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RELEASED: 1975, Cert. 18
RUNNING TIME: Approx. 115 mins
DIRECTOR: Bryan Forbes
PRODUCER: Edgar J Scherick
SCREENPLAY: William Goldman
MUSIC: Michael Small
Katharine Ross as Joanna
Peter Masterson as Walter
Nanette Newman as Carol
Paula Prentiss as Bobby
Tina Louise as Charmaine
FILM ONLY REVIEW
Based on Ira Levin's 1972 novel of the same name, The Stepford Wives begins when Joanna, Walter and their children move away from the city to the tiny town of Stepford. Walter is a lawyer and Joanna a semi-professional photographer.
Once installed in the quiet, sleepy Stepford community, Joanna feels out of place and isolated, because the other women in the neighbourhood seem very twee and domesticated, obsessed with housework, cooking and having no conversation other than polishing floors and trying out the latest recipes. These women have blank stares, seeming to be almost automated in their actions and responses.
When Bobbie, another newcomer to the town, befriends Joanna, she (Joanna) feels as though she has found a kindred spirit. Together, Joanna and Bobbie try to stimulate the female population of the Stepford community into widening their interests and horizons, but without success, and before long Joanna senses that there is something very wrong in that the women of the town appear to be robotic, unnaturally obedient, characterless and completely subservient to their husbands.
Joanna also becomes very suspicious of a club in the community which all of the husbands are members of and attend meetings regularly, in that this club has a 'no women' rule.
When the lively, independent, rebel-rousing Bobbie suddenly transforms into one of Stepford's 'ideal wives' brigade, Joanna is forced to try and discover exactly what is going on in the town.
Made in 1975, The Stepford Wives aligned itself quite strongly with the rise of the then modern-day women's lib movement.
As soon as the film begins, although I wouldn't say it gives off a gripping or even an enthralling atmosphere, there is enough going on to sustain a level of interest which keeps the viewer involved. The storyline is a bit slow getting underway, with the main crux becoming apparent once Joanna and her family are settled into the Stepford community.
The acting is moderately OK, but not to the degree that it would make anybody gasp in surprise at its sheer brilliance, but reasonably decent performances are given by the whole cast. Katharine Ross did an acceptably good job of playing Joanna, a spirited young woman who senses pretty quickly that all is not right in Stepford, simultaneously frustrated that her husband seems unable to listen to or understand her concerns.
The storyline of The Stepford Wives is an interesting concept (I must say here that I have never read Ira Levin's novel on which the film was based), but I feel it could have been put across in a gutsier way, as overall it does lack a certain punch. Such, I feel, has nothing to do with the era in which the film was made, because there were plenty of other productions from the mid-1970s which really pushed the boat out. Although characters in The Stepford Wives such as Bobbie and Joanna have strong personalities, it seems to me as if something was being held back in the expression of their independent characteristics.
It isn't often that I feel a film to be too short, but this is the case regarding The Stepford Wives. It could do with being at least 20 or even 30 minutes longer, as more attention needs to be paid to expanding on what is actually going behind the scenes in the town. Also, I'd like to see the events towards the end of the film expanded out, as those scenes I believe could have been constructed to contain far greater levels of suspense for the viewer.
There is a very tiny, almost imperceptible thread of humour running through The Stepford Wives, most of it occurring in the first 30 or so minutes, although it wasn't until I'd seen the film several times that I noticed it. The music for the most part is light orchestral, but once the film gets underway, slides so far into the background that it becomes all but imperceptible.
Although The Stepford Wives is a reasonably entertaining film, it isn't something - bearing the repressed women aspect in mind - which is particularly powerful or thought-provoking, and it could do with an atmosphere hike-up from about mid-point onwards. However, it has over the decades gained a moderate cult status level, which I am in two minds as to whether such is deserved.
I understand that there has been a recent re-make of The Stepford Wives which I haven't seen, but am given the impression that it contains a stronger line of humour, perhaps being presented a little tongue-in-cheek? For the most part, I do have a deep prejudice about re-makes, but the original of The Stepford Wives, I do feel needs sharpening up a bit, and it is possible that the re-make succeeds in that department.
By no means is the 1975 Stepford Wives in any way a bad film, but it does lack power and I feel is largely overrated. However, it is a reasonably decent piece of entertainment which can pleasantly while away part of anyone's evening.....just don't expect to have your mind blown or any of the issues dealt with in the film to urge you onto a path of wanting to change the world!
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Thanks for reading!
