Posts Tagged ‘The Stepford Wives’

It is a widely remarked-upon fact that, for one of the great storytellers of the modern age, Stephen King’s success rate when it comes to film adaptations of his work is not enviable. There is, of course, The Shawshank Redemption to consider in the plus column, but apart from this, the quantity of dodgy or frankly substandard King adaptations in circulation is formidable. This is thrown into sharp relief when one considers the startling run of form enjoyed by a horror writer from an earlier generation, Ira Levin.

King has written around fifty novels, of which about half a dozen have been made into genuinely good, memorable films. Levin, on the other hand, wrote only seven novels, but their screen versions include at least two classics, and several other very decent stabs (also the Sharon Stone potboiler Sliver, but you can’t have everything), amongst them Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and the film I’m going to write about now, Bryan Forbes’ 1975 version of The Stepford Wives.

This is a film which has entered the popular lexicon despite, I was surprised to learn, not being a notable hit on its original release. Certainly the numerous sequels (and execrable 2004 remake) would seem to indicate that this is a film which has made an impact in the popular imagination. Writing about the remake, I found myself going to enormous lengths to avoid spoiling the original film’s central twist – I don’t think I can do the same writing about the original itself, so caveat lector.

Joanna and Walter Eberhart (Katharine Ross and Peter Masterson) are a fairly typical, affluent couple, in the process of moving out of New York City to the quiet country town of Stepford. (It is, of course, something of a genre movie trope that whenever people from the city move to, or even just visit, the peaceful and beautiful countryside, unutterably horrible things are sure to happen to them before very much time has elapsed.)

Stepford is very pleasant, but Joanna is uneasy: Walter joins the Men’s Association and spends all his time there, while she and her kooky new best friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) are simultaneously disturbed and frustrated by the behaviour of the women of the town. They all seem to aspire to be domestic goddesses of the first rank, spending all their time cleaning, cooking, baking and gardening, utterly devoted to their husbands and seemingly utterly heedless of their own happiness and fulfilment. Joanna and Bobbie try to introduce Women’s Lib to Stepford, but their first meeting quickly turns into an exchange of good housekeeping tips.

Events take a more sinister turn when Joanna and Bobbie notice that women who move to Stepford abruptly start conforming to the local stereotype after a few months in town, abandoning their previous interests and becoming vapid, obsessive home-makers. It even happens to Bobbie, leaving Joanna alone and increasingly frightened. Is she just imagining the sinister influence she sees everywhere in town? Or her own time running out as well?

It seems very strange to think that The Stepford Wives was criticised on its original release for somehow being a chauvinistic, anti-feminist picture. For this interpretation to work you would really have to be rooting for the men and eagerly anticipating Ross and Prentiss getting their just desserts – and the film doesn’t work this way at all. There’s barely a single sympathetic male character in it – Walter is weak, while the leader of the Men’s Association, played by Patrick O’Neal, is cold and sinister (and frankly a barely two-dimensional character). The two women are the characters you’re rooting for – this is very far from being a chauvinist film; to call it a feminist diatribe would probably be closer to the mark.

It’s also another one of the great exercises in cinematic paranoia – not unlike Rosemary’s Baby in some ways, but it seems to me that this film has much more in common with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in that both share the same small-town setting and a preoccupation with the loss of identity. Invasion of the Body Snatchers treats this broadly, as a general political issue, but with The Stepford Wives the politics are sexual. Certainly it works as a paranoid horror-fable much more convincingly than it does as a plausible drama – the plot falls to pieces as soon as you breathe on it, to say nothing of the fact that it requires every noteworthy man in town to be some kind of high-functioning psychopath.

The film is really about the male desire not just to possess women, but to make possessions out of them, regardless of their own identity as individuals – the film doesn’t handle this especially subtly, giving Ross’ character a prominently arty photographic hobby mainly so she can later make a speech about how ‘There’ll be somebody with my name, and she’ll cook and clean like crazy, but she won’t take pictures, and she won’t be me!’ But, if nothing else, the film does include a brilliant final scene in which the wives of Stepford glide serenely up and down the aisles of the supermarket in a strange ballet of the trolleys, and the sense that this is a film with as much to say about consumerism as the first Dawn of the Dead is almost inescapable.

For a horror film – which is what The Stepford Wives really fundamentally is – it’s a strangely charming and beguiling confection, to begin with at least. The sunny setting in conventional suburbia is well realised. The pace is, shall we say, rather languorous to begin with – a modern editor would probably be able to chop fifteen or twenty minutes from the movie without much difficulty – but this allows plenty of time for the slow accretion of tiny details that suggest that something very strange is occurring without beating the audience about the head with it.  And Katharine Ross, an actress with an enviable record in the late 60s and early 70s, is very good in the lead role.

