Monday, November 7, 2011

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Directed by Bryan Forbes
Starring Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Tina Louise 
Rated R

"I like watching women do little domestic chores." 

Based on the novel written by Rosemary's Baby author Ira Levin and directed by British actor/director Bryan Forbes, The Stepford Wives is a pitch-black comedy-slash-paranoid sci-fi thriller that carefully up-ends the standard notions of decency and happy-faced conformity prescribed to post-war American suburban life, exposing the creeping fear and paranoia that bubbles just below the surface. It was a box-office bomb upon releases and wrongly lambasted for being anti-woman (if anything, it's the opposite), but it has since become a minor cult classic over the ensuing decades, thanks to a top-notch cast, its deadpan delivery, its absurd premise, and most of all, for its cloying, eerie atmosphere. The film's title and central plot point have also permeated popular culture: everyone knows what a "Stepford wife" refers to, even if they haven't seen the film. 

When the film opens, New Yorkers Joanna Eberhart (Katherine Ross, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), her asshole husband Walter (Peter Masterson) and their kids (one of which is Mary Stuart Masterson, future 80's teen star!) are loading up the station wagon to move away from the loud, disgusting city. While they wait for dad to tip the doorman once last time, they see a dude walking across the street with a naked mannequin. Joanna snaps a couple pics. The kids tell dad what they just saw. He knows, man. Believe me, he knows. 

And so off they go to the idyllic  burg of Stepford, where the birds are always chirping, the cobblestone flows freely, and nobody locks their front door. While the movers lug all their junk into their sweet new abode, Walter heads to the backyard to feed the dog. Out of the bushes trundles their new neighbor, the suspiciously unemotional Carol Van Sant (Nanette Newman), who hands him a crockpot, welcomes him to the neighborhood, and then slinks back off into the bushes. Walt's not sure whether he's amused, creeped out, chubbed-up, or what.

Later that evening, when out for a stroll with the pup, Walt runs into Ted, aka Mr. Van Sant. Apparently they know each other. Walt says, “She cooks as good as she looks, Ted”, and they both smirk and walk away. So that was awkward.

Anyway, Joanna, being a photo-journalist, is not convinced that moving to the middle of nowhere is a good idea. She's not even sure why they did it. Walt gives her the rundown: nice people, no violence, no drugs, no street-hassles. Plus, there's a fireplace. He can lay her down by the fire. That's a definite  bonus. Chicks love that. She's unconvinced, but she slugs down some gin and hopes for the best.

The Eberharts settle into life in Stepford. The Eberhart kids start school and get on the schoolbus for the first time. They are a little shocked by the fact that all the other kids have dead eyes and dress the same, but what the hell, the suburbs are weird.

Also, Joanna peeps Carol and Ted getting amorous in the front yard at 10 in the morning. What a kooky place this is.

She tells Walt about it when he gets home, but he is unsympathetic to her growing anxieties about Stepford. 
She tells him she's already sick of this oversexed suburb, but Walt loves the place. In fact, he's just joined the Stepford Men's Association. No chicks allowed!

Couple days later, while the Ebersons are out grocery shopping, Carol Van Sant gets into a fender bender in the parking lot. Her brain seems to short-circuit, and she repeats herself over and over until the EMTs show up.

The ambulance picks her up and carts her off, but Joanna notices something curious as it speeds away: The hospital is in the opposite direction it leave in. 

So, Walter goes to his inaugural Men's Association meeting. Whatever he saw there freaked him out so badly that he came home and sat in the dark, drinking and crying.

Joanna decides to spend the afternoon sitting in a field all by herself, when suddenly, crashing through some weeds, comes Bobbi (Paula Prentiss), who is also from New York and also hates living in Stepford. Bobbii saw the piece on Joanna in the local Stepford ladies' paper (!), and she figured they'd have a lot in common. So they girl-bond. 

A few days later, Walt decides to host the nightly Mens Association meeting at their house. They hang out and talk about Man Caves while a very nipply Joanna serves them refreshments. While in the kitchen she meets the creepy president of the association, Diz. 

Joanna insists she sit in on their meeting, so they try to bore her to death by yammering about charity events while one of the guys sketches her. He's a well-known artist, apparently.

Also, George Jefferson's neighbor is there too, so that's fun.

Diz throws a pool party, and the whole town shows up. Joanna and Bobbi pal around together and goof on everybody. Also, something's up with Carol. She wanders around the party like she's stoned to the tits, wandering up to people and saying, “I'll just die if I don't get this recipe.” What recipe, crazy lady?

Later on, Ted makes her go to Joanna's and apologize to her and Bobbi for her episode, blaming it on booze. The two city-ladies are appalled that she was forced to apologize by her hubby, but that's status quo in Stepford, baby.

Jo and Bob (hey, they both have boys' names!) can't deal with it, though, so they decide to form their own Women's Association! 

