The Stepford Wives
Even if you’ve never seen The Stepford Wives (1975), you probably understand that the name embodies a type of eerie perfectionism. It’s become part of the pop culture vernacular, a testament to the lasting impression The Stepford Wives has left on the American psyche. With a story that relies heavily on the battle between the sexes, The Stepford Wives is a cult classic that serves as a time capsule of 1970’s fashion and feminism.
Walter Eberhart (Peter Masterson) packs up his family and moves to the New England town of Stepford. His wife, Joanna, is played by the beautifully bland Katherine Ross. After setting up house, Joanna tries to settle into the routine of a quiet suburban life.
One afternoon, Joanna and Walter witness a fender bender between their neighbor Carol Van Sant (Nanette Newman) and another hapless Stepford wife. Tough she only has a bump on the head, Carol is whisked away in an ambulance. As the emergency vehicle speeds out of the parking lot, Joanna notices something odd, “I know we’re new here, but isn’t Stepford hospital that way?”
Walter seems visibly disturbed after his first meeting with the Stepford Men’s Association. When asked why he’s so upset, Walter brushes his wife’s concerns aside by praising Joanna and telling her how much he loves her.
Joanna soon finds a new friend in kooky neighbor Bobbie Markowe. Joanna Cassidy was originally cast, but was quickly replaced by fast-talking Paula Prentiss. “I’m also an ex-gothamite who’s been living here in Ajax country for just over a month now and I’m going crazy.” Bobbie also confides that, “Given complete freedom of choice, I don’t want to squeeze the goddamn Charmin!” Prentiss is given some of the movie’s wackiest lines, such as, “Two things I always carry, Tampax and Ring-Dings, and I don’t even want to think what that means.”
Bobbie commiserates with Joanna about the happy homemakers of Stepford, “It’s like there’s a contest okay, and the housewife with the cleanest house gets Robert Redford for Christmas…but nobody will tell the rules.” If the camaraderie between Joanna and Bobbie seems reminiscent of another famous female duo, it’s because screenwriter William Goldman envisioned Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper as the female leads.
Walter brings home a few members of the Men’s Association one evening, so Joanna dresses to impress in a crocheted cocktail gown. While fixing coffee in the kitchen, she’s watched by creepy Association head Dale Coba, “I like to see women doing small domestic chores.”
“You came to the right town.” When Joanna asks why he’s nicknamed Diz, he explains that it’s because he used to work at Disneyland. “You don’t look like someone who enjoys making other people happy.” The men of the New Projects Committee intently study her as they meet in the living room. Joanna can’t understand her husband’s enthusiasm for the Men’s Association, “You wouldn’t have given those bores the time of day back in Manhattan.”
At a neighborhood garden party, Carol Van Sant shows signs that she hasn’t quite recovered from that bump on the noggin. Clad in a full length prairie dress, Carol wanders among the other party guests repeating over and over, “I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe.” It’s meant to be chilling, but it’s just one of the film’s gleefully funny highlights.
Joanna and Bobbie decide to shake things up by starting a women’s group. They happen upon tennis loving redhead Charmaine (Tina Louise of television’s Gilligan’s Island). When they finally round-up enough women for a consciousness raising group, it’s a complete bust. The only thing Stepford wives have on their minds is baking, getting their floors to shine, and the wonders of Easy-On spray starch.
While on an evening walk, Joanna chases the family dog to the gates of the gothic mansion that houses the ominous Men’s Association. The town sheriff pointedly warns her to stay away.
It turns out that there was once a thriving women’s club in Stepford and Carol Van Sant was its president. Charmaine has changed her tune as well. After a weekend away with her husband, her tennis court is being torn out because she’s too busy with her domestic duties. These odd transformations lead Bobbie to theorize that there must be something in the water that’s changing the women of Stepford. “I think we oughta take a sample of the water ourselves and then get it to a trustworthy chemist.”
Joanna lets slip this juicy tidbit from her past, “I lost my virginity to a trustworthy chemist.”
Mr. Scientist gives them this diagnosis, “You’ve got water in your water.”
