Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ethel Gets Eaten — Nancy Cartwright and the Twilight Zone Movie

Today, I want to talk about Nancy Cartwright, the actress famous for two things: providing the voice of Bart Simpson and being a Scientologist. That may seem like a short list of accomplishments, but when you consider how well-known Bart Simpson is and how many people have spent hours and hours watching him, you realize that Cartwright wields more power in Hollywood than a great many actors with more recognizable faces. However, I’m not so much concerned with Bart as I am with Nancy’s career before The Simpsons, specifically her film debut in 1983’s The Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Now, of course, when you’re talking about this movie, it’s hard not to think about it being the Hollywood production that killed Jennifer Jason Leigh’s dad and two child actors in a horrific helicopter accident. But put that aside for a moment and focus on the third segment of the film, “It’s a Good Life.” Directed by Gremlins guy Joe Dante, this segment is a remake of the famously creepy Twilight Zone episode of the same name, which featured Billy Mumy as Anthony, a child who holds an entire town hostage with his power to bend reality however to suit his own selfish, childish purposes. (Cloris Leachman stars as his tormented mother. If you have never seen it, do so. It’s great television.) In the movie version, Anthony is played by Jeremy Licht, the actor best-known for being one of the non-Jason Bateman Hogan Family sons. Nancy Cartwright plays Ethel, a character introduced as being Anthony’s sister, though she’s probably not; like everyone else in the “family,” she was probably beamed there by Anthony’s strange powers. Ethel’s none too happy about being Anthony’s captive, and she looks like a surly Tina Yothers.

One of the major departures from the original “It’s a Good Life” is the recurrent theme of old cartoons. Now, if you ever stop and think about old cartoons or if you ever watch them drunk and alone on some lonely weekend night, you’ll realize they’re actually quite creepy. Not sure what I mean? Watch this profoundly unsettling 1931 cartoon “Bimbo’s Initiation” and you’ll quickly understand.

It’s that fast-paced, dream-like atmosphere they sometimes have, where very surreal, scary things are taken at face value by the characters they’re subjected upon, and no one on either side of the screen seems to stop and question how bizarre it all is. These are the cartoons that Anthony makes his family watch. At one point, Kathleen Quinlan’s character happens across Sara, who seems to be entranced by them.

In truth, Sara (randomly played by Runaways frontwoman Cherie Currie) has no mouth — presumably because Anthony blinked it out of existence when she said something he didn’t like. Later, Anthony forces his uncle to perform a magic trick. When the uncle pulls the rabbit out of the hat, however, it’s a horrifying, three-dimensional version of a cartoon character, Tex Avery-style wild takes and all. Be warned: This is something that terrified me when I saw it as a kid, and it still unnerves me today.

Finally, the situation becomes unbearable for Ethel, and she tells Anthony off. Consequently, Anthony blinks Ethel into the cartoon world, where everything has a face and none of the faces look happy to see her. It’s nightmarish, and of course, it doesn’t end well, and the rest of the family helplessly watches from the living room and she dies onscreen.

(Excuse the low-quality footage, but reflect for a second that by watching the above clip, you’re watching a handheld camera pointed at a TV screen showing characters watching a TV screen, and you’re watching it all on a computer screen.)

Now — my big conclusion.

Isn’t it weirdly prophetic that Nancy Cartwright’s film debut would have her playing a character who literally gets consumed by a cartoon universe, and then she went on to be identified solely with voicing a single cartoon character? One of the most popular cartoon characters of all time? A character who’s easily better recognized than she is? Is it not especially interesting that Bart Simpson would eventually star in a later reworking of “It’s a Good Life”? Specifically that one “Treehouse of Horror” segment where superpowered Bart turns Homer into a living jack-in-the-box?

These are things I think about.

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