The Stepford Wives (1975)

It's perfect for us, and it's perfect for you.
★★★
☆
Released: 
1975
Director: 
Bryan Forbes
Starring: 
Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson
The Setup: 
Woman moves to community where women are turned into man-pleasing robots.
Discussion: 

I recently found the novel of this for $5, and after reading it, was possessed to see this movie and its frankly stupid remake. This movie proves to be a quite faithful adaptation of the novel, though it does change a few things around, and has that wonderfully alarmist 70s vibe that can be so enchanting. So let's rock it!

We first see a flowery 70s wallpaper pattern, then star Katharine Ross looking blank. Is she a robot? No, for she soon makes a very human face, and we next see her sitting alone and despondent in an empty New York apartment. As the credits play, we discover that this was written by William Goldman, and directed by Bryan Forbes, of International Velvet fame. Katharine, as Joanna, goes downstairs where she meets her two kids, and husband Walter. The kids see a man walking across the street, carrying a nude mannequin of a women, mask over her face. Foreshadowing! We love it. They then drive along the West Side highway, which was interesting for me to see back then, as I often take that route today. They soon arrive at their new home in picturesque Stepford, Connecticut.

While outside, Walter is brought a welcoming casserole by their neighbor, Nannette Newman as Carol. She is director Forbes' wife, and there's an interesting note in the interviews also on the disc: since Newman didn't have the smokin' body Stepford wives are supposed to have, her inclusion, at Forbes' insistence, forced the appearance of the movies' Stepford women in long, body-covering dresses, as opposed to the skimpy outfits the novel supposes them to have. The next day, Walter sees Carol's husband, and remarks simply "She cooks as good as she looks."

Meanwhile Joanna is feeling at a loss. She didn't want to leave New York, but Walter insisted. She sits outside with nothing to do. When asked by the old lady who writes the newcomers column in the local paper what she misses about New York, she says "noise." She approaches to return Carol's casserole pan, and sees the woman in her garden. Carol's husband approaches from behind and grabs Carol's boobs. He then turns her around and opens her jacket, gazing on her boobs like a prized possession, which we will soon find they are. Back home, Joanna refuses sex with Walter for a second time, and is annoyed that he makes family decisions without consulting her.

That night, Walter goes to the local men's association, and Joanna finds him downstairs crying. He looks at her and assures her several times that he loves her. This is effective (it must be assumed that audiences at the time knew what was coming, as the novel was popular), but is a difference from the book. In the book, Joanna wakes to find Walter in the bed beside her, masturbating! He is thinking about how hot she'll be when she's a robot! Which is kind of a perversely effective touch. There have been other differences from the novel, mostly in the large-scale defeminizing of Joanna, who was quite an active feminist in the novel. She is shocked at the existence of the exclusionary men's association, and makes Walter promise to work from the inside to allow women to be included. She has also tried several times to make friends with the local women, and found them all to be far more interested in doing housework. This provides the reason she is so eager to meet defiantly non-robotic Paula Prentiss as Bobbie, making it strange the movie would have left this out. But it still comes out okay.

Bobbie seeks Joanna out specially, looking for another non-robot friend, and Joanna is happy to have her for this reason (making it strange we've never seen Joanna attempt friendships with robots yet). Nevertheless, they are soon fast friends, which works wonderfully, as Prentiss is vibrant and full of life in a way perfect for her character, and her relationship with Joanna seems vital and real. That night the men's association meets at Joanna's house, in a brilliant movie to show her that what goes on up there really is incredibly boring, and also for one of the men to make several sketches of her differing facial features. One touch from the novel that is left out is that the drawings have all "improved" Joanna in disturbing ways, but the movie will gain a good device in showing that all the women who have been turned into robots have similar drawings on their walls.

At a garden party, Carol is drinking, and begins to malfunction, causing one of the delightfully campy scenes this movie has become primarily known for. She makes her way around to various people, saying "I'll just die if I don't get this recipe," which is good, but I prefer at earlier scene in which she got into a minor car accident, and repeated the bizarrely creepy "This all seems so silly... it's just my head!" Anyway, the next day, Carol is made to go around apologizing to the neighborhood, which appalls Joanna and Bobbie. Joanna proposes they strike up interest in a women's group, and they attempt to persuade the other women to join, but find that they're all SO busy with housework! Upon entering one house, they hear the wife upstairs in the throes of passion, saying "Oh Frank, you're the MASTER!" When she finally forces the women in town to join her for a women's group, all they have to talk about is cleaning and baking.