Well, well: I seem to have got to the end of the review without spoiling the plot of The Stepford Wives after all, which I’m rather glad about. The idea at the heart of this film is a bit too grotesque and outlandish for it to really be credible as a proper piece of SF, but it’s still the driver for a very accomplished and affecting movie, and one not without chills in the right places. If it has entered the public consciousness, then it’s done so on merit.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 5th 2004:

Oh, dear: another classic SF thriller broken on the wheel of pointless reinvention. Isn’t this where I came in? I refer, of course, to The Stepford Wives, a thriller by Ira Levin made into a rather fine film by Bryan Forbes in 1975, and into a rotten one by Miss Piggy now.

Nicole Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, a TV executive responsible for many cruel reality game shows: these are supposed to be over-the-top parodies but actually aren’t that far off from where TV is right now (and so aren’t particularly funny). After a disgruntled participant goes on a shooting spree, Joanna gets the shove from her network and has a comedy nervous breakdown (we don’t get to see the comedy electro-shock treatment she receives). She and her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) decide to move to the idyllic gated community of Stepford, Conneticut.

Stepford is a place where men are men and women are domesticated: they cheerfully do all the cooking, cleaning, and washing up, all the while managing to keep their smiles perfect and their nails intact. This is, of course, anathema to a modern woman like Nicole and she rapidly begins to suspect there’s more to this place than meets the eye. But it soon becomes apparent that anyone who doesn’t fit in receives a thorough and not entirely voluntary makeover to suit the intentions of the town’s founders…

(We have reached an awkward point in this review. I would hate to spoil the central plot-twist of the Forbes version, as it’s central to the movie – which, as I say, is rather good. But I can’t really talk about the Piggy version without giving it away. So, if you know the twist, read on. If you don’t, just steer well clear of the new movie and stop reading at this point. Okay? Okay.)

The thing about the original Stepford Wives was that it was a twist ending movie: that was what made it memorable. The problem is that the nature of the twist is pretty widely known by now: ‘Stepford Wife’ has become a shorthand term for a certain kind of unreconstructed home-maker or domesticated woman. I would guess a lot of people going to see this movie already know the twist, which gives the film a major problem in trying to generate any kind of tension or surprise. And to be honest it doesn’t try to, or at least not especially hard. It actually seems a bit unsure as to whether it wants to at least try to make the surprise work, or simply to assume that everyone already knows and just wink at them about it throughout. The result is that the big revelation is a damp squib for the entire audience rather than just part of it.

That’s one big problem for the film, but the biggest is that this is supposed to be a comedy version of the story. The fact that it isn’t particularly funny is bad enough, but I find it hard to believe that anyone seriously thought that such a creepy, paranoid and grim tale could honestly be made to yield up big laughs. This isn’t a dark, witty comedy, either: it’s a broad, frothy, camp farce. And it doesn’t work. The film can’t sustain this tone – the darkness of the original story keeps oozing back to the surface in the form of some genuinely unsettling moments (Broderick’s very decent performance would be pitch-perfect for a ‘serious’ Stepford remake), before vanishing again under a torrent of chronic overacting from Glenn Close. The comic tone even demands that a new ending be tacked on, which not only undermines one of the great last scenes in cinema history (the final scene of the Forbes version is repeated here, then lampooned shortly afterwards), but makes the film internally inconsistent: at some points the Stepford wives are android replicas, as before – but at others they are just the originals, surgically modified. It’s a mess.

And at least in the Forbes version you knew who to blame: the evil old chauvinists of the Stepford Mens’ Association. Katherine Ross, who played the Kidman part in the Forbes version, was just a regular person, who really didn’t deserve to be replaced by an android. But the Piggy version wilfully messes this up: the women in this are all wild overachievers, the sort of ‘superwomen’ certain ‘quality tabloids’ in the UK constantly have it in for. The implication is that the men are sort of justified in wanting to have them replaced by proper women. But both before and after their ‘modification’ the women are just grotesque stereotypes: bitches or bimbos. There isn’t a two-dimensional character in the whole movie.

Oh, well. I suppose there are a few quite funny lines, Broderick isn’t that bad, and David Arnold’s score deserves to be attached to a rather better film than this one… but on the whole this is a real mess of a film that slimes the memory of a good one. Stick to acting, Miss Piggy.

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