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The Stepford Wives (1975)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975)

Starring: Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman, Tina Louise

Written By: William Goldman, Ira Levin (novel) Directed By: Bryan Forbes

The Short Version

The premise has become a pop culture staple…

…but the movie itself is barely low mediocre.

The story can’t decide what it wants to be, and pacing is something that happens to other films.

The cast members do a decent job with what they’re given, but…

The Stepford Wives is a disappointment that’s easily skipped for all but the most pop culture curious.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PROCESSED SWISS.

Lots of holes; overwrought into dullness.


Pairs Well With...

CHEAP SCOTCH.

Apparently, it’s the official booze of Stepford.

“If I was forced to apologize every time I got smashed, I'd spend my whole life wandering around saying "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."”

“You see, doctor, my problem is that given complete freedom of choice, I don't want to squeeze the goddamn Charmin!”


The Stepford Wives occupies a special niche in the cultural canon. 

Next to no one you’ll ever meet has read the novel, or even realizes that it started out as one.   The movie that everyone knows about is very much on the low end of mediocrity and bombed severely enough at the American box office that its British theatrical release was heavily scaled back.

And yet… the premise for The Stepford Wives was almost immediately absorbed by the collective pop culture consciousness and into the everyday lexicon of the English language, where it continues to thrive even several decades later.  Call someone a “Stepford” anything, and odds are that everyone around you will know exactly what you mean, even if those people have never themselves seen the movie or read the book.

Interesting, that.   Certainly more interesting than the movie itself, anyway.

For those who know they should know but can’t quite remember, here it is quick and dirty.  New York City lady Joanna Eberhard (Katharine Ross, The Final Countdown) is railroaded by her lawyer husband Walter (Peter Masterson, The Exorcist) into moving to the country suburb of Stepford, Connecticut.  As she tries to make friends, Joanna discovers that nearly all of the women in Stepford are eternally cheerful stay-at-home housewives who get their fashion cues from the 1950s and who seem to want nothing more from life than to serve their husbands, who are themselves all boring white collar WASPs.  (Though the local gossip says that the town’s first black family will be moving in soon.)  Eventually, Joanna and fellow newcomer Bobbie Markoe (Paula Prentiss, Saturday the 14th) begin to suspect that there’s something sinister going on, and that all of the men in town – including their own husbands – are in on it. 

What, oh what, could the truth behind Stepford’s hausfrau conspiracy be?

If you don’t know, you’re one of maybe six people in the English speaking world who’s managed to stay in the dark since 1975.  As the Brits say: well done!

I’ll try to keep it unspoiled for you.  It’s not an easy task, mind, but hey.

Essentially, The Stepford Wives is satire: a commentary on gender roles, relationships, and societal structure in general, finding a particularly appropriate place to play during the height of the Women’s Liberation movement.  This satire is rather interestingly built around a premise that lives in the realm of science fiction, and which provides anyone taking on the challenge of presenting this story with two very clear options: play it as a comedy, or play it as a horror film.  Either one has the potential to provide a successful translation of the core material.

Unfortunately, The Stepford Wives plays out as a compromise involving some sort of drama/mystery/suspense thing, and it’s not very good at all.

The central problem is that while interesting, the core premise behind The Stepford Wives, put into practice, is utterly unbelievable in a way that goes beyond the pale of standard suspension of disbelief.  It is therefore necessary to either keep the audience distracted from that unbelievability by either magnifying it to the point of absurdity – comedy – or distracting the audience from thinking about it by way of bypassing belief altogether and getting to the central point of the satire, which in this case would mean presenting it as horror.  (No one who’s civilized actually thinks the premise of The Stepford Wives represents a good thing, after all.  Hence the satire.) 

Based on reliable reports, the initial plan was to go the absurd route to at least some degree, turning the women of Stepford into “Playboy bunnies.”  This was vetoed when the director’s wife was cast in a major supporting role, for while she was indeed a talented performer, she wasn’t of “centerfold build.”  In most circumstances, this would be an unquestionable triumph of decency and true professionalism.  In this case, though, that one decision snowballed, and the “Playboy bunnies” became old fashioned television housewives with long dresses and big hats, which has the effect of making the premise absurd in an even less believable fashion.  What’s more, nearly every ounce of comedic potential has been squeezed out of the story, leaving audiences with a movie which in terms of presentation takes itself absolutely seriously (even though the director swears that it doesn’t, that is the film he made)… which is the last thing that should happen to satire like this.  (Okay, so there’s one laugh, but that’s not nearly enough.)

Had the film instead gone in the direction of pure horror, it could have worked.  Unfortunately, though there are notions of possibly wanting to be a sort of horror movie present throughout, it never actually settles on an identity.  The horror mark doesn’t end up getting hit until the second to last scene, which is far, far too late to be effective.  Up to that point, The Stepford Wives defaults to being a bland drama with aspirations to turn into a mystery, which one supposes it could have if only the story’s secret wasn’t so blatantly telegraphed throughout.  And even though the score would like the audience to be tingling with edge-of-the-seat suspense whenever it dutifully delivers its cues, there’s simply no suspense to be had here.  The atmosphere is as bland and lifeless as the town of Stepford itself, and what’s worse, the movie is at least forty minutes too long, giving the audience plenty of time to reflect on its shortcomings while waiting for something – anything – exciting to happen.  (If it weren’t for the late appearance of nipples through a sheer nightgown, The Stepford Wives could easily have been made for network television.  Yes, it’s that boring.) 

With all of that said, the primary cast members try their hardest to put some blood into this stone, and are blameless for any the film’s shortcomings.  As for the people behind the camera, it’s rarely a good thing when the director, the writer, and the studio can’t agree on how to tell a story, and the strife shows.  The screenwriter later called the movie “doomed from the start,” and it’s said that Diane Keaton almost took the lead role, but backed out just before signing on after getting “bad vibes.”  Maybe someone should’ve taken the hints and just put a stop to it all during the pre-production phase until all of the major powers involved could get their heads together and work out the kinks.

Oh, right; it’s Hollywood.  What am I thinking?

Bottom line, The Stepford Wives takes in interesting concept of social satire and presents it in the blandest way possible over a much longer runtime than necessary.  If you already know the film’s secret, there’s really no reason to bother watching it anymore.  If you do decide to have a look anyway, I strongly suggest a rental, because it’s highly unlikely that you’ll want to sit through it twice.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2014


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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