The Stepford Wives (the original, not the lame-attempt-to-be-comedic-remake) is one of my favorites. Yeah, I know, I have a lot of favorites. I’m aware. So now that we’re all aware, let’s dive into this psychologically satisfying, slow burning bundle of underrated magnificence.
Surely, part of the magnetism of this movie comes from the fact that it is based on a book of the same name by Ira Levin, who also authored the cult classic, Rosemary’s Baby. He really knows how to turn on the suspense, without being overly gory, obvious, or even violent. As I’ve often said, human behavior is usually the scariest thing of all to witness. Joanna Eberhart and her husband, Walter, decide to move from Manhattan to the little town of Stepford. Joanna (the stunning Katharine Ross) is a “hopeful semi-professional photographer” who hasn’t had much luck in the field yet, and Walter (Peter Masterson) is a lawyer, anxious to grab his piece of the pie in life. Their children are Kim and Amy, and Kim is played by a teeny, tiny Mary Stuart Masterson, who happens to share the screen with her real-life father. Let’s not forget their adorable little dog, Fred. The first day of moving in, their new neighbor, Carol Van Sant, delivers a casserole to welcome them. She is polite and kind, but speaks as though she’s in her own little universe. She’s too kempt and put together, and is extremely uptight, but nonetheless, neighborly. Joanna isn’t sure why they moved, though Walter gives several good reasons. She decides to give it a a chance, although she isn’t quite sure what she’s getting into.
The next day, she puts her kids on the bus to school, and most of the children seem strange, too. Joanna is visited by the local busybody newspaper employee intent on interviewing her to feature her in the Newcomers column. She describes herself as a struggling photographer, and that she’ll miss the noise of New York. Later on, she decides to give the casserole dish back to Mrs. Van Sant, but on approaching her house, she notices Ted Van Sant clearly groping his wife as she does yard work. She doesn’t seem to mind this obvious public display of affection, and goes on about her business. Joanna is a bit tickled by this, and decides it isn’t the time to visit. That night, Walter tells her he’s been invited to join the Men’s Association, a group which only the best and most prominent Stepford residents belong to. Joanna is a bit perturbed by the sexism of the situation, and it’s understandable, as this is in the 1970s at the beginning of the women’s lib movement. While shopping for groceries soon after, Mrs. Van Sant gets into a very slight fender-bender in the parking lot, and begins to hold her head and repeat over and over how silly it is that they called an ambulance. The Eberharts witness this, and find it strange when the ambulance takes her in the opposite direction to where the hospital is located.
One night, Walter comes home late after accepting the invitation to join the Men’s Association. He is clearly upset and has tears in his eyes. He keeps telling Joanna how much he loves her as she comforts him. Hmm, wonder what he’s so upset about? I believe this scene to definitely be foreshadowing events to come, and if you’ve seen it, you’ll know why. If not, go watch it now, and stop reading. Joanna soon meets her new best friend in the form of a wonderfully funky, silly, hilarious, outspoken woman named Bobbie Markowe. They hit it off right away, and begin to spend virtually everyday together. Her husband is in the association, too, and she has two children, as well. Walter decides to bring his men’s club buddies home one night to discuss event planning, and Joanna meets a mysterious, creepy man named Dick Coba. He’s always leering at her, and rarely smiles, and when he does, it seems to be hiding some dark secret. During the course of the evening, one of the men, Ike, draws Joanna’s picture, beautifully I might add, but it just seemed strange to show up at someone’s house and begin to sketch their portrait.
She is impressed, and sits in on the conversation, but finds them incredibly boring, dull, and chauvinistic. Yeah, clearly. Walter, however, seems to love them already, and finally feels like he belongs to something. Later on, during a pool party for the whole neighborhood, Mrs. Van Sant begins acting strange again. She has been drinking wine, though very little, and her husband forces her inside to lay down. She had been repeating over and over that she’ll “just die if I don’t get this recipe”. The next day, she goes to apologize to Joanna and Bobbie, and it seems she is in a very controlling marriage, and that she should have to apologize for anything strikes the two best friends as very odd and infuriating. They begin talking about women’s lib, and how no woman in Stepford likes to do anything but clean and serve their husbands. They decide to go around talking to the wives and see if there’s interest in starting a women’s club to juxtapose the Men’s Association.
