Monday, February 14, 2011

THE STEPFORD WIVES 1975

Despite the fact that I was a pretty jumpy kid, I nevertheless LOVED to be scared at the movies. More to the point, I liked the idea of being scared. I had fun huddling in a dark moviehouse with my sisters; three shivering clumps of terror with knees drawn tight to our chins, peering timorously over fortress walls of raised sweaters. Unfortunately, I was also a very pensive and over-analytical kid with a habit of spoiling my own fun by taking what happened on the screen way too seriously.

The first time I recall doing this was back in 1968 when, at age 11, I broke into tears watching Rosemary's Baby. It was during the scene where the deathly pale and thin Rosemary, fearful that her child is dying inside of her, first feels it kick. In the middle of her cluttered apartment (she and her husband have just had a Christmas party), left alone by her guiltily skittish husband on the pretext of cleaning up, she sits rocking back and forth with her arms hugging her pathetically tiny belly. The look on Mia Farrow's face is so heartbreakingly happy that it just tore me up inside. Most people harbor memories of "Rosemary's Baby" as a fun, thrill-ride of a scary movie (which it is), but I always remember how it struck as being so sad.

Years later I had a similar experience with another adaptation of a Ira Levin thriller, "The Stepford Wives." Well-acted, suspenseful, and atmospherically creepy, I nevertheless left the theater feeling that the film was more poignantly sad than frightening.
"Daddy, I just saw a man carrying a naked lady."
"Well, that's why we're moving to Stepford."
"The Stepford Wives" is a feminist nightmare about a city family (Katherine Ross, Peter Masterson) moving into a suburban Connecticut town populated by dull, boorish men who all have stunningly beautiful wives who live for nothing more than slavish domesticity and sexual servility. The ingeniousness of the plot lies in its wry awareness that this women's nightmare is the waking fantasy of a great many men and a cornerstone of the American Dream itself. By pitting repressive traditional values against a more liberated definition of women's role in society, Ira Levin fashions a nifty modern horror story out of contemporary sexual politics.
Katherine Ross as Joanna Eberhart
 
Paula Prentiss as Bobbie Markowe

Tina Louise as Charmaine Wimpiris

Peter Masterson as Walter Eberhart

Patrick O'Neal as Dale (Dis) Coba

Nanette Newman as Carol Van Sant
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Films about the loss of one's identity (like Invasion of the Body Snatchers) only work when the film takes the time to develop the personalities of the protagonists in jeopardy. You can't be invested in the loss of something until the value of that thing is established. What I love about "The Stepford Wives" is how well it gets us to understand, identify with, and ultimately root for, the flawed humanity of Katherine Ross' character.
From the film's first frames we get a sense of her restless dissatisfaction and her longing for something more meaningful in her life beyond home and family. All the more tragic then that the very individuality she seeks to express is the one quality least valued in women in the town of Stepford.
A dream house - A nightmare life

Wives don't even exist on mailboxes in Stepford
PERFORMANCES:
The casting of the main ladies of Stepford is flawless. The women are all such distinct, lively, and interesting characters that you feel the men of Stepford have to be nuts (they are) to want to replace them with bland automatons. Tina Louise is surprisingly vibrant and even a little touching in her brief role.

Paula Prentiss, always a personal favorite, almost walks off with the entire film. But it's Katherine Ross' show and she has never been shown off in a film to better effect. Hers is a deeply appealing, intelligent performance that is the genesis of the emotional impact of the unsettling dénouement.
Strange Things Afoot in Stepford
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I think it was a risky step for the filmmakers to have the women in Stepford speak to one another almost exclusively in TV commercial clichés. It's hilariously appropriate of course (the women in those commercials seem to operate on another plane of existence — they all derive a little too much joy from getting a floor clean or a stain out of a shirt), but it runs the risk of diluting the suspense. Happily, the film strikes just the right tone and unearths the eerie subnormality that lies behind the pursuit of conventional perfection.
"We Stepford wives are busy, busy, busy!"

 THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
As I stated earlier, I like to think I enjoy being scared by movies, but that's just another way of saying I like to be engaged by them. I want a movie to draw me into its reality.
"The Stepford Wives" achieves this by emphasizing character and relationships over plot machinations. I think it's wonderful how well the film works despite the fact that we never really learn just how the men accomplish what they do (like the issue with the eyes). It's plenty scary just letting your imagination go where the film takes you.
The Men's Association

Speaking of scary, I confess that once again, although the film has much to recommend it in the way of shocks (The fireplace poker scene is so well edited I jump every time), for me, what always trumps the suspense is the tragedy.
There's a scene late in the film where Ross (who longs for a career as a photographer) is showing her work to a New York gallery owner. Her eagerness to please and desperation to be acknowledged is palpable.
Gallery owner: "What is it you want from it all, do you know?"
Joanna "I want... somewhere, someday, someone to look at something and say 'Hey, that reminds me of an Ingalls.' Ingalls was my maiden name. I guess I want to be remembered."

Oh, gosh. That scene just breaks my heart...and all of a sudden I'm 11 years-old again.

"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.
She'll be like one of those robots in Disneyland."

32 comments:

  1. Terrific assessment of one of my favorite suspense films.

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  2. Joe Meyers
    It's so gratifying when a film you enjoy, that wasn't such a hit on its release, finds new life as a cult favorite.Thank you very much for visiting my blog and taking the time to leave a comment. Much appreciated! Especially since I think you're a terrific writer and came across your piece on "Black Swan" a while back and wanted to comment myself. Now I can return the favor!

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  3. I never understood why Paula Prentiss didn't get more attention for her performance in this picture - it's her character's warmth and humor that really points up the horror of the robot replacement scheme.
    She was also terrific a year earlier in another paranoid thriller "The Parallax View" in the small role of a reporter who knows she is about to be killed by those behind a political assassination. Prentiss projects pure unadulterated fear in her one scene with Warren Beatty.

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  4. I totally agree. She's the heart of "The Stepford Wives." I've always thought Paula Prentiss must be one of the most frustrated actresses of her age. Here was a woman who possessed a screen persona as quirkily unique and one-of-a-kind as Katherine Hepburn, but Hollywood didn't seem to know what to do with her. I loved her in "The Parallax View" (a very scary cameo with a terribly chilling payoff)! As with "The Stepford Wives," everything weird and quirky about her becomes a symbol of what is most "human" about us all that is at risk of annihilation in these great 70s paranoid thrillers.

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  5. And Tina Louise is almost as quirky and as funny in her much briefer role.
    I always crack up when Charmaine does that very un-Stepford-like thing of showing off her maid to Ross & Prentiss:
    "Isn't Nettie marvelous? She's a German Virgo. Their thing is to serve!"

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  6. Prentiss-"So that's why we won the war."
    HA! That is a great exchange.
    You're the only person I know to give Tina Louise here due in this movie. She's actually very good. I like also how her character is sort of absent-mindedly present at the first Stepford Women's encounter group (her being startled "awake" by Ross is a terrific take by Louise), yet hers is the most moving disclosure.

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  7. Even though I knew the premise of the film, I was still wonderfully spooked (the fire poker, as Ken Anderson mentions, made me jump too). Prentiss and Louise definitely are great. I think the fun, humanness of Bobbie's character is what makes the scene where she malfunctions so creepy, because we know and liked the real Bobbie, which is not the case of the other wives who aren't real to begin with.

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  8. @Anonymous
    I think one of the strengths of Ira Levin's writing (EVERYBODY knows the "surprise" of "Rosemary's Baby") is that they tap so well into core human fears that their enjoyment isn't dependent on shock value alone. His plots get creepily under your skin. You're right about the Bobbie character. The film really needed someone so fun and likable to make her transformation hit home. Thanks for the comment!

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  9. I'm now 52, I was 15 when I first saw this and sided with the women. I remember lines from the movie about the kids being dirty, the house always dirty, the laundry always dirty, dinner not ready or even planned or thought about during the day, and Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss talking at length and never doing a dam thing all day long. The writers had to have lived through all that to be soooo insightful all those many years ago. That must have really struck a cord with men...and the whole feminest movement. Cutting edge writing for sure. This could be my life in 2012...my old lady is EXACTLY the same, except they were thin.... OH MY GOD was that good writing. Oh by the way...where do I place my order? HA HA :o)

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    1. The points you bring up are exactly why the remake of "The Stepford Wives" proved so frustrating. The battle of the sexes had not ceased with the 70s, and the remake missed the opportunity to shed a little satiric light on all the post-feminist backlash and sexual politics of the new millennium. Thanks for your comment!

