Sunday, January 8, 2012

Musings on Maleficent & Green Skin'd Witches

Ever since the first rumor linking Angelina Jolie and the movie Maleficent there have been mock-ups of Ms. Jolie's face in "costume" for the leading role. Now that there's finally a director attached (as announced less than a couple of days ago), no doubt we'll see many more takes on Ms. Jolie as evil-fairy since she remains confirmed for the title role. The fan effort at the head of the post is my favorite version from the pickings at the moment.

I'm actually really looking forward to this movie. Reading Fairest of All: A Tale of the Wicked Queen by Serena Valentino a couple of years ago I was pleasantly surprised to see that Disney was OK with Snow White's Evil Queen getting re-envisioned so thoroughly and so (chillingly) believably. (It's a wonderful, well written and beautiful book - highly recommended!) I also know Ms. Valentino had been considering the angle she would take if she were asked to re-write Disney's Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent's point of view, back when Fairest of All was published, and am curious as to her ideas. I wish she was a consultant for the story development but with Linda Woolverton (who wrote the screenplay for Disney's Beauty & the Beast and co-wrote on The Lion King) at the script's helm it's unlikely. I do know that if real complexities are being written into the role (which is supposed to be the whole point of the movie) that Angelina Jolie without doubt has the acting chops to pull it off and is probably about the right age now to be believable too.

But will they turn her green?

I find it interesting that in the majority of mock-up pictures Ms. Jolie is given the Wicked treatment. If you look at Disney's Sleeping Beauty Maleficent does have a greenness about her skin but I never really thought of her as "green" like the Oz movie's Wicked Witch of the West or Elphaba in Wicked. Instead I assumed she was somewhat pasty from avoiding sunshine (and all other good things), from messing around with vile substances and potions and that perhaps she had a sense of decay about her as well (I guess zombies are often portrayed as green too but I don't think Maleficent is in the zombie category). I also always thought of Maleficent as a sorcerous fairy rather than a witch as well so why did she get green around the gills* for the Disney animated feature?

Considering Baum never described the Wicked Witch of the West as green and the illustrations for his story never suggested it either, where did this association of witch/evil woman = green come from? Wasn't green always considered a fairy color, no matter which side they were on? Was the decision to make the WWof theW green-skinned based in anything historical to do with witches at all or was it a make-the-most-of-technicolor decision like the changing Baum's silver slippers to ruby was?

Luckily the internet hive mind has some interesting and plausible ideas on this.

From this Wizard of Oz forum HERE:

Regarding your question on Oz message board about origin of green-skinned witches -- I am pretty sure that there are none prior to the 1939 WofO movie. And the reason the movie had one probably has more to do with showing off the capabilities of the technicolor process than with any precedent in folklore. I'd make a guess that there might have been some influence from the discovery (late in the 18th century, with popularity all through the 19th century in dyes for wallpaper, paint, and fabrics) of copper arsenate as a bright green color that was cheap and easy to manufacture. The dye was poisonous, based as it was on arsenic and in a lot of 19th (and early 20th) century fiction you can find references to arsenic green or even just bright green as a poisonous color. There might be a further association of green with poisons and with magic-working because the drink absinthe (notorious in late 19th/early 20th century culture as a poisonous-but-intoxicating-and-poetically-inspiring drink -- the poisonous and the inspirational elements of its reputation seem to have been a good deal exaggerated) usually had enough chlorophyll in its manufacture to come out green in color, and absinthe was nicknamed "la fee verte" (the green fairy -- should have an acute accent-mark on the first e).
And a couple of other ideas that repeat all over the web (with these excerpts being the best summaries that seemed to make at least a good amount of sense - source HERE):
1) The stereotype of the green-faced witch with the crooked nose stems from the so-called "burning times" or the Inquisition. Women were persecuted and beaten severely and tortured to "confess" to witchcraft before being burned, hanged or beheaded. These women were paraded through the town before execution and looked frightful due to the beatings and torture. Their faces were horrible shades of green from the bruises, their noses and teeth were usually broken, among other things. This is the last sight people saw of the accused and "convicted" witch before her death.Pretty messed up, eh?
2) The "green" witch has some roots in Celtic Mythology. Sometimes, witches were depicted with green skin or red hair. Both green and red are colors associated in Celtic tradition with fairies. There has always been a connection between fairies and witches, both being thought of as being not quite of this world. An old description in Britain for a fairy or a human being who was thought to have psychic abilities was "greensleeve" or "green jacket". The association of green with the otherworld was so strong that at one time it was considered unlucky to wear green because it might incur the wrath of the fairies who considered it their own color. 

My two cents (which probably has nothing to do with influencing anything at Disney - or MGM - BUT does tap into fairy tales and myths at large and does pre-date Sleeping Beauty by a number of years) is to mention C.S. Lewis' Lady of the Green Kirtle/ Green Witch/Emerald Witch/Queen of Underland from his Narnia stories with "poison colored skin" (in The Silver Chair) also transforms to a giant snake/dragon-like creature. Considering the source, you know the use of green for this formidable and evil woman is most likely to have been based in mythic traditions. But then maybe he saw The Wizard of Oz too!

The only clear thing seems to be that once MGM released The Wizard of Oz with Dorothy's green-skinned nemesis, green witches began to appear everywhere and anyone green-skinned from then on was almost always equated with "bad". I'm guessing that had at least an unconscious effect on Maleficent's skin color for Disney's Sleeping Beauty and I have to wonder: will a live-action movie be able to pull off a green-skinned Maleficent/Angelina Jolie, will they go for more human tones or will they try something completely different?

(Amazing what one picture will get me thinking!)

*Or did she? This blogger HERE did quite a bit of research trying to determine the real color of Maleficent's skin according to Disney but it turns out if wasn't easy to do.

To confuse the issue a little further, there was a (very!) limited line of cosmetics released by Mac and Disney called Venomous Villains this year in which Maleficent had a whole cosmetic line of her own. See HERE for pictures of all the products and descriptions, along with directions on how the stores should display them, which is fun to look at when you think about it being put on an actual human (including, of course, Ms. Jolie). See HERE for an excellent description of the colors used (about half way down the page for Maleficent). Why am I even bothering telling you this? Because, and here's the quote:

Jennifer Balbier, the vice president of product development for M.A.C Cosmetics, said about the line: "Disney gave us the colors used when these characters were drawn throughout their history."
I pity the make-up designer their job if they have to include all the Disneyland and product data on Maleficent's "official colors" for their final decision.

1 comment:

  1. Its disappointing that the new Maleficent live action movie doesnt have green skin. The animated Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty from 1959 haw green skin. Thats how it should look. In illustrated children's Disney books of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent either has green skin, or blue skin, or gray skin, depending on which book you look at. I recall seeing Maleficent with purple skin somewhere. But green is the best color for her. Light green is the best color for her.Her horns on her head are either a head dress or are part of her body. Angelina Jolie doesnt look scary enough to be Maleficent. Maleficent is a combination of a woman and vampire bat. This is what a female version of Satan would look like. Maleficent's Disney cartoon version scared me more than anything back when I was a child. She looks evil and she is evil and she has supernatural powers coming straight from the Devil. Whether she is an evil fairy or witch, the character is over the top. Her robe contributes to her scariness and the Dragon she transforms into looks scary. Its an awesome, awe inspiring, terrifying character.Just looking at her pictures used to strike fear into me as a child. She exudes evil. Maleficent ranks as one of the scariest chaaracters in fiction.