Though only a hobby, Joanna shows some of her snapshots of the children to a New York gallery owner who encourages her budding talent. After a weekend away , Bobbie has (not too surprisingly) changed for the worse. Her hair is coiffed, her make-up is immaculate, and her house is clean. Even though she’s now a bona fide Stepford wife, Bobbie’s wry sense of humor manages to sneak though her newly created exterior, “If you tell me you don’t like this dress, I’m sticking my head right in the oven.” A very clean oven no doubt.
In an absolute panic over the change in her friend, Joanna insists on moving right away. Walter thinks she’s being unreasonable and suggests she talk to a psychiatrist. She eventually reveals her conspiracy theory to an understanding analyst. “I think the men are behind it. If I am wrong, I’m insane…and if I’m right, it’s worse than if I’m wrong.” Charmaine changed after four months of moving to Stepford. Bobbie changed after four months too. Joanna’s time is running out! “There’ll be somebody with my name and she’ll cook and clean like crazy, but she won’t take pictures and she won’t be me!”
Joanna finds her house is dark and the kids are missing. She runs next door looking for the children and confronts Bobbie in her kitchen. Desperate to prove her theory, Joanna picks up a knife and stabs her best friend. With a perplexed look, Bobbie removes the knife and puts it away. “My new dress. How could you do a thing like that… when I was just going to give you coffee.” Bobbie moves in an endless circle, short circuiting, spilling coffee grounds and breaking cups. “I thought we were friends…when I was just going to give you coffee.”
Through the dark and stormy night, Joanna makes her way to the Men’s Association. Searching the vast rooms of the mansion Joanna finds Diz and demands to know why the men would do something so terrible. “Because we can.” is his answer.
Joanna is shocked to find an exact replica of her master bedroom, and sitting at a dressing table is an exact replica of her! With a smile on her artificial lips and a gleam in her robotic eye, Joanna’s duplicate moves menacingly towards her human counterpart.
In the famous final scene, we’re confronted with the most horrific sight thus far… the women of Stepford shopping! Dressed in giant sun bonnets and conservative dresses, the Stepford wives glide placidly up and down the grocery store aisles. In a haze of consumer perfection, the ladies shop and exchange pleasantries with one another. As the melancholy theme plays, we see that Joanna is now one of them. Perfect and bland in every way. With a vacant look on her beautiful face, she goes about her domestic chores.
There seem to be two schools of thought concerning The Stepford Wives. Some believe that the film is a taught thriller, a cautionary tale about the dangers of conformity with humorous moments that are meant as subversive satire about taking the ideals of suburban perfection to a frightening extreme.
Others might argue that the idea of the perfect woman being perfectly submissive is so crazily sexist that it can’t help but be pure camp. Enthusiasts of Cool Cinema Trash will most likely belong to the latter group.
Novelist Ira Levin, who struck gold with Rosemary’s Baby, takes that book’s popular premise (paranoia and devil worship), tweaked it slightly (paranoia and robots) and wrote the thematically similar bestseller The Stepford Wives. Levin was exploiting the irrational fear that men would become obsolete in light of the modern liberated woman. But where the Roman Polanski film version of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) remains timeless, as scary today as it was thirty-five years ago, the film version of The Stepford Wives is so steeped in the gender politics of the 1970’s that it can’t help but show its age. What made it so chilling and topical upon its release in 1975, now makes it comedic.
The idea that a group of men would trade in their liberated but loving wives for cold, unfeeling but “perfect” robots, is extreme to say the least. The fact that the film handles the material with such straight-faced reverence, when the concept itself is so ripe for satire, makes it wonderfully absurd. This is most likely the reason the all-star 2004 remake was made an intentional comedy and not a straight forward thriller.
The silver anniversary edition DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment features a widescreen version of the film and some nice extras that include radio commercials, a theatrical trailer (which does everything it can to associate itself with the blockbuster Rosemary’s Baby) and a brief but informative featurette that includes reminiscences by the film’s cast members.
To coincide with the release of its remake, Paramount also released the original Stepford Wives on DVD. The Paramount disc includes the same widescreen print and special features as the Anchor Bay special edition.
No mater how you look at it, whether as a feminist diatribe or as a misogynist manifesto, The Stepford Wives is a wacky and exploitative thriller that will have modern viewers chuckling.
Being the perfect Stepford wife… it’s a good thing.
The Stepford Wives Publicity Images
CCT also recommends:
Valley of the Dolls
Flowers in the Attic