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  10. This is a fantastic film I love films that f*ck with your psyche and this is one of the best in the genre. Terrific performances by all. Special mention to Miss Tina Louise, who worked wonders with her slight role. I feel she never really got a fair shake in Hollywood because of that damned Island.

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    1. Hmmm....I lost an earlier reply to your post. Wonder it if it's going to appear elsewhere, out of context on this blog?
      Anyhow,thanks a heap for your comment and for taking the time to read my post. I agree, this is a great movie for messing with your mind. When you let the theme really set in, it's surprising how monstrous its premise is (a town full of complicit murderers. Men willing to kill the women they supposedly love because they want a clean house and subservient mate). Also, had to laugh at "that damned island" comment because I'm sure Ms. Louise has thought the very same thing.

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  11. Always remember my Mum and Dad watching this one Saturday night in the 80s...really unsettling for a child to see, and still unsettling for an adult! Unless you happen to share the views of The Men's Association I guess!

    I've never been a huge fan of Bryan Forbes and his nepotism in casting his wife, Nanette Newman, in virtually everything, but I have to admit when he scored a hit, he scored a hit. Seance On A Wet Afternoon is similarly gripping.

    Katherine Ross may just be my ultimate woman. I've always gone for girls with her hair, shape, her looks etc so I'm always pleased to see her in films, but Paula Prentiss is adorable and I've been a fan ever since her hilarious turn in What's New Pussycat

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    1. Hi Mark. The beauty part of "The Stepford Wives" has always been that to a certain faction of our culture, what The Men's Association believes in is mighty close to what many consider an ideal marriage state. Here in the states, where we have nutjobs who think they can "pray the gay away," I wonder if there aren't secret organizations here who think they can pray feminism and independence out of women as well.

      Fans of Levin's book were shocked when Forbes was handed the directing job. So many thought it was such an American theme. (Have yet to see Seance on a Wet Afternoon)

      I've only seen Nanette Newman in one other film, but seriously, they come as a team? You ask for him and you have to take her? I think Steve Allen had a clause in his contracts like that for Jayne Meadows.

      Ross is the prettiest I've ever seen her in this film and of course Prentiss can do no wrong. Neither has worked in film as much as I would have liked. Thanks again for commenting!

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    2. Thanks for posting. I could spend days reading through all these and commenting, blissful days I hasten to add!

      Yeah, she's in virtually all of his movies, including the rather odd role of her playing the Elizabeth Taylor role years on in International Velvet. She's also in Seance On A Wet Afternoon, The Wrong Box, Deadfall....the list goes on.

      Intriguing point regarding your nation's more oddball and fanatical element, I can agree I'd image such a cult who think they could do just that, after all it's no more staggeringly awful as you say as those who are homophobic or even the communist witch hunts of the 50s

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  12. Hi Ken,

    A belated response to your post on Stepford Wives which I happened to stumble across through googling the movie! Great post with insightful comments and I agree a lot with what you say...The movie is up there as one of my all-time favourites; sure, it's dated and slow-moving by today's standards, but it also contains so many strengths. The 2000s update, whilst not quite the disaster everyone made it out to be, left a lot to be desired and doesn't hold a candle to the original! I agree with your comment that one of the film's strengths is its characterisation and this consequently leaves you rooting for the main female protagonists...I just love Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss' performances, so naturalistic, believable and touching and their rapport is believable too. Which makes what happens to Bobbie later on all the more heartbreaking...the scene when Joanna comes back from the gallery and find her "changed" friend never fails to move me! And yet I love the campy lines:" If you're going to tell me you don't like this dress, I'm putting my head right in the oven!" (Yet, as you rightly say, there isn't so much camp that it swamps/ruins the movie - it's actually much more subtle than people give it credit for).

    As a matter of fact I recently showed the movie to some of my English students (I'm a college lecturer) as I teach a text which is all about women's issues over the past century, and I think the movie has a lot of relevance with regard to such matters! I'm always harping on about the film and boring people senseless! I even once organised/attended a Stepford Wives party!

    Anyway thanks for indulging me, and again, thought-provoking post!

    Cheers
    Simon (Old Cheeser - I don't blog much these days...)