~~ Also published on Ciao under my CelticSoulSister user name ~~
The Stepford Wives is a 1975 film based on the 1972 Ira Levin novel and directed by Bryan Forbes from a screenplay by William Goldman. A black comedy/satire/horror about the role of women in society, although The Stepford Wives didn't makes great waves upon its initial release the film has built up a cult following over the years with its title a familiar term to most people having entered the vocabulary of popular culture. Our central character Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) is a budding photographer who somewhat reluctantly relocates from New York to the quiet, sleepy and remote New England town of Stepford with her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) and their two small children for a better life. Walter has dreamed of this move but Joanna finds it hard to adjust to the seemingly perfect Stepford - which she finds dull and sterile and fears will curtail her career in photography.
The women of Stepford are disconcertingly odd and slavishly devoted to domestic chores, cooking, cleaning, shopping and the needs of their husbands, with even the dorkiest and most annoying men in the town having obedient and subservient wives who appear to be happily under their complete control. The husbands all belong to a mysterious club known as the Stepford Men's Association which they have to visit each night. No similar female clubs or societies seem to exist in Stepford - which perplexes Joanna and her new friend Bobby (Paula Prentiss), another recent arrival from New York who also finds the zombie like local women rather weird. "It's like maids have been declared illegal and the housewife with the neatest place gets Robert Redford for Christmas." What in the name of Anthea Turner has happened to Stepford?
The central premise/revelation of The Stepford Wives really doesn't make any sense whatsoever when you think about it afterwards. It's enjoyed best if you just accept the film as a science fiction fantasy/thriller with elements of horror and satire. On these terms it's an entertaining mystery/chiller with a real aura of paranoia reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and is another one of those films that plays a bit like an extended Twilight Zone/Out Limits episode, which is fine by me. The sexual politics are somewhat superficial and dated though but on the whole subservient to the desire to be a mildly spooky little thriller, which by and large the film competently manages to accomplish. The idea that, even in 1975, men really want women to be tabula rasas with no conversation skills and an obsession with cleaning products and large hats seems a tad odd. The men would probably be more likely to have the Stepford women dressed in Barbarella space vixen outfits and constantly talking about sport if they had such control over them.
It's mildly creepy fun though to enter this bizarre small town world of perfect housewives who all dress alike in flowery fashion and are perfectly made up as Joanna and Bobby look on in bewilderment. Paula Prentiss in particular is good value as the lively Bobby. "I'm also an ex-Gothamite, who's been living here in Ajax country for just over a month now, and I'm going crazy." Joanna is especially perplexed by the spacey Carol Van Sant (Nanette Newman) after a minor car accident has her repeating the same line over and over. "This is oh so silly... it's just my head. This is oh so silly... it's just my head. This is oh so silly... it's just my head..." Joanna's suspicion that all is not what it seems is heightened when the ambulance takes Carol in the opposite direction to Stepford hospital. The Stepford Wives isn't the most subtle or stylishly directed film you'll ever watch but the growing unease of Joanna always keeps you absorbed in the story and the brightly lit Capraesque location makes for an interesting backdrop for a spot of horror.
The noose is slowly enveloped around the lead female characters and the last third in The Stepford Wives contains one or two memorable spooky moments as the film becomes darker. There are some funny scenes in the film too courtesy of the screenplay by William Goldman - such as when Joanna and Bobby enter Carol's house and quietly exit after what they hear coming from upstairs. Along with Charmaine Wimperis (Tina Louise), they try to organise a women's group but at the first meeting find their good intentions hijacked by the domestic cleaning concerns of the Stepford women who attend, intently discussing cleaning products as if they're auditioning for a television advert. Beyond baking cakes, dusting, the supermarket and their husbands, the local women don't seem to have a single thought in their heads. Meanwhile, the men's club is going swimmingly although the women are not allowed to know anything about what goes on there under the leadership of Stepford's local bigwig Dale "Diz" Coba (Patrick O'Neal). The notion of a small isolated town that is somehow detached and run by shadowy locals is always an effective concept in horror/mystery films and conveyed quite nicely here.
The film seems to satirically suggest that men would rather be married to zombies (and the Stepford women are very George A Romero at times as they mill around in gardens and supermarkets) than women who were equal to them although the topical elements relating to the political climate of the day are probably a little lost to viewers watching this decades on. We see that Joanna and Bobby wear casual clothes and little make-up, in stark contrast to the other women of Stepford who look like they've just stepped off the set of a Mills and Boon period television film. The Stepford women are of course all conservative in outlook too. The film is quite similar in some ways to Rosemary's Baby, another social horror film that derives from Ira Levin. In both Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives we become drawn into the mystery through female central characters and come to hope they can somehow get out of the strange situation they've found themselves in. Although some of the satiric elements seem a little crude and dated, The Stepford Wives is still a perfectly watchable and entertaining little chiller with some memorable moments and a decent cast.
