Recently, I was listing to the arts and pop culture radio show, Studio 360 with Kurt Anderson and he asked listeners to send him our guilty pleasures in music, books, films etc. It got me thinking about one of my guilty pleasures. There is a movie I would never admit I love to my New Yorker reading, film festival going, and non-TV watching friends. That film is ‘Practical Magic’, staring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as two beautiful but cursed witches in a family of cursed witches.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote: “‘Practical Magic’ is too scary for children and too childish for adults. Who was it made for?” I have an answer for him. It was made for women like me, women who experienced a great loss and just want to be happy again. On March 27, 2001, my husband, Jon Lindsay, passed away from cancer. Even though I had friends, family, and a support group, there were still the nights, so many nights, after Jon’s death when I was deeply lonely, the grief numbing. I watched a lot TV the months that followed, and one night the film ‘Practical Magic’ was on. The curse, the central theme of the film, is that any “Any man who falls in love with an Owens woman (the witches) is doomed to die an untimely death.”
It took me a long time to meet and fall in love with Jon. I went through a series of broken hearts and sleazy men. I was 31 when I met him. I was 39 when he died. It felt like a curse. In fact, cancer is a curse, a horrible, painful curse. There is a scene when Sally Owens, played by Sandra Bullock, begs the aunts to bring her husband back from the dead, which they refuse, saying that he would be something dark and unnatural; it would not be the husband she loved. But Sally, crying, begs her aunts saying, “I don’t care what he comes back as. As long as he comes back. Please do this for me. Please? Please? Please? Please?” Her desperation, her grief is so visceral. I remember saying those exact words, “I want him back.” And I still get teary when I even think of that scene. Because the grief, so deep, so unrelenting, so hopeless, was exactly what I was felt in those days, months, years after Jon’s death. I wanted him back. I just wanted him back.
Earlier in the film, there is a scene when Sally hears the ticking of the deathwatch beetle, the harbinger of the imminent death of the Owens lover. Ridiculous, right? Sally tears up the floorboards trying to get at the beetle, to kill it, to save her husband. She tears up her entire floor to no avail as her husband gets run over by a truck. Cancer trials, various chemo cocktails, a strange experimental herbal infusion Jon’s son and I managed to get from China, the deathwatch beetle kept ticking. There was nothing I could do as I witnessed the disease taking over Jon’s body, and eventually, his brilliant mind, eating it from the inside. There’s another scene in the film that stabs at my heart. It is when Sally’s sister Gillian, played by Nicole Kidman, comes home to comfort her sister and wakes Sally up from her long grief-driven sleep. Sally looks at her sister and says, simply, “I was really, really happy,” and then breaks down into tears. I cannot recall the number of times I said the same thing over and over: I was really, really happy. Death, cancer, rips the happiness out from under you.
You are alone a lot when you grieve. I cannot even begin to describe the aloneness you feel when the person you love is no longer there, even if you have family, friends, dogs, a grief support group, like I had. Films like ‘Practical Magic’ provide a temporary balm for that loneliness. Even though you are only relating to a fictional character, there is someone you can relate to, and there is someone behind that character – the storyteller, the actor – a human being hidden from view that has, too, experienced loss. Everyone, after all, experiences grief at one time during their lifetime. And grief, as terrible as it feels, when it rips a hole inside your heart, as Sally Owens describes in a letter to Gillian, is a reminder that you have loved and you can love. And to love, with all its inherent risks, is a truly wonderful gift.
‘Practical Magic’ is a Hollywood film, and so, it has a Hollywood ending, for Sally finds love again and the curse is broken. And film snobs, like myself, pooh-pooh the Hollywood ending, because, happy endings? Come on? But in this case, at least for me, I, like Sally, did find love again. And it feels damned good that I, in my ordinary life have found my Hollywood ending. So yeah, it’s a guilty a pleasure, and I think it might be time to fess up.