Joanna (Katherine Ross) reluctantly moves with her husband and children from New York City to the suburban community of Stepford, Connecticut. But when life in Stepford begins to seem too perfect, Joanna and her new friend Bobby (Paula Prentiss) investigate a mysterious conspiracy among the town’s husbands. Are the suburb’s women happy to be vapid homemakers or is there a more shocking secret behind the domestic perfection of The Stepford Wives?
The Stepford Wives remains a legendary combination of chilling chauvinist horror and savage social commentary. Peter Masterson, Tina Louise, Nanette Newman and Mary Stuart Masterson (in her film debut) co-star in this controversial cult thriller based on the best-selling novel by Ira Levin (author of Rosemary’s Baby).
eyelights: its central conceit. its subtly eerie quality. Paula Prentiss. its satirical quality.
eyesores: the impossibility of its great reveal.
“If I am wrong, I’m insane… but if I’m right, it’s even worse than if I was wrong.”
‘The Stepford Wives’ is a subtle chiller based on the satirical novel by Ira Levin, author of ‘Rosemary’s Baby‘. It takes place in the fictional town of Stepford, where all the men are schlumpy but all their wives are pristine, perfect and subservient. There’s something not quite right in Stepford, but it’s not clear exactly what.
Joanna is about to find out.
She and her spouse, Walter, have moved to the community from New York so that their family can have a little bit of quiet. But it won’t take long before she begins to pick up on some of the community members’ strange behaviour. With her new friend Bobbie, also a NYC expat, she will try to get to the heart of Stepford.
Released in 1975, the picture was a flop upon release, but it became a cult favourite through the years. Interestingly, despite its lack of commercial success, it was followed-up with three sequels/spin-offs in 1980, 1987 and 1996, as well as a remake in 2004. All were widely panned, but are indicative of its compelling concept.
The picture had its fair share of controversies, with well-documented tensions building between the screenwriter and director when the latter decided to cast his spouse in a major role (thereby changing the original intention of the picture, which was to make all of the Stepford wives short-skirted centerfold types).
It was meant to be a satirical picture, but it incensed feminist groups, who declared it a woman-hating picture. It’s hardly surprising, because it revolves around a community led by men, who conspire to make the women pliant to their desires and needs – independent women arrive and try to change things, but are soon mollified.
Personally, I don’t see it as a sexist picture. If anything, I see it as a horror film: behind its veneer, Stepford is a meat grinder, churning out cookie-cutter dolls – not women. It’s scary, dystopic. It’s the wet dream of men who are against women’s lib, and a nightmare for women-lovers. If anything, it’s a creepy social commentary.
In fact, I think it’s an important film, because it discusses free will, gender roles and social expectations by highlighting the absurdity of traditional models. It even paints the men as losers. It’s quite the reverse of what critics were saying: it’s not a woman-hating film – it openly mocks these male fantasies.
The picture would indeed have been more effective if the women had all been prototypical model types, if only because it would have enhanced its absurd nature. It might even have made of it a box office success, what with all the eye candy. But I feel that it also works here; these women are these men’s ideals.
Where it doesn’t always work is in the casting of the leads. I just didn’t buy Katherine Ross and Peter Masterson: she is so slumming it it’s beyond words. Why in the world would she be with this loser? And why would she be subservient to him, given that she has a strong personality and has even dabbled in women’s lib before?
Neither are stellar actors, either; some moments were spoiled by poor acting choices (of course, it’s likely the director had something to do with it). It’s interesting to note that Ross was hardly the first choice for the part: many actresses were attached to picture, including Diane Keaton, who bowed out just before signing on.
The best casting choice was Paula Prentiss as Bobbie. Although her performance is uneven, she brought vibrancy and feistiness to the part; she transformed the character into a strong female role model, not just a sidekick. In fact, without her, I suspect that the duo of Joanna and Bobbie would have felt slightly bland, anemic.
Where the film trips up is in the great reveal (which I won’t discuss here): it’s simply not credible by any standard. But, if one considers that the picture is meant to be satirical, then the impossibility of what’s going on in Stepford is irrelevant. In fact, it may even accentuate its main point. In that sense, I think that it works rather well.
What’s interesting to note is that Ira Levin wrote another story about a housewife who is subjugated by her spouse in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Both are thrillers, too, with the men being portrayed as conspiring villains. I don’t know much else about Levin, but I wonder what was going on with him that inspired these horrific tales.
Whatever the inspiration might have been, his ‘The Stepford Wives’ has left an indellible print on pop culture. Aside for the many interpretations of his novel, the term “Stepford Wives” is now used to mock the cult of domesticity, or any arrangement that sees independent women turn to servitude. And that’s worth something.
“I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe. I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe. I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe.”
Anything that can prevent it from happening again is a massive contribution to society, in my estimation.
Date of viewing: February 27, 2015