Nicole Kidman can play black humour better than nearly anyone around. She has the presence for the dramatic side of a part but also has the deftness and comedic talent to sell the humour without going over the top. Gus Van Sant's To Die For' is a perfect example of this kind of performance and this earlier film would have been only mildly diverting without Kidman's extraordinary performance as Suzanne, the wannabe TV star. The question has to be: why does she not choose or get offered more roles of this ilk?
Stepford Wives has its roots in 1970's gender politics: alongside the rise of feminist desires for women to have careers beyond the home, anti-feminist male fantasies promoted the notion of a perfect female housewife. The film therefore echoes To Die For, with its portrayal of women who want to rise to the top and will do anything to get there; To Die For's central character attempts to murder her way to stardom; Stepford Wives shows Nicole Kidman's character cold-heartedly ransacking relationships to improve her TV company's ratings. The message here is that business women will do anything for their career - husband and kids are definitely placed on the back burner.
In Joanna's (Nicole Kidman) case she hasn't even taken her husbands (Matthew Broderick) surname, another subtle dig at the attitudes of the career businesswomen maybe?
The basic idea of taking the Stepford Wives story updating it and adding touches of comedy is a good one. It has to be done with care though and Frank Oz's remake loses the satire and thrills for a more broad humour approach. The comedy is the prominent factor here - the subtle social commentary, which you could argue is just as valid today as it was in the 70's, is dumped after the opening sequence. Instead we get cheap shots at the kind of shows, like Wife Swap and Fear Factor, foisted on us by Television stations these days. We see Joanna, the TV Executive, holding court at a convention for network affiliates promoting her new shows. She has them all in her power, she obviously is good at what she does and all in the audience love her. The fact that what she is selling them is ludicrous doesn't seem to matter. They are a collection of Game and Reality Shows taken to the extreme, like 'I Can Do Better' a show about finding someone better than your husband/wife. Though seeing the depths that companies are stooping to these days, i.e. Can You Pull & Temptation Island, then possibly they are not and perhaps there already are executives out there trying to see how they can legally use the ideas Joanna has come up with.
If the script had stuck to the satirical tone it started with and used the Stepford Wives' as a basis for a more black humoured, sardonic take on the difference between the sexes and how each person wants perfection from their partners then we could have had a comedy that was sharper and more thoughtful, a worthy reinvention of a cult' film.
Maybe I am being harsh: this isn't a terrible film: It has some great acting from Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler and the addition of a gay couple to the Stepford town is a reasonably amusing addition for the 2000's, though again they go for the obvious jokes rather than using them to make a more ironic comparison with the so called 'normal'' couples. If you want something that is the comedy equivalent of an Arnie action movie then you'll be happy.
However the only thought going through my head as the film neared its denouement was "What! That makes no sense, that means...(rest left out to avoid spoiling). There is one of the biggest plot discrepancies I have ever seen in a major film. It contradicts pretty much everything that has gone before and just left me puzzled. I've since discovered that there were major re-shoots of the ending. This may be what caused the problems but someone should have realised this before the film was released. This plot hole confused and baffled me, and ruined what could have been a genuinely enjoyable film.
If you are going to get a Stepford Wives film, get the original it is miles better all round.
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Glenn Close & Christopher Walken.
Running time: 93 minutes and that is still too long!
Directed by: Frank Oz, who should be in hiding after this travesty
Stepford wives is a film I have been wanting to see for a long time. I always thought of it as a comedy and had heard some really good things about it. So I was chuffed to bits when I finally realised our next DVD rental was 'The Stepfoord Wives'. But lets just say it wasn't exactly what I was expecting!
*** Film Info ***
Runtime: Ninety Minutes
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken
How far would you go to please your man? Stepford Wives tells the story of men who want 'perfect' wives. Wives that won't answer back, wives that won't nag them and best of all, wives who make them feel like real men. But can a perfect wife ever exist? Well maybe not in reality, but in the perfect little town of 'Stepford' they can; something that Joanna Elberhart is soon to find out.
*** My Opinion On... ***
Was it funny? Was it really entertaining? Was it what I expected it to be? Here you will find my opinion on everything from the story to the ending to hopefully give you the best idea of whether or not this film is for you.
1) The Story
The story I thought was pretty much original though it is worth pointing out that this is a remake of the older version which was first shown in 1975. So obviously with this version it wasn't all their own ideas but for someone watching it for the first time like me, it was a good, original story.
There were a few shocks thrown in, but I did find it slightly predictable. It's an easy film to watch and doesn't need much concentration throughout. Luckily the predictability didn't spoil the enjoyment of the film, so all in all I'd say the way it was put together was quite good and worked really well. The story unfolded slowly and had a little build up towards the end and the ending was definitely a good one that I didn't guess beforehand.
