Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Watch Your Stepford: "The Stepford Wives" (1975)

This cult classic based on Ira Levin's novel is even more notorious now thanks to its recent remake.

Joanna (Katharine Ross), lawyer hubby Walter (Peter Masterson), and their two young daughters move from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the small suburb of Stepford. Walter throws himself into his work, and the local men only club. Joanna continues her photography, and meets neighbor Carol (Nanette Newman). Carol seems to have a drinking problem. She will repeat herself, and is obsessed with making her husband happy.

Thankfully, Joanna also meets new person Bobby (Paula Prentiss), who also notices how strangely the Stepford wives act. Bobby and Joanna try to get a women's group started, but the invited wives talk of nothing but household cleaners. Soon, another friend, Charmaine (Tina Louise), changes from an outgoing tennis player to perfect wife. Then Bobby comes back from a weekend with her husband, and she has changed, too. Joanna sees the writing on the crystal clean walls, and tries to escape.

Do not be mislead by the credits. The screenwriter, William Goldman, adapted Levin's novel, and Forbes also directed "Seance on a Wet Afternoon," but "The Stepford Wives" is not really horror or science fiction. It is a quiet little suspenser that worked for me. The screenplay certainly takes its time with the story, which is frustrating if you know the basic plot. Some of the scenes drag, and I would have liked to see more satire (especially on our consumer culture, "The Truman Show" covered some of this same ground better). Ross is nicely controlled as Joanna, our heroine. Paula Prentiss is instantly likable as Bobby. You will notice all the husbands in Stepford are a little nerdy, and Peter Masterson is a terrific Walter (one of his daughters plays one of the couple's kids- you may have heard of Mary Stuart Masterson).

Forbes lets his characters figure out the plot without appearing too stupid. Some of the film is a little choppy; Forbes rewrote some of Goldman's script, Goldman bad mouthed the production, typical Hollywood behavior. The supporting cast is also good, from Tina Louise to a funny yet creepy Nanette Newman, an innocent sounding line like "I'll just die if I don't get this recipe" actually menaces! "The Stepford Wives" has one of the most infamous endings in cinematic history, the final ten minutes or so are brilliant. Many audiences saw this as anti-feminist when it first came out, but in fact it is the opposite.

"The Stepford Wives" is old school 1970's suspense. Ignore the terrible rash of made for television sequels, and stick to the original. Your floors will never be shinier. (* * * *) out of five stars.