They speak to nearly everyone, but no one seems to give much thought to anything except cooking, cleaning, and their families. Upon entering one woman’s home, they hear the couple having sex upstairs, and the woman is praising her husband like nobody’s business, going on and on about his prowess. None of the women seem interested, save one. Charmaine, a delightfully fun redhead with a tennis court and a maid, really likes the idea, and isn’t into housework like the rest of Stepford. One of men in the association is into words and speech, although he stutters. He convinces Joanna to recite a list of words into this recorder, claiming he’s trying to upload a database of people to help law enforcement. She complies, only if he delivers his wife and some other women to their group. They all attend, but speak of nothing but housework and cleaning, even going so far as to praise Easy On Starch to lessen their ironing time, and being saddened that they didn’t bake anything the day prior.
Joanna and Bobbie find this incredibly weird. One night, Joanna goes on a walk with their dog, Fred, and he ends up getting off his leash and running towards the Men’s Association. A security guard warns her to stay away, though she tells him the reason she moved there is so she could safely walk around at night. As Joanna and Bobbie shop at the local drugstore, they notice the pharmacist, and Bobbie tells her that he is Frank, the one whose wife was praising him in bed to the high heavens. He is clearly not her type, making it even more questionable. We also see a shot of someone driving away with Fred the dog in a crate in the back of a truck. I always hated this scene, because when I first saw it, I didn’t know what was going to happen.
The next day, no one can find Fred the dog, and Joanna and Bobbie go out looking for him. They happen upon a frightening sight – Charmaine has had an earth mover come and destroy her beloved tennis court. She is now dressed in a pretty, white, conservative dress, and speaks only of wanting to please her husband, and says she’s been selfish all these years. Bobbie is now seriously freaked out. She begins to believe there is something in the water in Stepford making the women turn into robots. They decide to go visit Joanna’s ex-boyfriend, who happens to be a scientist, Raymond Chandler (no, not the author). He tells them there’s nothing wrong with the water, thus adding to Bobbie’s fear, and Joanna truly begins to believe something is way off. Bobbie tells Joanna she’s going to get the hell out of Stepford, and is afraid her time is coming. Joanna, that night, also finishes the voice project that one of the men asked her to do. Afterward, she asks Walter if they can move, and he says yes, in a few weeks, surprisingly. The next day, Bobbie and Joanna actually go looking for houses. Bobbie asks Joanna if she can watch her kids for the weekend, so she and her husband can go away to celebrate their anniversary. Joanna obliges, much to Walter’s chagrin, and he begins to get annoyed with all the noise. Bobbie’s children also have a huge dog, and Joanna feels it will be good for her kids since no one can find Fred. Joanna gets some inspiration and begins to photograph the children playing. She takes them back to a guy who rejected her work before, and he tells her they are quite good. Joanna is elated, and cannot wait to tell Bobbie.
When she reaches Bobbie’s house, she is horrified to learn that whatever is taking over Stepford has now also taken over her best friend. She’s wearing a new push-up bra, dressed in the typical conservative housewife attire, and cleaning and scrubbing like there’s no tomorrow. She’s speaking as if she has no personality, and doesn’t understand why Joanna is so upset. Joanna absolutely freaks out and rushes home. Walter has no problem with it, saying it’s about time she cleaned her house, and tells Joanna she needs to see a therapist. She complies, but finds one out of the county, a very nice woman who listens, totally non-judgemental, to every crazy-sounding story she relates. The woman tells her to pack up her kids and leave if she’s that scared, and to call her in a few days when she gets back from a trip. This scene always reminds me of when Rosemary goes to visit Dr. Hill in Rosemary’s Baby, not surprisingly. Joanna rushes home to find her kids aren’t there. The house is dark, and Walter is drinking himself into a stupor. He tries to force her to go to bed, and he attacks her. She makes her way out of the house, as Walter calls his Association buddies. Now everyone’s out looking for her.
