Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Stepford Wives (1975) * * *

Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) is a young wife who moves with her lawyer husband Walter (Peter Masterson) and two children from NYC to the idyllic Connecticut suburb of Stepford. Walter has dreamed of moving to the suburbs in Fairfield County, Connecticut, but Joanna doesn't enjoy suburban life. Loneliness quickly sets in as Joanna, an aspiring photographer, finds the women in town all look great and are obsessed with housework, but have few intellectual interests. They behave like zombies, constantly cleaning their houses and cooking their husbands' dinner. The men all belong to the club Stepford Men's Association, which Walter joins to Joanna's dismay. Witnessing neighbor Carol Van Sant's (Nanette Newman) sexually submissive behavior to her husband Ted, as well as her odd, repetitive behavior after a car accident also strikes Joanna as unusual. Something is going on.

Carol Van Sant: I'll just die if I don't get this recipe. I'll just die if I don't get this recipe. I'll just die if I don't get this recipe.

Things start to look up when she makes friends with another newcomer to town, Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), a sassy woman who quickly becomes Kathy's best friend in town. Bobbie says, "It's like maids have been declared illegal and the housewife with the neatest place gets Robert Redford for Christmas." Stepford once had a women's group with a healthy membership, but that dissolved some years ago. So, along with trophy wife Charmaine Wimperis (Tina Louise), they organize a Women's Lib consciousness raising session, but the meeting is a failure when the other wives hijack the meeting with cleaning concerns.

Joanna is unimpressed by the boorish Men's Club members, including intimidating president Dale "Diz" Coba (Patrick O'Neal). The men stealthily collect information on Joanna, including artist's renderings of her face, recordings of her voice, and other personal details. When Charmaine turns overnight from a languid, self-concerned tennis fan into an industrious, devoted wife, Joanna and Bobbie start investigating the reason behind the submissive and bland behavior of the other wives, especially when they learn they were once quite supportive of liberal social policies. It soon becomes plain that the women of Stepford are being coerced, brainwashed, or otherwise altered.

Dale Coba: (Joanna is brewing coffee) I like to watch women doing little domestic chores.
Joanna Eberhart: Then you came to the right town. Why do they call you Diz?
Dale Coba: I used to work in Disneyland.
Joanna Eberhart: No, really!
Dale Coba: No. Really.
Joanna Eberhart: I don't believe you.
Dale Coba: Why not?
Joanna Eberhart: You don't seem to be the kind of person that likes to make other people happy.

Joanna and Bobbie investigate Stepford. They are depicted wearing casual clothing, unfussy hairstyles, and little or no makeup. In addition, they are not wearing bras, indicating they are "Liberated Women" of the 1970s. This is in contrast to the perfect Stepford Wives. Bobbie and Joanna start house hunting in other towns, and later, Joanna wins a prestigious contract with a photo gallery with some photographs of their children. When she excitedly tells Bobbie her good news, Joanna is shocked to find her freewheeling and liberal friend has abruptly changed into another clean, conservative housewife, with no intention to move from town.

Joanna Eberhart: It'll happen to me before then. When you come back, there will be a woman with my name and my face, she'll cook and clean like crazy, but she won't take pictures and she won't be me! She'll be... like the robots at Disneyland.

Joanna panics and at the insistence of Walter, visits a psychiatrist where she explains her belief that all the men in the town are behind a conspiracy of somehow changing the women. The psychiatrist recommends she leave town until she feels safe, but when Joanna returns home, the children are missing. The marriage turns into domestic violence when Joanna and Walter get into a physical scuffle. In an attempt to find her children, she thinks Bobbie may be caring for them. Desperate, Joanna stabs Bobbie with a kitchen knife trying to prove her humanity, but Bobbie doesn't bleed or suffer, instead she goes into a loop of odd mechanical behavior, thus confirming she is a robot.

Dr. Fancher: Here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to give you a prescription that you get filled, then you get your children and get the hell out! Don't tell your husband, don't tell anybody, just get in your car and drive somewhere you feel safe.

Bobbie Markowe: (after being stabbed) Oh Joanna! My new dress! How could you do a thing like that? Just when I was going to give you coffee! How could you do a thing like that? I thought we were friends! Just when I was going to... how could you do a thing like that... just when I was going to give you coffee! Oh Joanna... I thought we were friends... I thought we were friends... friends... coffee... how could you do a thing like that? Like that? Like that? Like that? Friends... friends...

