The Re-Appreciator #3: Magic


The Re-Appreciator is a feature in which I dust off the classics (and/or personal favorites). If you’ve seen the movie in question, perhaps I’ll provoke a new thought or two. If you haven’t seen it, perhaps I’ll compel you to check it out.

6 Reasons to Re-Appreciate Magic

1. Sweet Dreams, Kiddies

As someone who’s old enough to remember a world before the Web, I do miss one thing about the bygone era of network TV. Every once in a while, something odd or shocking would hit the airwaves, and before you could quite process what you were seeing, it was gone. Over. Never to be seen again. That is, unless you happened to have a VCR taping that channel at that particular time, but most households didn’t have VCRs until the mid-to-late ’80s.

If you missed that odd or shocking thing when it aired, then you were out of luck. There was no DVR or YouTube to replay newscasters’ gaffes, wardrobe malfunctions, ill-advised commercials, painfully awkward interviews. TV was more fleeting, and while I can’t prove it, I suspect that also lent TV more power over impressionable young minds than it has today. You retained more of what you saw because you might never see it again. When you came across something that shouldn’t have aired, you knew it, and you remembered that thing all the more if you found other people who’d seen it, too.

So humor me here and try to imagine that you’re a child in 1978. Let’s say you’re ten years old or younger. It’s past your bedtime, but you’re still watching TV. Maybe your parent or guardian has told you to go to bed, but you’re stalling, bargaining for just a few more minutes of viewing pleasure. Or maybe you’re sneaking a peek from the shadows while the babysitter thinks you’re asleep. In any event, this commercial plays:

And oh, did it ever play. When that TV spot aired it New York, it traumatized enough children and sparked enough parental outrage that 20th Century Fox decided to pull it. Even now, the clip’s YouTube comments largely consist of adults commiserating over how badly it scarred their childhood psyches.

Perhaps you had to be there. I doubt such a spot could terrorize today’s kids in a similar way. They’re too savvy about horror movies and media to be ambushed; they would be more likely to turn the video into a meme than lose sleep over it.

But if you were a certain age at a certain point in time, that thirty-second spot could have been more frightening than most full-length horror movies. You didn’t even need to see Magic to be haunted by it. And if you saw that spot, you were certainly going to mention it to other people. From a marketing standpoint, at least, that’s a pretty nifty trick.

2. Writerly Concerns

Fortunately, the movie is good enough to back up its ad. It tells the story of Corky (Anthony Hopkins), a high-strung magician who bombs badly in his debut performance. He jumpstarts his career by taking up ventriloquism and rebuilding his act around Fats, his raunchy and abrasive dummy. With the help of his worldly-wise agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith), Corky verges on landing a TV deal and becoming a national celebrity.

However, the network requires a medical exam, which Corky refuses to do, fearing it might expose his instability. Instead he flees to the Catskills and reunites with his high-school crush Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret). Peggy and her husband own and operate a string of cabins along a lake. Her husband is away for a few days.

As Corky and Peggy draw closer together, Fats grows jealous. Greene arrives at the cabins, unwilling to let Corky slip away. He finds Corky engaged in a hysterical argument with Fats and realizes that Corky is insane. Greene tells Corky that he needs psychiatric help and storms off. Fats argues that Corky must stop Greene from revealing Corky’s condition to anyone, even if it means killing Greene...

The mad ventriloquist was a well-worn horror trope by 1978. It went back at least as far as Ben Hechts 1928 short story The Rival Dummy, which was filmed as The Great Gabbo the following year. It continued through the 1945 anthology Dead of Night, two episodes of The Twilight Zone, and The Devil Doll (1964). Since Magic, it has recurred in Batman comics, Tales from the Crypt, and American Horror Story.

The work of William Goldman does much to set Magic apart from the pack. Goldman had been publishing novels since the ’50s before trying his hand at screenwriting in the ’60s. His scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men won Best Screenplay Oscars. (He also wrote the novel and screenplay for The Princess Bride, the much-beloved ’80s movie.) Goldman adapted Magic’s screenplay from his own 1976 novel, which is worth a look as well.

The novel has an interesting three-part structure. The first alternates between diary entries written by Fats (who calls himself Corky’s manager) and Corky’s frantic exit from New York City. The middle part jumps back to everything that led up to that point – Corky’s childhood and high-school days, his apprenticeship as a magician and early failure. The book doesn’t reveal that Fats is Corky’s dummy until the end of this section. The third section returns to the present and the Corky-Peggy drama in the Catskills.

Goldman rearranged the timeline to linear chronological order for the screenplay. He also cut most of the middle section, leaving only choice bits through brief flashbacks. Yet he smartly kept all the best material and dialogue from the rest of the book. Of course the screenplay doesn’t delve as deeply into Corky’s character as the book does, but Goldman’s script still works hard to develop the character far beyond the many other mad ventriloquists of movies and TV. From book to movie, Goldman tells one story in two very different ways with all the skill of a master craftsman.