They start going door to door, trying to drum up some interest in their women's club, but all the wives of Stepford are too busy baking, gardening, and/or fucking their husbands to bother with the silly womens' libbers. The only one who will talk to them seriously about it is Charmaine (Tina Louise AKA Gilligan's Island's own Ginger!).

She's up for it, so that's a three-girl wolf pack. And then the guy from the men's association who stutters drops by Joanna's to as her if she'll read the dictionary into a tape recorder for him – part of a “life-long hobby” of his. She figures he's just some kinda nut, but tells him she'll do it if he gets his wife and her friends to join the club. And so, the first  meeting of the Stepford Wives Women's Lib club begins.  At first, everybody just stares at Joanna. Eventually, Charmaine starts complaining about her marriage and  it looks like some real talk might actually happen, but the other wives refuses to discuss anything except for housework.  

So that didn't work out. But one afternoon while Jo and Bobbi are out, they run into the crazy old lady who runs the newspaper, and she gives them an interesting historical tidbit about Stepford. Turns out their used to be a women's club, a long time ago, and Carol Van Sant was the president! But somebody put the kibosh on it. But who? 

And then Charmaine goes to the dark side. She gives up her tennis court so that her hubby can have a pool and she starts getting into house work. Jo and Bobbie wander around trying to figure out what's up. Bobbie thinks the chemical plant outside of town is leaking tranquilizers into their water supply. Seems valid.

Turns out Jo's old boyfriend is a chemist in New York, so they take a sample to him and ask him to check it out. He says it's clean, but he's kind of an asshole, so who knows?

Fuck it. Bobbi and Jo make a pact to bail. Joanna asks Walt and, surprisingly, he agrees. So the girls start house-hunting in nearby towns.  But before they make any decisions, Bobbi asks Jo to watch her kids and dog for the weekend so they can go away for their anniversary. Jo takes the opportunity to take a bunch of pictures and shows them to some gallery dude in New York. He digs 'em. She's pretty psyched.

But when the weekend's over and she brings the kids back, Bobbi is....different. She's wearing a dress and using Ajax! No, Bobbi, say it ain't so! 

By the way, it's obvious from the outset that this was gonna happen, but it's still pretty devastating.

So now Joanna's all alone in wicked Stepford! Can she escape intact? And just what the hell is going on in Stepford, anyway? She goes to visit a psychiatrist who seems sympathetic, tells her to grab the kids and get the hell out of town.

But first, she gives her a prescription and tells her to fill it. C'mon Joanna, you're not gonna fall for that, are you?


Meanwhile, she goes home to get the kids and they're not there. Walt – who's drunk off his tits, assures her they're safe. Then he tells her to hgo upstairs and lie down. When she refuses, he shoves her and smashes his whiskey glass. It's a bad scene.

She gets outta there and goes to see Bobbi. Bobbi's still robo-Bobbi. Joanna has to find out what's going on with her. Some kind of test.

So Joanna stucks a knife in her guts, to see what happens! Things get pretty weird from there.

PS the super-fucked up ending reveals why Joanna's tiny, eraser-nippled boobs were so prominently displayed throughout the film. 

The Stepford Wives presents us with an alternate reality wherein men would rather have robot sex-slash-domestic slaves for wives than actual women. On the surface, it's one of the dumbest premises I can think of. However, as the decades have rolled on, society has gotten increasingly fragmented and isolated; inside is the new outside and pornography is the new sex, with a much wider range of appliances and applications than the real thing.  What are Real Dolls, after all, except really lazy (and equally expensive) Stepford Wives? On some level, for a small but significant chunk of the male population, Stepford Wives is not a cautionary horror tale, but a hopeful fantasy of a bright new future where women come with helpful off-switches. As such, it is clearly not the anti-feminist manifesto 70's film critics called it out as, but rather a pretty lethal skewering of everything that's wrong about modern man's approach to sexual politics. But on a more superficial level, it's also a super-creepy movie with elements of goofy humor, a classically downbeat 70's ending, and a strong cast with many of the principal players acting against type. Paula Prentiss is clearly the stand-out - even though we know how her character will end up the moment she bounds onto the screen, it still stings when it happens - but Peter Masterson is also great as craven creep Walter, and it's almost surreal watching Tina Louise playing an oddly self-reflective version of Ginger. The syrupy score by Michael Small makes the film feel like a TV movie, and at nearly two hours, the pace could be peppier, but otherwise, Stepford Wives is an atmospheric slice of prime 70's downer-cinema, fun, weird and moody.

It is survived by a at least three TV movies (Revenge of the Stepford Wives, 1980; The Stepford Children, 1987; The Stepford Husbands, 1996), a campy 2004 remake, and even a softcore spoof (The Breastford Wives, 2007), all of which suggests that this strange tale continues to resonate and evolve.

- Ken McIntyre 

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