Insert your own pee or cheese joke.
Kindergarten teacher Dorothy (Diana Ross) is home – also her Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt) and Uncle Henry (Stanley Greene) are home – in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood for a Thanksgiving dinner with her extended family. Aunt Em is worried that Dorothy is trapped in her own little world and has never been south of 125th Street. This is soon remedied when Toto escapes and leads Dorothy into a most unseasonable twister in the streets that, of course, takes her to Oz….
I consider this a “translation” of the classic story by Frank Baum. Now, I’m not saying that the film translates English into Black Standard English (or Ebonics if you want to sound like a dick), because the dialog is pretty white bread, but it does take the elements of the story and make them specific to time, place, and people. It’s a lot like how West Side Story took the Shakespeare play of Romeo and Juliet – itself an adaptation of translations / adaptations – and used music and a contemporary setting and issues to make the story relevant. Examples follow.
The Wicked Witch of the East / head of the parks department was one “Evermean” who was crushed by Dorothy when she arrived in Oz. The reason it matters that she worked for the city is that she used her power to punish the munchkins for their graffiti on city property by turning them into graffiti. Wait, how is that evil? Major cities spend millions of dollars cleaning up graffiti each year, lots of it idiotic “tagging” or worse racist, sexist or other hateful messages. Sure, there’s some really lovely art out there, but there’s a lot more crap. When Miss One (Thelma Carpenter) – bag lady / number runner / good witch – shows up, she raises even more questions. Running numbers, for those of you who don’t know, is an illegal lottery that works by having poor folks choose three numbers and then an unbiased source (like stock prices or racetrack figures) are used to pick one of those numbers for a payout of 600:1, which seems good until you realize that the average expected profit for the numbers people is 40% of the take, unless no one chose the winning number, then it’s closer to 100%. So that means that the good witch supports crime? This is an inauspicious start.
So, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) while she seeks out the yellow brick road. Much like in the original story, the scarecrow says that he has no brain, the fact is that he is more crushed by self-doubt than truly mindless as he makes good suggestions and otherwise shows he’s smart throughout the film. The difference is that Scarecrow here is found with the Four Crows (Derrick Bell, Roderick-Spencer Sibert, Kashka Banjoko, and Ronald ‘Smokey’ Stevens) who are ignorant, loud and abusive. These crows seem like nothing more than terrible stereotypes, black actors essentially acting in blackface, but that’s not what’s going on here. What is happening here is that Scarecrow is kept down by his ‘brothers’ in the form of the crows, which does happen. This is an unfortunate thing in some cultures where the nail that sticks up gets pounded down by others who resent that the person is trying to be successful, which, in some black circles, is seen as “acting white” and thus, selling out. So, this time there is a good reason for the scene to be translated and it speaks to the intended audience, right?
Dorothy and Scarecrow then encounter the Tinman (Nipsey Russell), who, as in the original, has no heart. In this one he’s found in an abandoned amusement park, a run-down place of broken dreams, trapped under his extremely large ‘mammy’ statue-wife. The difference here from the original is that heart doesn’t just mean emotion, but it also refers to soul. Of course, when we say soul here, we’re not talking about some essential, eternal spirit of religious value or something, but more like soul in the sense of soul music which was a synonym for the human condition seen through black culture. Tinman’s problem is more than simply that of someone lacking the ability to love, although that’s included as well, but is something that has deprived him of an identity. This lack of a heart and soul would make him more than a failure as a human, but makes him specifically a failure of a black man like Don “No Soul” Simmons from ‘Amazon Women on the Moon’ (1987).
Dorothy, Scarecrow and Tinman then find the cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) who is the embodiment of the employment of bluster to cover fear and insecurity. The moment he’s pushed, he falls apart. Aside from having a distressingly stereotypical name – Fleetwood Coupe de Ville – he’s not that different from the character in the original. Unlike the Scarecrow and Tinman, there’s no attempt to make him specifically relevant to the black experience, he’s just the same character again. There’s little more to say about him.
The poison poppy fields have been replaced with a perfumery – possibly a whorehouse – and the Emerald City resembles a nightclub (though it was actually filmed in the World Trade Center Plaza) ruled by a fashion of the moment kingpin, The Wiz (Richard Pryor). The Wiz is represented by a large steel head, which reminds me a lot of Zardoz from ‘Zardoz’ (1974), which is somewhat amusing. Keeping the updating going, I suppose, like the sequence that takes place in the subway tunnels with the group menaced by the nefarious Subway Peddler (Clyde J. Barrett) and his puppets of doom as well as killer trashcans and crushing pillars, these modern – for 1970s – elements are intended to give the film an urban flavor and make it specifically a place like New York. The flying monkeys, led by Cheetah (Harry Madsen), are a biker gang of gorillas – something doesn’t seem right about that – which is just one more way to make the film seem contemporary and urban.
