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‘Practical Magic’: When Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman performed exorcisms to get rid of toxic ex-boyfriends

Who doesn’t want to live in a Victorian house by the ocean, drink margaritas at midnight and exorcise their exes? Although it was battered by the critics, this 25-year-old movie is now a classic

Sandra Bullock y Nicole Kidman, protagonistas de 'Prácticamente magia'.
Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, the stars of ‘Practical Magic.’United Archives/Impress (United Archives / Cordon Press)

“Can love travel back in time and heal a broken heart?” pondered young Sally Owens (Sandra Bullock) in the last scene of Practical Magic. The film might not be able to provide a satisfactory answer to those love dilemmas that are older than the legend of the witches, but it does prove that success can indeed travel back in time and heal a cinematographic failure. Because when this fantastic drama starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman premiered in October 1998, the feeling was one of unmitigated disaster. The box office earnings were not even enough to cover the total budget of the movie, and the critics, far from falling under its spell, crushed it ruthlessly, claiming that the film’s best trick was making the audience disappear. But the spell has proven effective in the long term, turning it into a generational work that, 25 years later, is still current in the memory of those who allowed themselves to be bewitched by it, as proven by a viral tweet by writer Lane Moore: “It’s time for Practical Magic fall, which is where we grow our hair long, open a botanical shop by the sea, do spells by the moonlight, break ancestral curses, and bury our shitty exes in our garden.”

Practical Magic
Kidman and Bullock in a scene from the movie.photo: MPTV.net

Even though today they have two of the most recognizable and recognized careers of this century in Hollywood, the experience was not the launching pad the actresses expected it to be. The two were at very different points in their careers: while Sandra Bullock was already one of the most successful young actresses in the world thanks to the box office success of the Speed saga, many still saw Nicole Kidman as Tom Cruise’s exotic wife, still stuck as a sex symbol in testosteronic action productions (although her meteoric rise was just around the corner: her next films would be Eyes Wide Shut, Moulin Rouge! and The Others). The decision to have her play the wild Gillian was Bullock’s idea. “I was like, ‘Nicole Kidman seems like the perfect person,’” she told E! News. “Our energies are so opposite that we needed what the other person had. I know I needed what she had. I don’t know why I thought of her or why that worked, it’s just one of those things, those magical things.” It was the first time in Kidman’s career that she co-starred in a film with another woman. The chemistry between them has remained unchanged over time and, although they have not shared the screen again, they still call each other “sisters” and maintain a great friendship.

We could say that Practical Magic also practically ended Griffin Dunne’s career as a director of Hollywood blockbusters. In fact, he never directed a studio film after that flop, focusing the last 25 years on his work as a supporting actor in different television series, instead. The movie was “not necessarily positive” for his directing career, he said in an interview in Vulture, recalling how both the studio executives and the critics censored the film’s mixture of tones, from comedy to fantasy, from horror to romantic drama, that today is one of the most appreciated aspects of this story about two witch sisters who face a curse that prevents them from finding true love. It was a few years later, during a plane trip, that Dunne discovered that the public’s perception of his movie was beginning to change. “They announced what the movie was going to be – Practical Magic. I go, ‘Oh God.’ But some people on the plane clapped. They were excited.”

Practical Magic
Nicole Kidman plays Gillian Owens, with Sandra Bullock as her sister, Sally Owens.United Archives/Impress (United Archives / Cordon Press)

“I’m so glad, especially for Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, because I feel like they took a chance with it and I feel like it paid off,” explained Alice Hoffman, author of the novel on which the movie is based, about its mutation into an almost cult film. Asked about Practical Magic’s awful initial reception, the writer attributes it to her feminist approach. “I think you read more and see more about women who are friends and sisters. It wasn’t a time when that was current and popular. And I think that’s one of the reasons when the film came out it didn’t do that well, because the critics were not very kind to it. And I think that was basically the reason. They weren’t interested in anything a lot of women are interested in.” Today, the climax of the film, in which a group of women made up of both witches and ordinary neighbors join together in a circle to free one of them from the abusive boyfriend who has taken her body and whom they end up literally sweeping out of the house, is considered an ode to sorority that resonates with the public more strongly than ever.

For years, another of the reasons attributed to the film’s ill-fated release was actually supernatural. In his attempt to provide the scenes with the greatest realism possible, Dunne decided to hire a real practicing witch to serve as a consultant and be present at the rehearsals alongside Bullock and Kidman. However, the witch thought that her pay was not enough, so she asked for $250,000 more, her own Practical Magic cookbook and a percentage of the film’s box office earnings. When her requests were denied, she cursed the producers, the director and the film in general over the phone. So scared was the team that Dunne hired an exorcist to free them from any possible spell, and Warner’s lawyers wrote the witch a generous check. According to the filmmaker, Sandra and Nicole kept talking about it during filming and, although he says he does not believe in curses, he does admit that “a little stink was put on the movie. It took time for that stink to go away.”

Practical Magic
Nicole Kidman in a scene from ‘Practical Magic.’Getty

The film is full of moments that are now considered iconic: from a soundtrack full of artists like Stevie Nicks, Faith Hill and Joni Mitchell, to the midnight margarita party in which, according to legend, the actresses – with a special mention to the aunts, played by Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest – decided to go full method acting by drinking real tequila. But another of the film’s unquestionable strengths are its bucolic, romantic locations, located in the northwestern coastal town of Friday Harbor, Washington State. The Victorian-style house where the sisters live with their aunts caused such a sensation in Hollywood that stars like Ben Stiller contacted production designer Robin Standefer to remodel their own home. Standefer left her job in film to become an interior decorator for high-end clients. Even Barbra Streisand called the producers to show her interest in buying the beautiful house. Too bad that it was only a set built for the outdoor scenes, and that it was taken apart the day after filming ended. Now we just need to know if they will use the same design for the Practical Magic prequel that, after years of failed projects, HBO Max is currently developing in the form of a television series.

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