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."
|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|
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.
|Suburban Bliss: Dream House / Nightmare Life|
|In Stepford, the wives don't even exist on mailboxes|
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|
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 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.
Much of The Stepford Wives just wouldn't stand up to the kind of microscopic scrutiny of today's fandom culture, but the film works splendidly because its so well-constructed.
|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.
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.