The final confrontation with Evillene (Mabel King) at her sweatshop is over almost before it starts when Dorothy sets off the fire suppression sprinklers – she should be very grateful that the sweatshops in Oz are up to code – when Evillene threatens to have Toto thrown into a furnace. Evillene melts into her throne, followed by the lid slamming down like a gigantic toilet. This is followed by a long song and dance sequence after all the employees – more like slaves – pull off their horrible uniforms that look suspiciously like costumes left over from a racist version of ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939) where each costume includes a comical fake black face that looks like a more offensive version of a golliwog. However, this scene isn’t racist as the now freed slaves peel off their ugly clothes and fake faces – showing that they are very attractive underneath – and sing and dance in their underwear. This was the era of the “black is beautiful” movement and this scene nicely illustrates how image holds the people back. Even more transgressive, the villain of the piece is a vicious black woman who is exploiting her brothers and sisters to enrich herself, which did and does occur, but is more problematic than it might be, which I’ll attend to later.
When they return to the now-deserted Emerald City, they find that The Wiz is really a failed politician Herman Smith (Richard Pryor). He admits that he sent them off to their deaths, but his thunder is stolen when Dorothy tells her friends that they had their brains, heart and courage all along; he’s left with nothing. Then Glinda the Good (Lena Horne) shows up and sings a song and tells Dorothy how to get home and the film finally ends. There’s nothing special about any of this stuff as, aside from the music and the switch from The Wizard doling out his ‘gifts’ to Dorothy realizing it herself, this could have been any version of the story. Pretty lackluster for a conclusion to a hero’s – well, heroine’s – journey story.
The thing is, there’s a serious problem with any version of The Wizard of Oz, in that the supposed good witches left Dorothy and her friends in mortal danger so that they could handle a problem. Since Dorothy had the power to get home at any point because of her magical footwear, it was at the whim of the good witches that she wasn’t informed of this. It really does sound less good when you present it as “a group of four people are sent off to murder an old woman and are rewarded with things they already have” than the heroic tale of adventure and coming-of-age that it originally was, but part of the problem is that the coming-of-age element here has been completely removed because Dorothy is already an adult – albeit still very timid and unwilling to actually act like one.
This adaptation of an award-winning Broadway musical with a star-studded cast must have looked like a sure-thing, but it turned out to be a lot less certain than it might have seemed. There is no singular reason for the film’s failure – it was a flop on initial release – but I’m of the opinion that a good bit of the blame should be placed at the feet of Diana Ross. She really wanted the role despite being far too old for it – she was thirty-four at the time the film was made, compared to Judy Garland‘s sixteen – and her character had to be aged from a teen to a twenty-four year old so that she could fit. This really has a negative effect on the story as it’s a bit silly that she goes along with some of the stuff she does, as a grown woman she really should know better than to trust just anyone and certainly shouldn’t be scared so easily nor fall to tears as much as she does. It makes her seem distinctly dim and really hurts the film. It’s especially bad when one recalls that she’s supposed to be a kindergarten teacher, someone who, by their very nature, has to be calm and collected and not panic at everything.
Further, Ross is simply not that good an actor. She spends much of the movie crying, screaming or whining in a fashion that reminds me of a spoiled little girl at a toy store. Her performance is grating, and would be insulting to children if she were trying to portray one. Her singing voice is equally weak in this – the songs were written for a different kind of singer – and her dancing isn’t especially impressive – but that’s because the others are professional dancers and she’s stuck in heels, so she gets a pass here – making her participation less useful that it should have been to creating a memorable film. Most shallow of all, she doesn’t look good in this, like she’s suffering from food poisoning or something, and seems to have no energy at all, which is atypical for a well-known stage performer. Hollywood seems to have agreed with me on this one as her film career died with this film.
It was Ross who brought Michael Jackson into the production. While critics of the time were pretty hard on this film – and for good reason – many of them recognized that Michael Jackson was a real talent. The critical acknowledgment of his skills possibly gave his career a boost, but his meeting with Quincy Jones – the craftsman who expertly orchestrated Charlie Smalls‘ songs for this film version – was even more significant as Jackson and Jones became friends. Their friendship led to Jackson getting Jones to produce his next solo album, Off the Wall, which got his career moving well. Thriller, another collaboration by Jackson and Jones, became the huge hit that Jackson had sought and turned him into a superstar.
