Thursday, December 9, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Margaret Hamilton

This week (December 9) we celebrate the 108th anniversary of the birth of Margaret Hamilton.

Admit it, you shivered a bit when you read that name didn't you? Hamiliton was a gifted stage and screen character actress. Apparently that's what they call you when you're not pretty enough to play the romantic lead. Her looks were charitably called "plain." She had a sharp prow of a nose and eyes as piercing as a hawk's. Her voice, with its crisp diction, would curdle milk. That made her the go-to actress when they needed a spinster or a school-marm type.

But there is only one role for which she is known. She so inhabited the role of the Wicked Witch of the West, that she gave generations of children nightmares. It is hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. In 1979, forty years after "The Wizard of Oz" was filmed, when she visited the University of Connecticut as a guest speaker, she was greeted with a treat of Dunkin Donuts Munchkins.

She knew the effect the role had on children. My favorite story: when she visited older children in schools, she was often asked to do her witch laugh. She did, letting the cackle ring out through the auditorium. There was applause, of course, but only after a second or two of terrified silence. In those few seconds, she knew, everyone in the audience was a little child again, feeling the horror of seeing that frightful green face turn to the screen and hearing that cackling evil laugh. She had connected with her audience, and the power of it must have surprised even them.

How delightfully satisfying that must have been!

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