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The Stepford Wives (1975)
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The Stepford Wives (1975)

Movies are both their brute entertainment textures and the secret delivery of ideas, and Bryan Forbes's The Stepford Wives (1975) is notorious as a Hollywood product that failed disastrously on the first measure but has in time revealed itself to be a veritable gusher of subtextual anxieties and cultural satire. The scenario – taken seriously, not as campy farce as per the execrable 2004 remake – is a ticking bomb placed under the theater seats of a middle-class America already red-eyed and bone-tired from the onslaughts of civil rights, anti-government activism and women's lib. Imagine an educated, artistic, restless young wife being confronted with moving to the suburbs, where her sense of alienation amid the rampant conformity and provincialism reaches a kind of screaming peak when she realizes that the wives she meets aren't women at all, but automated simulacra engineered by the husbands, robots who are non-argumentative, undemanding, obedient, obsessive about housekeeping, and always sexually available.

Of course the contemporary remake had to dull that blade with smirky, Paul Rudnick-scripted yocks – the Mars-Venus implications of Ira Levin's novel and William Goldman's screenplay are outrageously vicious and all too relevant. Katharine Ross is Joanna, a svelte, wary and rather brittle New York photographer and mother married to jovial lawyer Walter (Peter Masterson); at the outset, they're moving upstate to the wealthy bedroom community of Stepford, a transplantation performed completely by Walter, who never tires in selling his wife on the glories of country life. But Joanna isn't sold; she misses the city (it's a rare film that idealizes the friendliness of Manhattan as it demonizes the chilly soullessness of the suburbs), and Stepford, though spacious and peaceful and affluent, lacks the zest of urban life. We're cued in right away, as Walter exchanges a conspiratorial word with another husband at their mailboxes – something is going on underground here, like a perverse, postmodern version of an Elks lodge. Sure enough, Stepford has a no-girls-allowed "men's association," stationed in a local mansion (complete with a Robert Motherwell painting on the president's office wall), and much to Joanna's chagrin she's the only wife in town who seems to think that its very existence is an archaic insult.

Joanna, in short, is not a slavishly obedient, old-fashioned wife, and we slowly realize that this is what drove Walter to move his family to Stepford. Suburbia in general is treated like an alien landscape of zombie women and shadowy men, in which Joanna and, soon, Bobbie, another New York émigré housewife, played with typically grinning zeal by Paula Prentiss, both feel as if they'd woken up in an Orwellian future of some particularly banal sort, or halfway through a body snatcher invasion. That's the magic of The Stepford Wives – the perception of bourgeois shallowness becomes the movie's ruling metaphor, because of course the women that surround our heroines aren't just movie caricatures of narcissistic suburban idiocy, they're actually constructs within that world as well, programmed devices that reveal their makers' desires and weaknesses.

It's no mere flourish to have the main man of Stepford (Patrick O'Neal) an ex-design engineer for Disneyland, where technology serves to not only exaggerate a specific notion of happiness but to eliminate the perception of frustration, boredom and dissatisfaction. As Joanna and Bobbie pass down the rabbit hole, and slowly realize their husbands are part of an incomprehensible plot directed exactly at them, Forbes's movie becomes more and more Gothic. It doesn't get any more graceful, though; The Stepford Wives has moments of bracingly dry-eyed '70s grit, but mostly it's hampered by an inappropriate score, lots of stiff direction, and a sense of being pieced together from a hurried shoot. Certainly, Forbes, a busy British writer, director, producer and actor, had little fluency with American suburbia; the wives' quasi-Southern-gentlewomen's floor-length dresses and floppy hats were his idea, much to Goldman's chagrin, who following Levin's lead thought the Stepford husbands would rebuild their wives as Playboy bunnies. (Forbes's casting of his wife, Nanette Newman, who was no hot-pants-wearing sexpot, figured in the strategy.) But here Goldman, who took Forbes's pre-production costume choices to be the film's death knell, turned out to be wrong, and Forbes was inadvertently right: what trad man would want his wife bazooming out of her scanty clothes at the supermarket? The men of Stepford are embodied nakedly in their artificial wives' behavior not as just horny bastards, but full-on reactionaries, neo-cons who like their women draped and subservient and old-fashioned, ready for sex at home but otherwise dressed like high-class matrons – the public mother to the private whore. It plays today like a New England version of sharia law, a form of sexual control as well as an expression of possessiveness, nostalgic conservatism and social power.

In fact, Joanna and Bobbie, in short-shorts and halter tops, stand out like freaks at the local hoity-toity backyard soiree, as they would, flaunting their womanly freedom, in a world operated and defined by men. Forbes's film has subtler resonances, too, that are easy to overlook amid the general clumsiness – in particular, the casting of Ross with her apprehensive, dewy eyes and boyish figure, and of Masterson, playing exactly the kind of friendly, balding go-getter that would manage to earn enough to land such a fetching, sophisticated younger woman and then have to endure her dissatisfaction with the choice. But Prentiss's Bobbie is the godsend, extroverted, snarky, crowing over Joanna's housekeeping non-skills ("A messy kitchen! A home away from home!"), settling down for a covert snack of Ring Dings and Scotch. A natural comedienne and vibrant personality, Prentiss was apparently never devoted to success in Hollywood, and her career is sketchy with ellipses and retirements. But even when she worked the Industry rarely seemed to know what to do with her, and even in the '70s projects that suited her rangy talents and irrepressible elan were impossible to find. For whatever reason Prentiss was never a star, but she remains one of the most entrancing women to appear in postwar American movies. Having her become, in The Stepford Wives, a brainless, kitchen-scrubbing automaton is the final dismaying irony.

Producer: Edgar J. Scherick
Director: Bryan Forbes
Screenplay: William Goldman; Ira Levin (novel)
Cinematography: Enrique Bravo, Owen Roizman
Music: Michael Small
Film Editing: Timothy Gee
Cast: Katharine Ross (Joanna Eberhart), Paula Prentiss (Bobbie Markowe), Peter Masterson (Walter Eberhart), Nanette Newman (Carol Van Sant), Tina Louise (Charmaine Wimperis), Carol Rossen (Dr. Fancher), William Prince (Ike Mazzard).
C-115m. Letterboxed

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