WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Joanna Eberhart moves from New York to the quiet village of Stepford at the insistence of her husband Walter, and is instantly struck by its quiet nature and the docility of its female inhabitants. Jo and her new friend Bobby start delving a little deeper into why this might be and stumble upon a disturbing secret that the menfolk of Stepford have been keeping to themselves.
As I hinted at in my review for the ill-judged 2004 version of Ira Levin’s story, the phrase ‘Stepford Wife’ is now in such common usage that it’s pretty much impossible to watch either movie without already knowing where it’s headed. That said, one version of the story is a silly, inconsistent mess; the other – this one – is not without flaws but has a great deal more to offer.
The Eberhart family head to Stepford from the bustle of New York, much to the relief of lawyer Walter (Peter Masterson) but much less happily for wife Joanna (Katharine Ross), an aspiring photographer, and their two children. For Stepford is everything New York isn’t: quiet, green, and with a sense of community that borders on the archaic (useful word, that) as neighbour Carol Van Sant (Nanette Newman) instantly proves when she welcomes the Eberharts with a casserole. Jo finds the place odd, since the women of Stepford are excessively domestic and occasionally eccentric, such as when Carol suffers a car accident or drinks too much; but Walter is welcomed with open arms into the village’s secretive Men’s Association, even if his first meeting appears to trouble him.
Luckily, Jo finds a friend in non-conformist newcomer Bobby (Paula Prentiss) and another in unhappily married trophy wife Charmaine (Tina Louise); together, the trio attempt to instil a bit of feminist feeling into Stepford’s doting housewives, but Carol (who previously organised something similar herself) and the others are far too pre-occupied with their housework to join in.
As Walter increasingly buries himself in his work and the Association, under the influence of biochemist Dale Coba (Patrick O’Neal), known as ‘Diz’ because of his work with Disney animatronics, Jo and Bobby become increasingly convinced that the women of Stepford are being controlled by their men, a suspicion confirmed when Charmaine changes overnight from an unhappy but independent thinker to a compliant drone. But as the ladies are to find out, the full horror of Stepford is something that they could not possibly imagine.
More than anything, The Stepford Wives is kept afloat by the power of its theme. The idea of feminism being such a threat to the male population that they would murder their spouses and replace them with facsimiles is clearly bananas (especially thirty-plus years down the line), but as a reductio ad absurdum it makes for effective satire, and in the female leads of this film (Ross, Prentiss, Louise, Newman) there are convincing and enjoyable examples of strong women being neutralized by their inadequate husbands.
Stepford is a troubled paradise, Joanna’s misgivings bolstered by a suitably creepy electronic-flavoured score, and as the film creeps towards its climax it gains in power, with ‘replacement’ Bobby’s malfunction and the two final scenes particularly impressing: Joanna comes face to face with her own physically-enhanced robot, before the terrifyingly bland aftermath in the supermarket (note how the wives skirt around the arguing black couple, newly arrived as mentioned in passing earlier in the film). These scenes represent the best of the film and emphasise the good performances from the ladies as mentioned above.
However, although it needs space to build up atmosphere (Jo visits a psychiatrist to voice her fears), The Stepford Wives does take its time in getting anywhere and by any measure must be considered slow-moving. There’s very little in the way of action, emphasised when Jo allows Diz to disarm her of a weapon that she’s recently hit her husband with, then runs from him; this feeling is aggravated by Bryan Forbes’ pedestrian directing, which often results in a film that is flabbily paced, episodic (the scenes rarely flow from one into the other) and unattractive, not to mention poorly lit in several important places. Neither can the film be considered proper science fiction, since the genesis of the robots barely goes beyond shots of technological-sounding company buildings and a few words like ‘biochemicals’ and ‘computer junk’; though to be fair, the film concerns itself less with the mistrust of technological advancement (like Coma and Soylent Green) than with the mistrust of human nature.
Furthermore, although Jo’s chosen profession as a photographer has a certain resonance – the photos she takes capture human expressions like laughter and love – the point is never brought home; and other, lesser plot strands go nowhere at all, specifically Jo’s first love, the unhappily-named Raymond Chandler (Robert Fields), who pops up to confirm there’s nothing wrong with Stepford’s water, makes a brief play for his old flame, then disappears again.
Ira Levin created in The Stepford Wives an iconic and timely idea which has endured and which can still inform relationships between the sexes today. Bryan Forbes only partially succeeded in bringing this idea to the screen, and not with any great style, hence the score; but make no mistake, there is a provocative intelligence and a compelling paranoia to this film, two features entirely absent from the Kidman/Broderick/Midler fiasco of 2004.