers a competent show. However, in real life, Oz merely uses his skills to seduce women, presenting each of his lovers with a musical box, purportedly a treasured family heirloom, but really just another theatrical prop. When the family of a girl in a wheelchair asks Oz to use his magic to heal her, he cannot and must flee the stage.

Like Dorothy after him, Oz is swept up in a tornado, landing safely in the Land of Oz. There, he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), another naïve girl, yet this one from over the rainbow. Her evil sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) easily manipulates her love for Oz, using the boy’s failings to crush her potential for goodness. The rest, is, as we say, history. We witness the inception of the evil, green witch and her ruby-slippered sister, awaiting the tumbling of Dorothy’s house years later. And yet, the film’s focus on a man named Oz leads elsewhere.

Whereas The Wizard of Oz ends with Dorothy waking up from the dream that was the Land of Oz, with her uncle’s farm hands having served as the psychic sources of her journey’s assistants (the holy trinity of Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion), Oz the boy’s transformation into a mature, responsible man is not fantasy. The cinema itself serves as the dream screen on which Oz functions. What The Wizard of Oz posits as mere charlatan performance—“Pay not attention to that man behind the curtain”—Franco’s Oz learns that his theatrical tricks are the only magic he needs in order to serve others. At the film’s end, he uses his bag of cinematic tricks to level the playing field for Glinda the Good Witch to fight back. The witches’ dueling magic serves as the climax of the film, rendering the attainment of Oz’s masculinity as a sideshow, but nevertheless a crucial component to the film’s ending. Just as Dorothy cannot defeat the Wicked Witch without the three male helpmates, the younger Glinda cannot persevere without Oz.

The film is thus able to preserve its continuity with The Wizard of Oz, filling in the requisite back story centering on the feminine, yet also developing something new, a rehabilitated masculinity for the 21st century. Such transformation of the basic material, of course, was Baum’s true magic trick, returning enraptured fans to his wonderful land via a dozen subsequent books written across the first two decades of the 20th century. Raimi’s film updates this trick, using just enough of the 1939 film to sculpt something new from it.

In 1939, as Dorothy’s house hovers within the tornado, a dream screen presents slippages between the characters she knows from Kansas—the evil Miss Gulch—and their fantasy counterparts, the Wicked Witch of the West, both played, of course, by the divine Margaret Hamilton. Oz the Great and Powerful also presents such character doubling—Oz’s true but lost love Annie (Michele Williams) who becomes Glinda the Good Witch, and most importantly, the girl in the wheelchair becomes the broken China Girl who only in Oz, and by him, can be glued back together.

Such repair work comes to full fruition in the last section of the film wherein Oz uses his cinematic guile to trick the evil witches. Thinking they’ve won when they see the phony wizard escaping with stolen gold, the witches focus their magic on the hot air balloon that is purportedly taking Oz back to America, burning it to a crisp. However, Oz capitalizes on this distraction by wheeling into battle a Trojan Horse, inside of which is a projector controlling the display of his massive face upon the sky over the Emerald City. Whereas the 1939 Wicked Witch of the West will use her “beautiful wickedness” and her broomstick to skywrite threats to Dorothy, Franco’s Oz uses the atmosphere to inflate his persona. The airy masculine trickery works, and the witches are grounded.

In the aftermath, the victors move the machine into the throne room, to trick future visitors to the wizard, and awaiting Dorothy’s visit in The Wizard of Oz. Yet important historical work has been accomplished in the meantime. The aged wizard whom Dorothy meets is a humbug, petrified of the wicked witch, and incapable of intervening in a world on the brink of war. But 2013 feels different than a 1939 poised on the threshold of ruin. Oz the Great and Powerful posits a world in which women witches are assisted productively by Oz, the performer of masculinity. Indeed, we might present James Franco’s masculinity—not his wickedness—as beautiful. Ah, what a world—a better one—indeed.

– Walter Metz