Knowing she will be the next victim, Joanna sneaks into the mansion which houses the Men's Association to find her children, but finds the mastermind of the whole operation, Dale "Diz" Coba, and eventually her own robot-duplicate. Joanna is shocked into paralysis when she witnesses its soulless, black empty eyes. It is then suggested that the Joanna-duplicate strangles the real Joanna. In the final scene, the duplicate is seen placidly purchasing groceries at the local supermarket, along with the other wives wearing similar long dresses, large hats and saying little more than "Hello" to each other. The final shot focuses on Joanna's now-finished eyes.

(last lines)
Joanna Eberhart: Hello, Bobbie.
Bobbie Markowe: Oh, hello, Joanna.
Joanna Eberhart: How are you?
Bobbie Markowe: I'm fine. How are you?
Joanna Eberhart: I'm fine. How are the children?
Bobbie Markowe: Fine.

THE STEPFORD WIVES is a great movie with a terrific premise, extremely watchable. It's a stylish triumph filled with POV shots, incredible production design, smart performances and a haunting score by Michael Small. This science fiction/horror film is based on the 1972 Ira Levin novel of the same name. To some extent it's a knockoff of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), in that human beings are replaced with duplicates who look similar on the outside, but on the inside have lost their abilities to think and feel as individuals. One problem is the women actually seem more interesting after their transformation than before it, when they come across as whiny and petulant, and little else. The conclusion of THE STEPFORD WIVES is visible from a million miles away. If the men of Stepford are taking voice recordings and drawings of their women, there are only a few possibilities about their ultimate project. The film's tone is reminiscent of Levin's earlier work ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), where it is unclear whether or not the film's protagonist is truly threatened or merely paranoid. In both cases, the films make the threat more concrete.

The shining star of the film is Katharine Ross. Although she was not the producer's first choice for the role of Joanna, it is hard to imagine that anyone else could have done a better job of bringing the character to life. The scene where Joanna seeks psychiatric advice about her fear of being changed by Stepford is very well acted. The worst thing for Joanna is that she knows how crazy her story sounds and she says so: "If I'm wrong then I'm crazy, but if I'm right then it's worse." Paula Prentiss is excellent as Bobbie, a fun character who is like Joanna, new to the town and just can't seem to work up that traditional Stepford cleaning spirit. The other characters are very well cast too, and Patrick O'Neal is particularly menacing as Diz, the head of the Stepford's Men's Association. He doesn't actually do a lot to be menacing, but nevertheless he exudes menace in his every scene. He is calm, cold and calculating, and from the first moment that you see him looking at Joanna you just know that whatever is on his mind isn't anything good.

The cast also includes: Carol Eve Rossen (Dr. Fancher), William Prince (Ike Mazzard), Carole Mallory (Kit Sunderson), Toni Reid (Marie Axhelm), Judith Baldwin (Patricia Cornell), Barbara Rucker (Mary Ann Stravros), George Coe (Claude Axhelm), Franklin Cover (Ed Wimpiris), Robert Fields (Raymond Chandler), Michael Higgins (Mr. Cornell), Josef Sommer (Ted Van Sant), Paula Trueman (Welcome Wagon Lady), Martha Greenhouse (Mrs. Kirgassa), Remak Ramsay (Mr. Atkinson), Mary Stuart Masterson (Kim Eberhart), Ronny Sullivan (Amy Eberhart), John Aprea (Young Cop), Matt Russo (Moving Man 1), Anthony Crupi (Moving Man 2), Kenneth McMillan (Market Manager), Dee Wallace (Nettie), Tom Spratley (Charlie the Doorman), Emma Forbes (Alison Van Sant), and Dennis Kear (Young Grocery Boy). Michael Small composed the incidental music. William Goldman wrote the screenplay from Ira Levin's novel of the same title. Bryan Forbes directed.

The original script by William Goldman was heavily revamped by director Brian Forbes. Tension developed between Forbes and Goldman over the casting of Nanette Newman. Goldman wanted the wives to be depicted as model-like women who dressed provocatively. But after casting Newman this was not to be, as Goldman stated he felt that Newman's physical appearance did not match the type of woman he imagined, and as a result this caused a change in appearance in costuming for all of the other wives. Goldman has said that he found Newman to be a perfectly good actress, but was unhappy with some rewrites that Forbes contributed. In particular, Forbes toned down Goldman's "horrific" ending. Actor Masterson, who was friends with Goldman, would secretly call Goldman for his input on scenes creating additional stress.