3. Sir Tony

Anthony Hopkins had been a respected stage actor since the mid-’60s, when he joined London’s Royal National Theatre as Laurence Olivier’s understudy. He appeared in more than twenty theatrical films and almost twenty made-for-TV movies in the following decades, but he never quite found stardom stateside.

Then, when he’d all but given up on Hollywood, he was cast in The Silence of the Lambs.  Silence was an Oscar-sweeping smash, thanks in no small part to Hopkins’ unforgettable turn as the murderous psychiatrist Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. In 1991, at the age of fifty-three, Hopkins had finally become a household name. He has worked steadily in high-profile films ever since, picking up Oscar nominations along the way. He has been a Cool Old Guy We All Like for so long now, it’s easy to forget he was ever anything else.

Magic takes us back to a relatively young and much less famous Hopkins, who practiced ventriloquism prior to the shoot and voiced Fats himself. Here he convincingly plays both Corky the shy, intense perfectionist and Fats the lewd wisecracker. In some of the best scenes – Corky’s attempt to perform a mind-reading card trick with Peggy, Greene challenging Corky to silence Fats for five minutes – Corky is so tightly wound, it’s uncomfortable to watch. At the same time, Fats’ Looney Tunes voice and punchy delivery drip with malice. The tug-of-war between these personas makes for a gem of a performance; many of us horror freaks who caught it in the ’70s or ’80s weren’t altogether surprised by Hopkins’ brilliance in Silence.

4. No Shortage of Support

Magic may be a showcase for Hopkins, but the supporting cast is excellent, too. Ann-Margret aces the role of a good-natured, aging prom queen trapped in a failed marriage. She knows her best days are fading fast behind her, and she’s resigned to her fate until Corky arrives to offer an escape. The protagonist’s Dream Girl/Guy is a tricky part to pull off in any movie; if the Dream Girl/Guy isn’t likable or charismatic enough, we’re left to question what the protagonist sees in her/him. We probably won’t care if the romance works out, and we might wish the protagonist would just get over the Dream Girl/Guy and move on. Thanks to Ann-Margret, Magic never has those problems.

Burgess Meredith is simply great as the old cigar-chomping showbiz shark who’s seen ’em all come and go, kid. If anything in Magic can be described as “fun,” it’s his performance. He also provides much-needed balance as the one character who’s self-confident and content, who recognizes the severity of Corky’s sickness and tries to help.   

Richard Attenborough’s direction is stately and refined. He’s going for something more disturbing than shocking, keeping the gore to a minimum. That might disappoint horror fans looking for a slasher movie, but Attenborough succeeds on his terms. Magic is an anomaly in Attenborough’s filmography – Gandhi is his signature movie – but a solid contribution to the genre nonetheless.

Jerry Goldsmith’s unusual score deserves praise, too. Its main theme is beautiful but foreboding, punctuated by a distinctive harmonica refrain. Much like the film itself, Magic’s music creeps up on you. It may not be what we think of as horror-movie music, but it’s eerily effective all the same.

5. The Obvious

Look at it:


Just look at it:


In the home-video extra Fats & Friends, ventriloquial consultant Dennis Alwood shares two amusing anecdotes about that dummy:

a) Magic’s producers designed Fats to be a caricature of Hopkins. Apparently, Hopkins wasn’t so keen on seeing himself in grotesque-dummy form. He took Fats home in preparation for the shoot but ended up calling Alwood in the middle of the night, distraught over the dummy’s presence. Attenborough had to intervene to calm Hopkins. Let’s think about that for a moment: even the man who played Hannibal Lecter couldn’t sleep knowing that dummy was in his house.

b) Meredith and Hopkins were filming a scene together at the end of the shoot. Meredith offered to let Hopkins steal the scene, and Hopkins asked why. Meredith said that Fats had already stolen every other scene from Hopkins, so Hopkins might as well take what’s left.

Meredith wasn’t insulting Hopkins; he was just being honest. As good as Hopkins is in Magic, it’s hard to look away from that damned dummy when it’s onscreen. And as Hopkins himself knows, if you look at that dummy long enough, it has a way of getting into your head. I’ve seen Magic many times over the last thirty years, and I still do not like that dummy.

6. A Terrifying Love Story

I wouldn’t call that infamous TV spot misleading, but I can understand why viewers might expect Magic to be a supernatural killer-puppet romp like the Child’s Play movies. It’s not. While it does deliver all the psychological horror anyone could want, it’s ultimately a tragedy. It’s really about a mentally ill man doomed to self-destruction; neither his artistic talent nor the love of his life are enough to save him. It also touches upon the way fame crushes the fragile and insecure, and the sad consequences of romanticizing the past.

The ending is especially cruel, freeze-framing just before a happy character discovers a bloody catastrophe. It’s a ’70s downer in line with the climate of its time, its pessimism lingering long after the end credits. Magic may not appeal to everyone, and it’s far from being the only mad-ventriloquist movie out there. But it’s the only one that dares to break our hearts.

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