The Stepford Wives (1975)
The Stepford Wives (1975)

Genre: Psychological Thriller and Mystery Running Time: 1 hr. 55 min.

Release Date: February 12th, 1975 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Bryan Forbes Actors: Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Tina Louise, Nanette Newman, Carol Rossen, William Prince, Carole Mallory, Judith Baldwin

 


 

W

ith a bit of superb foreshadowing, aspiring photographer Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) sees a man carrying a naked mannequin, whose arm falls off, as he crosses a busy New York street. But this shot is used to signify the seemingly innocuous oddities found in the big city – and for a comic relief line that justifies the Eberhart family moving to the much quieter, more wholesome Stepford Village in Connecticut. With their two young daughters (and dog Fred in tow), Joanna and her lawyer husband Walter (Peter Masterson) head out to the idyllic, sleepy little town, though it’s obvious that Joanna isn’t altogether keen on the departure.

Once there, in their spacious, grand, white manor, Walter meets their neighbors, Ted Van Sant (Josef Sommer) and his wife Carol (Nanette Newman) – a mildly curious interaction, yet one that doesn’t give away any secrets. What is for certain is that Joanna doesn’t feel entirely at home, especially since Walter makes all the major decisions without her approval – from uprooting their lives to purchasing a home to joining a prestigious men-only club. Of course, her disappointment and unease are quite warranted; she just doesn’t know exactly how unusual Stepford really is. “He doesn’t like it here. He’s gonna be crying all night.”

With a screenplay by William Goldman (from the novel by Ira Levin), “The Stepford Wives” does an exceptional job of establishing its unsettling environs without revealing too much too soon. There’s a masterful subtlety coursing throughout, refusing to let on to the ultimate revelations, instead creating lightly uncomfortable scenarios full of sexual notes, suggesting that so much about Stepford is off, askew, or a mere satire of overbearing masculinity. Despite the occasional, strange interaction or observation, the town isn’t out-of-this-world or over-the-top – and most of the cinematography is rather bright and cheery. “There’s nothing to be upset about.”

The introduction of Bobby Markowe (Paula Prentiss), a somewhat rebellious, likeminded friend for Joanna – a completely normal woman amid an inordinately prim and proper crowd – goes so far as to make the situation less suspicious, steering things toward the evident theme of sexism (particularly with an exclusive men’s association and fawning, doting women) and the other Stepford wives’ reluctance to engage in activities that could foster independence and individuality. When Joanna tries to get her fellow housewives to form their own group, for a women’s liberation cause, the premise nearly returns to total normality. Fortunately, with Joanna providing the primary perspective, otherwise inoffensive events aren’t allowed to remain completely harmless, maintaining the sense of tenacious disquiet. “Maybe we’re the crazy ones.”

The grounded nature of this story enhances the now-famous, unforgettable conclusion – a whopper of a reveal, for which there is terribly little warning (it’s not nearly as obvious as “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Westworld” or “1984”). With its aura of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” as Joanna and Bobby feel threatened by the Stepford wives’ complacency toward “pan-scrubbing” kitchen duties and servility, the commentary on brainwashing and gaslighting and assimilation become engrossing. It’s something of an exercise in documenting the unraveling of a woman’s mind, as her suspicions toward excessive control and collusion by men robs her of her sanity and freedoms – manifesting in horror-movie manners, culminating in what is essentially a haunted house. It may take a touch too long to reach its stunning climax, but it’s well worth the wait. “If I’m right, it’s worse than if I’m wrong.”

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10