Joanna runs to Bobbie’s place, hoping she can get through to her. She tells Bobbie that she’s a robot and asks her if she bleeds. Joanna cuts her own hand, drawing blood, to which Bobbie replies, “Why, look at your hand!” Joanna promptly jams the knife into her friend’s stomach, and nothing happens. She simply says, “Joanna, how could you do a thing like that? When I was only going to give you coffee?” Bobbie repeats this over and over, as she walks back and forth in the kitchen, dropping coffee cups each time. Clearly, she is shorting out, much like Mrs. Van Sant did several times. Joanna ends up going back to her house and whacks Walter over the head with a fireplace poker. He tells her the kids are at the Men’s Association house, and she goes there.
Up the stairs, she hears her children calling. Turns out, it’s only a recording, and she finds Dick Coba waiting for her. He explains that it’s not as bad as she thinks, and that it is good for everyone. She asks him why, to which he responds, “Because we can”. She turns and runs and ends up in a room that is exactly identical to her own, and Fred the dog is there. She is utterly speechless, and even more horrified when she glances over and sees her doppelgänger, sitting at a vanity, brushing her hair. All of Joanna’s so-called imperfections are gone. She has much bigger breasts, bigger eyes, but is still exactly the same. Her double begins walking towards her, smiling, with a silk scarf in her hand, as Dick Coba pets Fred and watches in delight. It is implied that she has killed the real Joanna, because the next scene is at the grocery store, with all the perfect little Stepford Wives going about their shopping. They politely say hello to one another and move on. The last woman we see says hello to the now-perfected Bobbie, and when she turns, it is Joanna, looking beautiful of course, but it isn’t really her. She stares blankly into the camera as the credits roll. During the credits, we see shots of the perfect family; Walter smiling ridiculously, the children and the dog in the backseat, and Joanna sitting quietly and “lady-like” in the passenger seat.
Okay, so I told you the whole movie. Sorry, I tend to do that, especially when it’s a movie I love. I’m sure everyone knows what happened anyway, since the phrase “Stepford-insert-person-or-title-here” is pretty much a cultural thing now. It’s so beautifully shot, and extremely haunting in its portrayal. Some may believe it’s dated, but I don’t think so. If anything, it’s more relatable these days than one might think. With the ongoing war on women and their rights in this country, as well as all over the world, this film definitely strikes a chord. Ira Levin was definitely ahead of his time, but I think he meant to be. He said something about American society that no one dared speak of. He made it okay to talk about the absolute worst possible scenario imaginable, and how we must not ever sink to this level.
This film portrays subtle yet forceful misogyny in its most extreme form, as it becomes acceptable and even encouraged by the town’s men, and eventually even Joanna’s husband, Walter. This is why I feel he had tears in his eyes after one of the meetings – he was told about it, and was struggling internally with his decision. This also reminds me of Rosemary’s Baby, when Guy is looking strangely at Roman after they talked. Obviously, Walter gave in, and I think that may have been why he began drinking more and not paying as much attention to her. He was trying to distance himself from any responsibility or guilt he may have had at one time. Apparently, any guilt he felt was soon washed away when he became convinced that life would be much better and easier for him if his wife had no hobbies, no interests, no personality, and only lived to serve him and his needs and wants. It’s a very sad commentary on society that this would even be thought of, but Ira Levin makes the viewer, whether male or female, really think about the ongoing inequalities in society. They may not be this blatant or prevalent, but it still does exist. Although the average viewer will get what’s going on much earlier on in the film than Joanna herself, it is still creepy and haunting to watch her slowly unravel and realize what is happening in Stepford, and even her own home. One scene that always stood out to me was when Bobbie has been changed and can’t remember what archaic means. At one of the wanna-be women’s club meetings before, she knew what it meant. Joanna realizes it was not on the ‘word list’ and it sinks in that she had been in on her undoing all along by reciting words into that recorder. Also, all the women who had been changed all have their portraits done, just as Joanna had, and she was initially flattered by it. At the end, Coba even tries to justify his actions by trying to convince Joanna that it’d be the same thing if she had some “stud” around the house, answering her every request. This just shows how twisted their thinking is, and how far people go to justify situations in their own minds. I was almost insulted when this movie was remade (we all know my love-hate relationship with remakes), but to make matters worse, it was a comedy! It was supposed to be funny! I don’t know about you, but I think that really cheapened the source material as the issues at work in the story are anything but funny. It shifted the real point behind the plot, and I found that really disingenuous. If anyone ever needed a reason to hate the idea of a remake, it’s this right here.