THE STEPFORD WIVES—-“If I am wrong, I’m insane… but if I’m right, it’s even worse than if I was wrong.” The movie version of Ira Levin’s satiric best-seller wasn’t all that successful when it came out in 1975, comically misread by numerous influential feminists, who excoriated it, and slighted by audiences, who didn’t move to Stepford in the numbers expected. Yet the spooky handmaiden survived the squawks and divorce pains well enough to achieve a certain cult status, spawning three made-for-TV sequels, then a full remake in 2004. They were needless, and the original isn’t perfect (great dancer, can’t cook), but it features effective performances and has a suitably creepy last act. *
‘Joanna Eberhart’ (Katherine Ross) isn’t thrilled when her husband ‘Walter’ (Peter Masterson) selfishly moves them and their two young girls from bustling, ‘alive’ Manhattan to a tidy, bucolic Connecticut suburb. Great lawns, but is that because there’s something extra in the water? Along with being smart, Joanna’s a photographer; her innate common sense and practiced eye for detail soon detect neighbor behavior that doesn’t add up. She makes a quick friend with ebullient ‘Bobbie Markove’ (Paula Prentiss) and ‘Charmane Wimperis’ (Tina Louise) is approachable (no kidding), but other women in the self-satisfied community, like ‘Carol van Sant’ (Nanette Newman) are more than a little out-to-brunch. Walter thinks everything is peachy, hanging out with the local men’s group headed by ‘Diz Coba’ (Patrick O’Neal), a clutch of seeming neuters.
The something’s-amiss idea holds, and the cast work well: the finale packs a neat kick. Directed by Bryan Forbes, running 115 minutes, it would have benefitted from tightening in the sluggish first half. Forbes retooled a good bit of the script written by William Goldman, to the latter’s dismay: neither has much to crow about at any rate: most of the dialogue is lame, so it’s up to the cast and paranoia factor to guide the craft. Ross shows more spunk than usual, and Louise animates her few scenes, reminding you that it was a loss her talent had been sidelined for three years on a “three hour tour“. Prentiss’ offbeat personality and delivery was always fun to watch, although the script here has her so inane as a ‘normal’ person that robot intervention therapy seems partially viable. As led by O’Neal (in his oily element), the peacock posturing Stepmen are a talking nightmare of windbags, whiners and wimps.
“I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe.” Tracking down accurate box-office figures for this suburban chiller is harder than a newly arrived Stepford deb getting a straight answer about why the lady next door is so miserably happy. ‘The Numbers’ gives $4,000,000, jiving with director Forbes lowballing. The IMDB (‘I May Doubt Because’) argues $8,720,000. “Cogerson” just wants everyone to get along, citing $12,100,000 and ranking it 47th in ’75. Something’s rotten in Connecticut.
With William Prince, Josef Sommer, Franklin Cover, Kenneth McMillan, Mary Stuart Masterson (debut, age 8, daughter of co-star Peter Masterson) and Dee Wallace
* Some forefront feminists like Betty Friedman bizarrely saw it as demeaning to women, something the director, writer and everyone in the cast somehow missed. Because…it wasn’t there. Betty & the Irates were so choked with revolutionary bitterness they couldn’t grok that the movie was instead scalping men’s shallowness, with every guy in it a proto-jerk, murderers. Remarkably consistent at being wrong, never one to miss a shot at hurting people, the dragon known as Pauline Kael insulted Ross, Prentiss and Louise, hissing they were “robots playing robots.” Idiot. The performances of those three actresses, and the unfairly maligned Newman, are the best aspects of the movie. Apart from the unnerving finish, the area where Forbes’ direction works best is by casually showcasing the natural physical allure of Ross, Prentiss and Louise, what they wear, how freely they carry themselves, juxtaposed with the Victorian repression blankness of the “happy” bedroom & kitchen slaves the pathetic men need to dominate: it bakes a Sexual Revolution cake and eats it fresh out of the oven.
Ross’s icksome Stepford hubby, Peter Masterson (1934-2018), a cousin of Horton Foote, later directed the excellent movie The Trip To Bountiful as well as adapting The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas into the hit stage musical.