A BALLYHOO RAISED OVER 'WITCHES'

"The Witches of Eastwick" have come and gone, and they have left their mark. But at least the steeple still stands tall atop the First Parish Meeting House on Cohasset Common.

"Not only that," said parishioner Millie Mittman, gazing up at the graceful white steeple, "but the town that turned them away was hit by a tornado that swept through (this region), and we were never even touched!"

Mittman was roguishly referring to Little Compton, R.I., the New England town to the north originally selected as the site for Warner Bros.' film version of John Updike's novel about the struggle between good and evil told in a sexually explicit tale of modern witchcraft. When a controversy erupted in Little Compton over whether the staid town and its conservative Congregational church should cooperate in the making of such a film, Warners turned to the similar seaside town of Cohasset, one hour south of Boston.

"Really, it was no big deal, and nobody seemed very shocked or concerned," Mittman, an amiable, church and community activist, observed recently, as the film was nearing completion of six weeks' location shooting here and in nearby communities.

"By and large, I think everybody loved having them here. . . . It's the fascination with Hollywood. Doesn't everybody have it?" she asked.

The film, which is scheduled for spring release, stars Jack Nicholson as a stranger whose arrival in the fictional New England town of Eastwick unsettles the lives of three newly unmarried modern-day witches, played by Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer. Nicholson's character's devilish influence on the three women, turning their mischievous behavior to darker deeds and their attentions to sexual pleasures, has led to the general perception that the book is one of Updike's raciest.

Details of Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Cristofer's ("The Shadow Box") screenplay for the film, being directed by George ("Mad Max") Miller, were as carefully guarded on location here as the set and its principals. And strictly off limits to the press. But enough was known of Updike's novel, and of what one local resident referred to as "Hollywood in the '80s," to arouse concern about Warner Bros.' plans to shoot the film in Massachusetts--and not just on moral grounds.

Like the Congregationalists in Little Compton, Baptists in Cohasset objected to the filming on grounds that the novel was "evil." Others in Little Compton, and to a lesser degree in Cohasset, expressed concerns about possible disruptions when a major motion picture moves into a neighborhood that's a vacation getaway for many Bostonians. (About 40 self-described Massachusetts witches picketed the Massachusetts Film Bureau's Boston headquarters last June to protest the coming film as "anti-witch.")

"I'm sorry that I seem to have displeased both witches and some citizens, but it's the fate of any book worth its salt and ink to displease someone," said Updike, when asked for his reaction to all the fuss. The author, who is usually silent on the subject of his work when it is being transferred to screen or television by others, said of the film: "From what I read in the papers and from a glance at the script, the movie will bear little resemblance to the book beyond the title--if they keep that. But I wish them well."

But it was the film, and the lure of Hollywood and Hollywood money, that won out over any concerns raised about the book.

Officials of the Massachusetts Film Bureau, one of the country's most aggressive state-run film commissions, acknowledged that they waged "a war" to win the film project away from Rhode Island once rumblings of discontent were reported in the local and national press. The film bureau set out to persuade Warner Bros. that Massachusetts would warmly welcome the production; it offered as proof a welcoming telegram from the Cohasset Board of Selectmen. The case also was made that Massachusetts residents were more "savvy" to film and television production than were their Rhode Island neighbors. They also insisted that they were more familiar with Updike, a longtime Massachusetts resident.

"We won a psychological war for a major piece of business," said Julie Wrinn, acting director of the state film bureau, pointing out that film and television production in Massachusetts this year is expected to produce revenues of $150 million. She said the ABC-TV series "Spenser: For Hire," which is shot on locations in Boston, and "The Witches of Eastwick" would be the largest two productions to shoot here this year.

"The film bureau asked if we would support it, and we said yes immediately," said Cohasset Town Manager Don Andrew, reporting on the selectmen's vote to welcome the film. "We have said no before, for just a 60-second commercial," he added. "But this had the prestige of being a major motion picture, of its stars, and of Updike . . . and the prospect of another dull summer turning into an exciting one."

The film also had the strong support of the local Chamber of Commerce.

The state film bureau estimates that filming on all Massachusetts locations will bring about $6 million into the state. But with an estimated $1 million alone being spent on Boston accommodations for "Eastwick's" cast and crew, it remained unclear at the close of shooting in Cohasset just how much money was spent here.

A tour of the town, however, did indicate where some of the money went: $20,000 to First Parish Meeting House, for use of the church; fees ranging from $250 to $1,000 a day to about a dozen local merchants to convert their shops to "Eastwick" shops; $30,000 for a silver tea service to be used as a prop; $8,000 per week for six local police officers to stand by at various film locations. And 1,500 area residents also were hired as extras for the film.

The local liquor store also reported that an impromptu $500 was spent for champagne so the production company could celebrate its 111th "Take One." In addition, Don Andrew said Warner Bros. promised a gift to the town upon completion of location shooting.

"The town has let the thrill and excitement of the moment sway their better senses," Daniel Bordeur, pastor of the year-old Cohasset Baptist Church, said recently of the town's eagerness to welcome "Witches of Eastwick."

"To watch my New England neighbors be bewitched by the monetary gains from this film is shocking," said Laurie Cabot, "the official witch of Salem, Mass.," who led the Boston demonstration at the film bureau.

Calling Updike's book "another trashy, cheap shot at witches to make people afraid," Cabot said she and other area witches have called on Warner Bros. to issue a disclaimer with the movie, saying that the film does not accurately represent witches.

"I think (the book) provides a very good discussion of immorality, of sin and guilt," said Edward Atkinson, the disarmingly erudite Unitarian minister of the First Parish Meeting House, who even gave a sermon on behalf of filming in Cohasset and in the meeting house.

"It's not that we didn't have our concerns," he continued, seated in the tranquil garden of his home here. He cited above all the safety of the newly restored 1747 Meeting House. Also, an "offensive portrayal" of a Unitarian minister in Updike's novel (Atkinson said he was asked to play the part in the film, but declined) and "unflattering" portraits of men in general, as well as women and witches, and New England towns.

"But we believe in freedom of expression, which doesn't mean we have to agree with everything that's in the film. The film is Warner Bros'. responsibility. We have simply provided the scenery for what is, after all, just a movie."

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