Ross, though her involvement with est (Erhard Seminars Training program / cult), may well have gotten fellow est member Joel Schumacher involved in the production. Schumacher had previously written very little, he was actually a costumer at first – having come from the fashion industry – but here he was, writing a script for a twenty-four million dollar film. Oddly, this is the very white Schumacher writing a story that was supposed to reflect the African-American experience in the USA, which wasn’t that unusual for a blaxploitation film, but shouldn’t have been done with a serious film. After all, the composer of the original score, Charlie Smalls, was a black guy and the writer, William F. Brown, was a … oh … he was a white guy too? Does that make this film another example of the blaxploitation genre then? It certainly was inoffensive enough to white audiences – wouldn’t it have made more sense for the wicked witches to be white? – that the play was a massive success. This would certainly explain why some of the messages in the film seem to be painfully mixed and some of the choices made seem more racist than one would expect.
While the 1939 film was about escaping the depression, this was about blacks finding a voice; a white voice.
The rest of the cast does the best they can with the material. Mabel King and Ted Ross were members of the main cast in the Broadway show, and brought their understanding of their characters and their talent to the big screen. Nipsey Russell was a comedian and poet who had an amazing memory – when he auditioned for the role he already knew the lines – and he really found a way to move in a mechanical fashion. His performance is a little hammy, but, since he’s playing a carnival barker, it makes sense and isn’t a problem; in the scenes that call for it, the ham vanishes, leaving a genuine performance that seems even better in comparison. Harry Madsen manages to act under heavy makeup, Richard Pryor is wasted, and Lena Horne appears because she was director Sidney Lumet‘s mother-in-law at the time.
Hiring Sidney Lumet, a director known for intense dramas, for a musical fantasy seems questionable, but apparently he was hired because of his reputation of keeping a film on-time and on-budget. Unfortunately, he also brought his style with him, which doesn’t fit a big musical. He got the film version shifted from the original version – Kansas and Oz very similar to the version in the original novel – to his New York City. This led to the huge production numbers like the Emerald City scene shot in the World Trade Center Plaza that included three-hundred dancers, each with four costumes, massive lighting and sound issues – many speakers had to be built into the huge set because the dancers in the back would have appeared out of step because of how long it would have taken sound to travel to them – to create a set piece that turns out to drag on for ten minutes and was supposed to be longer. In fact, the whole film is a half hour longer than the classic MGM version. The director and his cinematographer Oswald Morris – of ‘Lolita’ (1962) and ‘The Guns of Navarone’ (1961) fame – succeeded in creating a fantasy that looks flat and uses a very stationary camera, almost like they were simply filming a live show.
It’s a real shame that the film is so badly shot, because it really could have looked great. The work done by the production designer Tony Walton, art director Philip Rosenberg and costume designer Tony Walton is all excellent for the time. The sets all have this wonderful faux New York City look that’s just slightly off-kilter and would have fit in if David Lynch had been hired, for some strange reason, to make a Martin Scorsese film. The costumes are also very good, for example, the Scarecrow looks like a scarecrow and includes gloves that have fingers that are about an inch too long, leaving them flopping around and completing the look. The Tinman’s look, as if he’s made of junk, is also very good, right down to a tin hat that he keeps adjusting. The Lion looks like he’s wearing a coat, which really adds to the artificiality of the lion as one who’s just skin deep. Dorothy gets … a boring and rather ugly dress. Well, it can’t all be perfect, but the matte paintings look pretty good and blend well.
So, we have problems due to Diana Ross, other problems because of Joel Schumacher and still more problems that can be blamed on Sidney Lumet and his cinematographer, but the real villain of the piece is producer Rob Cohen. Cohen is the one who cast Ross even though Berry Gordy, head of Motown Records and Ross‘ former lover, thought it was a bad idea. Cohen is the one who fired director John Badham – fresh off the success of Saturday Night Fever – because Badham objected to Ross‘ casting. Cohen is the one who agreed to the hiring of Joel Schumacher, which, again, might have been Ross‘ idea. Hollywood chose to blame Diana Ross for all these problems, but, ultimately, it should have been on Rob Cohen, but the studio conveniently ignored this and took the loss.
A big loss it was too, an estimated ten million dollars was lost on the film – even including television pre-sales – and it spelled the end of big-budget musicals and chilled any interest Hollywood had in making another film with an all-black cast. The critics savaged it too, especially those who had seen the Broadway musical and resented the terrible liberties that had been taken with the story. However, there are still people who like this film.
When I was a kid in the early 1980s, I saw this film on television or video (I think we might have taped it from television) several times. My sister was a fan, my mother loved the music, my father found it annoying and would leave the room if it was on. I liked it well enough, and would have called it a Rating: back then. Most of the people who like this film either saw it as a kid and are blinded by nostalgia and/or are fans of the music, but, unlike many of the films I liked as a kid that have held up (’2001: A Space Odyssey’, ‘Blade Runner‘, and ‘The Muppet Movie’ as examples) this one has not. Still, the costumes and sets are gorgeous, most of the cast is really good, and some of the music is memorable, so it’s not a total loss.
Trailer on YouTube.