Earlier they have met Charmaigne, vibrant women who loves tennis. After a romantic weekend away, however, they find Charmaigne changed, saying how she had been so selfish and now realizes she must be a devoted wife to her wonderful husband. She has a drawing on her wall, and her husband is triumphantly ripping out the tennis courts she had previously so loved. After this, Bobbie is convinced that there must be something in the water, and vows to move as soon as possible. The whole angle of the water is straight from the novel, and works well to show how the women know SOMETHING must be up, but are bewildered as to what. Walter of course thinks Bobbie is crazy, and thinks Joanna may be headed that way, too. Nevertheless, as soon as Joanna mentions it, he says no problem, let's move out... in August.

SPOILERS > > >
Well Bobbie and her husband have had a romantic weekend away and when Joanna sees her again--she's changed. She's now wearing long dresses and her house is immaculate, and she's going on like the others about how she was selfish and didn't realize what a wonderful husband she had. Joanna and Walter have another fight, and he demands that she see a psychologist. When she comes back home, her kids are gone. She's ready to make a run for it, but she wants to retrieve her kids first. She thinks they're at Bobbie's, but they're not. Bobbie insists Joanna have some coffee. This leads to the famous scene--not in the novel, but necessary for the movie--in which Joanna ends up stabbing Bobbie in the stomach. Bobbie doesn't bleed, removes the knife, and starts flamboyantly malfunctioning. I know this scene has come to be high camp, but it's also pretty effective, and could have gone much MORE over the top if it wanted.

Now things start to get a little dull because it's all chase here, chase there, but finally Joanna ends up at the Men's Association house. There she meets Dale Coba, the mastermind, and stupid Joanna quickly let's herself be disarmed of the fire poker she's been holding. She asks why, and he replies "Because we can. It's perfect for us and it's perfect for you." She is then shown into the next room, where she sees her replacement, exactly like her except with large breasts, and perfectly blank eyes. The replacement rises and comes toward her, winding a stocking, ready to strangle Joanna. None of this is in the novel, by the way, but it's necessary and relatively restrained for a movie.

And now, the iconic ending! We're in the supermarket, where Stepford women glide down the aisles, pushing shopping carts, gracefully placing items into their carts. We watch them until we come to Joanna, now dressed in the long dresses and mindlessly shopping. It's iconic because it sums up the whole movie, and is still effective and creepy. This was an element that the movie chose to emphasize from the book, and it's a really brilliant touch.
< < < SPOILERS END

The novel was published in 1972 and this movie came out in 1975, and while it was a failure at the box office at the time, it found a place in the cultural consciousness and the name and overall concept became a part of the American lexicon. This is one of the numerous works that examine the changing place of women in the 70s, and men's fear of the changes and loss of their own control that feminism would bring. You might say it's simplistic and outright silly, but look at it this way--it could be Invasion of the Bee Girls, another paranoid sci-fi movie about the fear of feminism. And while it seems bluntly obvious to us now, it's worth remembering that women's groups at the time protested this film because they couldn't understand that it was a satire! Not really helping your own case there, early feminists. The producers of the wretched remake, which you should not watch under any circumstances, obviously thought it was so silly it could only be remade as a comedy, although satire has always simplified and exaggerated for effect, and it can hardly be said that the point of this film has been invalidated! Although if one were to make a serious remake today, one might change it so that the women voluntarily make themselves into robots, so as to be more likely to become celebrities, score a reality show, be an ageless job candidate, or simply be a rockin' Facebook profile. Wow, the more I think about that, the more relevant it seems.

The interviews included on the DVD are informative and have the courtesy not to last the length of the film, like a commentary. It's all delightfully gossipy, and no one has a kind word for writer Goldman, who made himself into a giant prissy pain in the ass who apparently considers his script akin to The Iliad. We learn that many actresses were considered before Ross and Prentiss, although both of them ended up absolutely perfect, and we get to see a modern-day Prentiss, who comes off as about the coolest woman alive. I want to have her to my dinner party, for sure. Forbes' direction was just fine, but I learn to my agony that this film was handed to Brian De Palma before that asshole Goldman nixed him! Holy moley, the movie THAT would have been!

Anyway, gather your sons and daughters and watch this on some rainy day, then take them out to pizza afterward and talk about it. It may be old and clunky, but its still got that spunk!

Should you watch it: 

Ya sure should! Be warned that if you watch the remake, you shall earn my eternal reproach.

RELATED MOVIES:
THE STEPFORD WIVES (2004) is the frankly idiotic remake with the gay agenda, this time presented as a comedy, and while I don't recommend watching it, I DO recommend reading my review in which we rip it to shreds and urinate on it, before setting it on fire, which is more charitable than it deserves.