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  13. Hello Simon!
    I always enjoy hearing from people who like this film. It has an amazingly strong cult following here (among the young, surprisingly). You rightly point out that the rapport between Ross and Prentiss is conveyed so naturally that the eventual "transformation" has the required emotional punch. I like the camp dialog as well and appreciate it better now with the distance of time. As you say, it's more subtle than it's given credit for.
    I love that you expose your students to the film and serve as this subversive force of promotion for this, to me, under-appreciated film. You have to tell me what a Stepford Wives party involved!
    Thanks for visiting my site and taking the time to share your thoughts on the film. It seems as if you appreciate Forbes' balance of genre thriller/sexual politics satire. The delicate balance sunk the film for those expecting a more heavy-handed approach, but I think it works marvelously. Hope to hear from you again, Simon!

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  14. Hi Ken - I first saw "The Stepford Wives" when it was in release and I was young and experiencing the stirrings of feminism. Around that time I married and, for a time, had a hyphenated last name. As you say, the film is extremely engaging and involving. I thought the final scene chilling. Today I am reminded of the Stepford husbands and wives whenever I happen to catch sight of the anchors on Fox News. A very well done review, excellent insights. By the way, I'd forgotten that Ira Levin also wrote "Rosemary's Baby." That is a film that completely captivated me when I first saw it. I didn't know who Roman Polanski was at the time - what a master! - but he completely swept me into the film and I entirely identified with Rosemary. I found it heart-rending - and irresistible.

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    1. Hi Eve
      You should live in Los Angeles...there's one particular beach community (I won't name it) where you'd swear every man, woman, and child is a Stepford robot. I love that you saw "The Stepford Wives" at a time when you personally were becoming aware of feminism. Much in the same way that I can't imagine how "Rosemary's Baby" would play to a pregnant woman, I've always been aware that "The Stepford Wives" would be experienced differently, perhaps, by a woman becoming of feminism in the 70s.
      Its a marvelous thriller and I'm glad you enjoyed it. And yes, the teaming of Polanski and Ira Levin on "Rosemary's Baby" was remarkable. Levin was quite the storyteller!

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  15. Chilling movie...I think what's scariest about this and Rosemary's Baby is the idea that you can never, ever really know another person...least of all your own spouse. Walter Eberhard and Guy Woodhouse are seemingly charming, interesting men and loving husbands...but are actually monsters. It's our worst fear...that the ones we love the most will sell us down the river for fame, money, sex or just convenience.

    I've loved Paula Prentiss ever since her funny pas de deux with Jack Lemmon, as the stewardess in The Out Of Towners: "We are circling prior to landing..."

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    1. Yes, Ira Levin was the master of a certain kind of domestic dread. Long before husbands murdering their spouses became a depressingly common news headline, Levin tapped into the tension and terror behind the possibility of not really knowing the person closest to you.
      I'm just crazy about this film and glad to hear you are as well.
      Oh, and I hate to be one of those film geeks who goes around correcting bits of trivia (Well, I am a film geek, guess I can't change that part) butthat stewardess in "The Out of Towners" is actually Paula Prentiss' late, troubled younger sister, Ann. I know this because I am a HUGE fan of "The Out of Towners" and always crack up at that exchange between Lemmon and the stewardess you cited.
      I think Ann's career was severely hampered by her near identical resemblance to her more famous sister. She is in an old episode of "Get Smart" and displays a similar gift for comedy, but I swear...it's like you're looking at Paula Prentiss.

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  16. Oh--good catch!! That WAS Ann Prentiss, wasn't it? Very similar look and comic delivery! I appreciate the correction!

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  17. Love that psychiatrist Ross visits: "You come all this way to talk to me...and then you don't talk to me." She's so intense, many in the audience were saying out loud, "She's one of them!" But it's that she's so convinced of Ross' incredible story that her trust and belief is momentarily shocking.

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    1. That's so true! I remember thinking that the first time I saw it, and on revisits to the film, I'm always impressed at how that scene is played and written. It recalled for me the scene in "Rosemary's Baby" when it appears as if Rosemary has found a savior in Dr. Hill, but is betrayed by him.
      I was so sure that was going to happen with the psychiatrist, and that only added to the tension.
      Saw this film AGAIN when it aired on TCM. It really only gets better with time.
      Thank you, Jon, for jogging my memory of a favored scene and audience reaction (and your Google ID jogging my memory of an early Hayley Mills film I loved as a kid)!

