The Stepford Wives

Dir. Bryan Forbes

When former photographer Joanna Eberhart (Katherine Ross) and her family move to the sleepy town of Stepford, it isn’t long before she suspects something sinister is afoot. All of the women in Stepford have an uncanny hankering to do whatever it takes to become the perfect housewife. What makes matters even stranger is Joanna’s unshakable feeling that the men of Stepford, including her own husband Walter (Peter Masterson), are involved in something diabolical that transforms the women of Stepford into empty shells of their former selves. But what could it be?

I would love to be able to watch The Stepford Wives again for the first time – without knowing anything about it. From the outset, it is obvious that something sinister lurks beneath the pristine exterior of Stepford’s white picket fences and expertly maintained hedges and it soon becomes obvious that the town has a sick and twisted underbelly full of dark secrets that David Lynch might be envious of. Even when I watched the film first time around, I was aware of what the outcome was – I think most people are, simply because its reputation precedes it. The film’s influence is peppered throughout pop culture, TV advertising, can still be seen in the likes of Desperate Housewives and has even entered everyday vernacular – those all too keen on keeping up appearances and presenting an immaculate and flawless version of themselves and their home are referred to as a ‘Stepford wife.’ Having said that, even though you may know how things will turn out for the unfortunate women of Stepford, the film is successful in creating an intriguing mystery that expertly builds to the chilling denouement, and though audiences may already know what’s coming - it still has quite an impact when it arrives.

The Stepford Wives is at times more than a little camp – I think this is part of its appeal though, and there is however still an undeniably creepy menace that lurks at the heart of the film. Joanna’s mounting sense of paranoia and desperation is palpable. Her plight is lent so much pathos in a number of scenes as the story unfolds. The film strikes one of its most powerful chords when Joanna pleads with her soon to be vacationing psychiatrist, exclaiming ‘When you come back, there will be a woman with my name and my face. She'll cook and clean like crazy, but she won't take pictures and she won't be me!’ The idea that we are made up of our own experiences and by the things we love and do is nicely evoked here. What if we couldn’t do them anymore? Would a little part of us disappear and reconfigure what makes us who we are? Who would we be if not ourselves? ‘I guess I want to be remembered’ states Joanna.

Elsewhere, Levin’s take on 70s women’s equal rights movements continues to wield a quiet power in his approach to portraying subservient (quite literally) android housewives, whose only goals are to please their husbands. The 60s and 70s were radical times as far as social movements were concerned, particularly groups centring on gaining equal rights and opportunities for women. Joanna initially encounters a couple of like-minded kindred spirits amongst the plethora of nightmarishly perfect housewives on Wisteria Lane, sorry, in the quiet suburban Stepford. She finds feisty comrades in down to earth, cynically wise-cracking Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) and tennis pro Charmaine (Tina Louise). However it isn’t long before they too succumb to the mysterious goings on in Stepford. A moment that is both darkly humorous and out-right disturbing occurs when Joanna visits Bobbie, only to discover her friend has completely changed… An altercation culminates in a malfunctioning Bobbie whizzing around her now scarily pristine kitchen exclaiming ‘Oh Joanna... I thought we were friends... I thought we were friends... friends... coffee... how could you do a thing like that? Like that? Like that? Like that? Friends... friends... I just wanted to offer you some coffee’, etc. While quite funny, the scene, like so much of the film has a disquieting undertone.

It turns out that most of the women in Stepford were formerly successful, powerful, influential individuals who held top jobs and were making radical changes to how women were treated in a typically male-dominated business world. The women of Stepford are rendered no more than the products they mindlessly consume from the local supermarket. This is all down to the conservatively minded husbands and how they believe women should be, namely in the kitchen and thinking only of pleasing the men; parodies of the ideal housewife - all floral aprons, immaculately styled hair and a penchant for recommending various household cleaning products to her friends.
A man carrying a mannequin in one early scene shot in New York provides an arresting image that conveys so much – the power struggle between the sexes and the objectification of women by men.
The idea of women as automatons takes on a comic, though quite disturbing, edge yet again when the malfunctioning Carol (Nanette Newman) glides through a garden party declaring ‘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.’

The opening scene features Joanna alone in her apartment. Though she sits in the midst of the family unit, she still feels alienated – she, like many women, feels conflicted about the direction she wants her life to take: should she stay at home and make her young family her priority, or should she strive to realise her own personal goals as far as achieving career success and obtaining personal fulfilment. Much like her husband is able to freely do.

Despite the campy quality, the social commentary running throughout is precise and effective. Events sometimes stray into melodrama, and Forbes eventually goes all out with the creepy atmospherics and heavy reliance on horror film clichés, such as thunder storms and sinister mansions. A number of provocative ideas play out under an array of seventies floral prints, shag-pile carpets and bell-bottomed slacks. These ideas are where the power of the film lies. Forbes’ approach may be varied – and takes in elements of satire, horror and sci-fi – but the questions raised by The Stepford Wives and the points it makes about women and how they are treated unequally in so many different ways in society are what holds it together and makes it an interesting film that remains relevant, moving and just as topical today.


Tower Farm said…
I can't believe I haven't seen this one yet. Not sure why I haven't gotten around to it... Anyway, it was a great review and I will be sure to pick up the movie soon.

James Gracey said…
Hey JM, thanks for stopping by. I watched this again recently with a friend and we were both quite surprised by how effective it still is. The camp, kitschy quality proves quite funny, but in a good way - kind of endearing, I guess. Let me know what you think when you check it out. From what I've heard, it is best to leave the remake well alone!
MrJeffery said…
Such a bizarre, creepy film. Love all the 70s styles. The remake was really awful.
I love this one and truly appreciate the great review James! This has become a personal favorite in the few times I have seen it, and I think it is entirely relevant even if our society has progressed past the traditional family values. It is so smart and subtle, truly a brilliant film.

"I would love to be able to watch The Stepford Wives again for the first time – without knowing anything about it."

Fact. I wish I could do this with so many other classics, but what I do look forward to is watching the films for the first time with my daughter and experiencing them vicariously through her viewing experience
James Gracey said…
Mr Jeffrey I whole-heartedly concur! Very creepy in places, especially the scene in which the men all inspect Joanna's room in order to replicate it... And as for all those 70s styles - you just can't beat it! I have so far been fortunate enough to avoid the remake... Though curiosity may just get the better of me... ;)

Thanks, as always, for stopping by Carl - always a pleasure! What a wonderful point you made about watching this with your daughter - I'm sure the kick you will get out of seeing her reaction to the revelation will no doubt equal the experience of watching it for the first time yourself.

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