The film was shot in a variety of towns in western Connecticut, primarily in Darien, Westport, and Fairfield, with some location work in New York City. Forbes purposefully chose white and bright colors for the setting of the film, attempting to make a "thriller in sunlight". With the exception of the stormy night finale, the film is almost over-saturated with bright light and cheery settings. All the locations were actual places. No sets were built for the film.

THE STEPFORD WIVES debuted in theaters in February of 1975 and was only a moderate success at the time of release, but it has grown in stature as a cult film over the years. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "The actresses have absorbed enough TV, or have such an instinctive feeling for those phony, perfect women in the ads, that they manage all by themselves to bring a certain comic edge to their cooking, their cleaning, their gossiping and their living deaths."

The term "Stepford wife" is still used to describe a woman who is completely devoted to cooking, cleaning, and loving her man. Building upon the reputation of Levin's novel, the term "Stepford Wife" has become a popular science fiction concept and several made-for-TV sequels have been produced over the years including:

* REVENGE OF THE STEPFORD WIVES (1980) starring Don Johnson, Sharon Gless, and Julie Kavner.
* THE STEPFORD CHILDREN (1987) starring Barbara Eden.
* THE STEPFORD HUSBANDS (1996) starring Donna Mills and Michael Ontkean
* The remake of THE STEPFORD WIVES (2004) starring Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick

On the occasion of its 25th Anniversary, THE STEPFORD WIVES made its second DVD appearance thanks to Anchor Bay. The previous DVD was a non-anamorphic bare-bones disc. This is an improvement over that release if only because of the new anamorphic widescreen transfer. The 1.85:1 image is very grainy and shows its age. Colors seem a little washed out, but this could reflect the low budget of the film. It looks more like a movie-of-the-week than a theatrically released film. Presented with the original mono track, the disc performs adequately in the audio department. It will not wow your system, but maintains consistency with the original presentation. A 5.1 remix wouldn't have improved the experience very much, given the limited nature of the action in the film. The dialogue is crisp and clear, and the louder scored sequences are free of distortion. Also included is a French mono track.

There are some interesting supplements. First up is the 18-minute featurette "The Stepford Life" with interviews with Ross, Masterson, Prentiss and director Bryan Forbes. It's a very welcome supplement to fans of the film, as it chronicles the translation of the novel to a screenplay, the original casting of the lead role, and the film's continued cult popularity. It shows a surprising amount of bitchiness that went on behind the scenes. Co-star Peter Masterson comes across as very arrogant as he tells how he would go behind the director's back to discuss the script with William Goldman--who was no longer involved with the movie in any way. The original widescreen theatrical trailer is on hand, though it's in scratchy condition. Two 30 second radio spots shed some more light on how this film was marketed. Also included is a lengthy talent biography of Forbes. The disc probably would have benefited from an audio commentary by Forbes or the stars, but no such luck.


When successful television executive Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is attacked and nearly killed by a disgruntled reality television show contestant, she is immediately fired and experiences a nervous breakdown. With her loving husband and work colleague Walter (Matthew Broderick) and their two children, they move from Manhattan to Stepford, a quiet Connecticut suburb for a change of scenery. Eberhart becomes friends with Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler), a writer and recovering alcoholic, and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), who is homosexual and has moved to town with his longtime partner. The three of them are suspicious of the other women in the town, who are all placid and blissful and spend their days exclusively on domestic tasks.

After witnessing a quickly covered-up incident in which one of the Stepford wives, Sarah Sunderson (Faith Hill), violently malfunctions, and later, the increasingly bizarre behavior of their own spouses, Joanna, Bobbie, and Roger are moved to investigate the strange going-ons in Stepford. In the process, Roger and Bobbie are transformed into bland, unnatural, domestic versions of themselves. The inhuman nature of these new Stepford spouses is revealed to Joanna when she attempts to confront the newly-transformed Bobbie, who unknowingly places her hand on a lit stove, but does not react to the flame. Joanna attempts to flee, only to discover that her children have been taken hostage by the men of Stepford. She storms the Stepford Men's Club, angrily demanding her children to be returned, and is entrapped by the men who have been lying in wait for her. She is forced into the transformation room with her husband. Next, we see her calmly purchasing groceries alongside the rest of the Stepford wives, having apparently become one of them.