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  18. That last scene breaks my heart too...I hate it when evil wins. I too loved Paula Prentiss' role as outgoing Bobbi in the movie! Lol. She tickled me ~ my kind of friend! ;) You are right~she practically stole the show!! I really enjoyed your magnificent review of this movie...after all these years I finally got to see it the other day, and now I'm hooked! :)

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    1. Hi Deanna
      I love it when people tell me they have only recently seen this film and that it has become a favorite. It's such a testament to the enduring quality of a well-made film and a story well-told, that it can reach audiences literally decades after it was first released.
      Director Bryan Forbes was fairly raked over the coals when the film first came out, but perhaps he had an ace up his sleeve that we weren't aware of way back then; that a horror film can be bloodless and still be every bit as chilling when it takes the time to give us characters we care about. Prentiss' Bobbi is a lot of people's favorite.
      Thank you very much for you kind words, and especially for taking the time to share your fondness for this movie that gets better with every passing year. Much appreciated!

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  19. Wow! A very accurate and well written critic we have here Ken. Thank you. The film is a neglected true piece of art. A nearly buried treasure that should be reavaluated. I hated the remake. Nothing that toped the cheer humanity, the depth of the original "Stepford wives". I saw the film when I was 10 and experienced almost the same feelings as you (mainly the natural empathy -love?- I had for Katherine Ross's character). She looked so beautiful and played such a clever yet vulnerable character... Funny how the frontiers, different languages (I'm french) disappear when a great story touches you as it reaches so wonderfully its target. Thank you again for your perfect review (and more) of the film.

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    1. Hello Adam
      And thank you for the exceptionally kind comment! You write very eloquently about the power of film to address different cultures, ages, and individuals when a common humanity is touched upon. Rare in a genre film like horror.
      I love that you saw the film at such a young age and responded to it on an emotional level, not a sensationalistic one. I'm please you enjoyed my review, and I'm happy to hear from someone who also appreciates this film as I do. Thanks!

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  20. One scene that has stuck with me was when we escape Stepford after an hour or so within, with Ross standing on a New York City street (in a tight, nearly transparent shirt, that I didn't realize was for foreshadowing!), and had an overwhelming feeling of release, that I could finally breathe fresh air again. Of course it was not to continue.

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    1. Oh, I know that scene well, and I love that reaction you had. Impresses the hell out of me when filmmakers can have that happen; audience engagement on the level that they are having a vicarious experience.
      Also, your foreshadowing comment made me take note of something I've always been aware of; Ross wears a number of super-clingy, near transparent tops - the one you mentioned, the gown at the meeting with the mens' club - that indeed serve the purpose of providing a kind of physical foreshadowing. That never occurred to me, but it's SUCH an important part of a later payoff! Quite the cinematic eye, Mr. Knutson. Thanks!

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  21. Hi Ken,
    I bookmarked your blog, your reviews are a delight. Scanning the index, I saw quite a lot of personal fav movies that I want to check out later. Thanks for the Gatsby piece in the first place. I've been wrestling with this movie for decades, I never knew whether to adore it or to condemn it. You hit the nail right on the head- do both.
    I think the same applies to the Stepford remake: it made me angry, Such an insult to Levin's storytelling genius! Then I saw it a second time on YouTube, and suddenly saw it for what it is: a sparkling, hilariously over-the-top satire, and I truly enjoyed it. I wasn't surprised by Glenn Close's comedy streak but I didn't expect this quality from Nicole Kidman as well. It's also the first movie where I find Matthew Broderick interesting. We see an very good director at work, here.
    I know it's difficult, but for optimal consumption of the second Stepford Wives you have to let go of Levin's novel and the original movie altogether. In its own right the remake is great fun, professionally made.

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    1. I rarely ever see a film only once, but the remake of "The Stepford Wives" was a single-timer for me. Your latter-day appreciation for it intrigues me and at least plants the seed that perhaps enough time has passed for me to check this film out devoid of expectations and see if I can assess it for what it is.
      I was one of those disappointed that this particular "Stepford" didn't reach hoped-for, "Rosemary's Baby" standards, but in the intervening years I've come to really think of it as something special.
      Thank you Willem. I've been enjoying your comment posts!

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