|Stepford Wives, The (1975)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 15 June 2004|
The reputation (and to a degree, notoriety) of 'The Stepford Wives' has certainly grown over the last 25 years. Even though it wasn't a significant hit when it was first released, it did result in three TV movie sequels. ('Revenge of the Stepford Wives,' which trashed the premise, and probably inevitably, 'The Stepford Husbands' and 'The Stepford Children.' I'm waiting breathlessly for 'The Stepford Nannies.') Now it has been released in a somewhat skimpy but well-produced DVD by the always-interesting Anchor Bay.
The screenplay is credited to William Goldman, although the brief but interesting set of interviews included on the disc point out that after director Bryan Forbes came aboard, the script was rewritten, much to Goldman's annoyance. It was based on a best-selling novel by Ira Levin, which was pretty much the same kind of feminist-horror tale he told in 'Rosemary's Baby,' though less effective.
The movie is very sleek and glossy; in his interview, Forbes said he wanted to create horror in the daylight, and to a large degree, he succeeds, although he reverts to standard old-dark-house, lightning-storm techniques in the last reel. Beautifully photographed on attractive New England locations by Owen Roizman, for the most part, the movie uses real homes, businesses and the like rather than constructed sets, which add to the realism.
The trouble is that the movie is simply NOT realistic -- or rather, it's not at all plausible. For the film to work, you have to forget that it is, ostensible, science fiction, and accept it entirely as a kind of parable, a metaphor, a fantastic satire. Emotionally, it's all too believable; as speculation, it's basically silly.
Joanna Eberhart is not entirely happy about moving out of New York with her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) and two young children (Ronny Sullivan and Mary Stuart Masterson, Peter's real daughter, making her acting debut). She's been hoping to launch a career as a photographer, and she likes the bustle of the city. But Walter has decided that moving to the semi-planned community of Stepford will be better for all of them.
The house is beautiful, but Joanna soon finds herself bored. Walter is absent many nights, involved in a local men's club; some of the local women, notably across-the-road neighbor Carol Van Sant (Nanette Newman, Forbes' wife), seem peculiarly obsessed with hearth and home. Their houses are spotless, their makeup perfect, their clothes stylish but demure, and their devotion to their husbands so fond and extreme as to be creepy.
Fortunately, Joanna meets outgoing, funny Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), and the two also make friends with sexy, languid Charmaine Wimperis (Tina Louise). Charmaine plays a lot of tennis, and seems to be playing around with her tennis coach, too. But to the surprise of Joanna and Bobbie, Charmaine suddenly changes her interests; now she, too, wears long, graceful dresses, talks endlessly about recipes and how to keep the house clean, and is quietly but passionately devoted to her husband.
The two friends begin to suspect something is very wrong in Stepford....
And of course, it is. The novel was written when feminism had revived itself, and was a very hot topic; Levin, and this movie, are very strongly pro-feminist, which to a degree dates them both (it features a consciousness-raising session). If the film were to be remade -- and there's been some talk of that -- many elements would have to be adjusted.
But the basic point it is making, that all too many men fear and dislike women who seek their own place in the world, including in their marriages, is still valid. The Stepford Wives are sexually compliant, always well-dressed, maintain their houses spotlessly, are soft-spoken, have no real ideas of their own, etc. etc. It's an exaggeration, of course, and dated; not many men today fear the loss of their masculinity if their wives simply want a job outside the home. (The Stepford husbands are a pretty boring lot themselves; their wives are actually more interesting -- before the transformation, that is.) But the belief in the macho ethic still crawls beneath the skin of all too many men. Most women of today might regard 'The Stepford Wives' as a quaint, if well-made, story; others are likely to see its application to their own lives very clearly.
'The Stepford Wives' is a horror movie, but it was made with a kind of cocked-eyebrow approach; some of the creepiest scenes, as one near the end in Bobbie's kitchen, are as funny as they are disturbing. Bryan Forbes has had a hit and miss career, with highlights like 'King Rat' and 'Seance on a Wet Afternoon,' middling efforts like 'International Velvet' and 'The Wrong Box,' and some outright stinkers. 'The Stepford Wives' isn't one of his best movies, but it is one of his most memorable.
Katharine Ross stepped into the role at nearly the last moment, but she's excellent in it: vulnerable, intelligent, cautiously ambitious, observant. Her career as a star was short lived, but this is one of the highlights. Much the same can be said for Paula Prentiss, who's terrific as the eccentric, acerbic Bobbie. Tina Louise has some good moments as Charmaine before the alteration into a Stepford Wife. On the other hand, Peter Masterson is a notably boring actor, something of a hole in the screen. It's hard to imagine why a woman like Joanna would marry this guy.
Anchor Bay has done a good, if limited, job with their DVD. Among those interviewed are Katharine Ross, Bryan Forbes, Nanette Newman, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson and producer Edgar J. Scherick . What's there is interesting, but there's little followup. What do these people think of the movie today? What is their opinion of the sequels? Masterson exhibits veiled hostility toward Forbes, and supports the unseen Goldman's viewpoint. We're left wanting to know more about Goldman's original script, the differences between his version and the shooting script, and whether the production was in any way troubled (as it seems to have been). The other extras are less interesting: a trailer, some radio spots and the like.
It's difficult to discuss the movie without revealing the secret of the story, so if you do NOT want to know what's behind it all, you should stop reading here.
Joanna is allowed to attend a meeting of the men's association, where she meets Dale "Diz" Coba (Patrick O'Neal); he got his nickname from having worked at Disneyland. There are a lot of electronics and computer firms around Stepford, including Coba's company. All this is to support the premise that wealthy men move to Stepford -- then have their wives murdered and replaced by compliant robots so similar to the dead women that outsiders accept them as real people. This idea is absurd: the technology doesn't exist now, and didn't then; it would be impossible to maintain this secret, if only because the CHILDREN would notice; it would be phenomenally expensive. For these reasons and others, 'The Stepford Wives' simply does not work as science fiction.
But it does work as a wry, bitter parable on male-female relationships in the United States at a particular time and place, when the ideal of womanhood -- at least from the perspective of all too many men -- was the madonna/whore dichotomy. Furthermore, the film comments on the concept of conformity; suburbs like Stepford still exist, where everyone has to maintain neatly-trimmed lawns, everyone has to have similar decorations, virtually no individuality is tolerated, and residents' associations have veto power over personal taste and preferences. Stepford is out there, waiting for you to move in. All you have to do is surrender your right to choose.