Soon after, Stepford hosts a formal ball to celebrate the full assimilation of the town, with Eberhart and her husband Walter as guests of honor. During the festivities, Joanna distracts Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken), the apparent leader of Stepford, and entices him into the garden while Walter slips away. Walter returns to the transformation room where it is revealed that the Stepford Wives are not robots after all, but cyborgs. The original human beings remained, but were put under the control of brain-implanted microchips. Walter destroys the software that controls the microchips, and all the Stepford Wives revert to their original personalities. When Walter returns to the ball, a crisis has broken out between the puzzled husbands and their vengeful wives.

Joanna and Walter reveal that Joanna had never been transformed but only pretended to be in order to assist in the destruction of Stepford. Mike threatens Walter, but before he can attack him, Joanna strikes him with a candlestick, decapitating him, and revealing that he is the only real and complete robot. Distraught over the loss of her Stepford husband, Mike's wife Claire Wellington (Glenn Close) reveals that she was the one who had created Stepford as a refuge from the evils of the world in a fit of despair after discovering the real Mike had been having an affair. Claire accidentally electrocutes herself using the remains of her Stepford husband, and the irate wives take over Stepford and force their husbands to atone for their crimes by becoming completely subject to the women's wills, placing them under house arrest, and making them complete many of the same banal domestic tasks they had forced the women to do previously. After 29 years, the Stepford wives finally have vengence.

Frank Oz brought his black comedy/science fiction remake to screens in 2004, a film that managed to waste the talents of Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler and made a mockery of both Levin’s original novel and Forbes' superior film. The first half is disappointing, but it does pick up nicely for the last half. Most of the film was shot in Darien, Connecticut and New Canaan, Connecticut. This film is notorious for the numerous production problems that occurred throughout its shooting schedule. The tension started when both John Cusack and Joan Cusack, originally slated to star in supporting roles, pulled out of the project and were replaced by Matthew Broderick and Bette Midler. After filming was initially completed, several changes were made to the new script, which created a number of plot holes, and the cast was called back for reshoots. Reports of problems onset between director Frank Oz and stars Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler were rampant in the press. Kidman was reportedly so dissatisfied with the new screenplay that she considered pulling out of the project. In recent interviews, Kidman, Matthew Broderick and producer Scott Rudin have all expressed regret for participating in this project.

In an interview with Ain't It Cool, Frank Oz's take on the film was: "I f**ked up... I had too much money, and I was too responsible and concerned for Paramount. I was too concerned for the producers. And I didn't follow my instincts."

The film was largely panned by critics. Rolling Stone wrote, "Buzz of troubles on the set... can't compare to the mess onscreen." Entertainment Weekly commented, "The remake is, in fact, marooned in a swamp of camp inconsequentiality." The New York Times wrote, "the movie never lives up to its satiric potential, collapsing at the end into incoherence and wishy-washy, have-it-all sentimentality." However, critic Roger Ebert called Paul Rudnick's screenplay "rich with zingers" and gave the film three stars. But in the "Worst Movies of 2004" episode of Ebert And Roeper, he admitted that he gave the film a "thumbs up," but said it wouldn't be "the first movie that I would defend."

The film was a commercial flop. The US opening weekend's gross was a respectable $21,406,781. However, sales fell off quickly and that one weekend would ultimately represent over a third of the film's domestic gross of $59,484,742. The film grossed $42,428,452 internationally. Its budget was an estimated $90,000,000.

Differences between the 2004 film and the 1975 version:

* The town's women were formerly successful and powerful figures in their industries--scientists, politicians, television moguls. In original film of 1975, when most women were only just beginning to attain power in the workforce equal to men's, and the feminist movement was in full swing, the men of Stepford husbands were trying to supress the freedoms feminism gave women.
* Among the couples who had recently moved to Stepford was a gay couple. In the original novel, the newest couple to move in after the protagonist is the town's first African American couple.
* Unlike previous versions, the head programmer of the wives, Mike Wellington is revealed to be a robot himself, a Stepford Husband (a nod to the changing times). The real programmer is his wife Claire.
* In the book and original movie, there is no happy ending: the town's husbands have murdered their wives and replaced them with look-alike robots. In the remake, the women are simply implanted with microchips whose effects are fully reversible.

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