So story wise it's nothing spectacular but it is enjoyable and put together well.
Although I wasn't blown away with this movie it was quite funny in places and really made me laugh. A few of the characters were really great to watch and without them the story and enjoyability just wouldn't have been good. It was a little dark and more of a thriller than a comedy I think so in that respect I didn't enjoy it as much as I could have because I wasn't in the mood for a thriller and I expected it to be more of a comedy. So if you are in the mood for a lighthearted comedy this maybe isn't the film for you.
After the film had ended I didn't feel like I'd just watched a really good comedy. I felt a little disappointed because I'd wanted to see this film for ages and it just didn't live up to my expectations and wasn't really my kind of humour. As I said there were parts of the film that really made me laugh but the other side to the humour I feel was more a guys view on women and they would have perhaps found it more funny than a woman would watching it. But of course that's just my view.
3) Character Performances
Although I'm not the biggest fan of hers, Nicole Kidman played the leading role of 'Joanna Eberhart' here excellently. However it was almost too painful to watch her as she seems to be exceptionally thin in this movie and it just doesn't look healthy. That aside though, her acting skills really shone out in the film and I doubt anybody else would have been able to play the role better. I've seen her in films such as 'Cold Mountain' and I have to admit I really didn't like her performance in that. I've never been much of a fan of hers but after this performance she's definitely earnt some respect from me! She made her character believable and like a lot of women would be and I think the ability to relate to her was the main reason her performance stood out to me the most. There were no faults at all in her performance and in my opinion she really did herself proud.
Matthew Broderick to me didn't give his best performance here. He certainly wasn't believable and I don't think the chemistry was quite right between Nicole and him. It seemed like Nicole was doing all the work and he was just being a bit too 'calm' for my liking. He didn't seem to put all his emotion into his character and in that respect I feel someone else could have played his part far better than he did. It's a shame really because he has been in some good films and played leading roles fantastically in the past but with this one he really didn't do it for me. So disappointed but I won't let it put me off watching any of his other films.
Bette Midler and Glenn Close were two big names that were thrown into the mix to make this an interesting cast. Glenn played the leading part of 'Claire Wellington' and it was strange to see her looking younger and 'barbie doll' like. She really did play a convincing performance and I feel her experience definitely shone out above Nicole though as I said, Nicole really did do a fantastic job. Glenn was extremely believable and I pittied her character a lot. She seemed to give her all into the performance just like she always does and she is one of the few actresses that can play a variety of different characters and still fit in perfectly with each one making them her own. I haven't seen her in any film that has made me think she isn't a good actress. All her performances are excellent and she's an actress well worthy of respect.
Bette Midler didn't seem to have a massive role though she was shown quite a bit. She played the part of 'Bobbie Markowitz' and for me had one of the funniest lines which I won't repeat but it really did have me in stitches. She played her role really well and although i didn't find her character as realistic as the others I feel this type of role really suits her the most. I don't think she's ever going to suit a serious character, it would just be too weird.
So those are the main performances to mention. Another little one I feel goes to Christopher Walken. He plays Glenn Close's husband in the film and comes across as the bad guy as usual. He always seems to play a baddie in his films and I feel that's what he does the best. He did play his role really well and I think it really suited him. I wouldn't go as far as to say he was exceptionally good but he still delivered a believable performance and still deserves the mention!
And my final mention has to go to Roger Bart who played my favourite gay character 'Roger Bannister'. He was really hilarious to watch and for me he was what made this film funny. Bette Midler was funny too and she did have a great line as I said, but Roger definitely did it for me. Everytime he was in a scene my face would automatically light up and I couldn't help but laugh along with him. He played his part extremely well and although I didn't recognise him from other things I will definitely be looking out for him in the future!
4) The Good Parts
Ok so mainly so far my attitude has been slightly down towards the film but were there any good bits?
Well as I've mentioned some of the cast performances were great and they really made the film that little bit enjoyable for me especially Roger's performance. Most of the cast was exceptionally good and although I wouldn't have put them all together in the same film they did seem to work OK together.
Some of the humour was also pretty good and quite witty in places which made the film slightly more lighthearted in parts and without it I wouldn't have enjoyed the film at all.
The visuals were really good. Nice bright colours to symbolize the town of Stepford and it's 'perfectness' really worked well. The setting was really good and very olden times when women didn't have choices. It was like a mans fantasy land, lots of attractive women in very big houses with everything you could possibly ever want. I particularly liked the technology they had in the houses and thought it made it interesting to watch.
So all in all I really enjoyed the parts that were lighthearted and the visuals were great.
5) The bad bits
To some up, the bad things I found were:
* It wasn't completely believable and was slightly too 'away with the fairies' for me. The thriller scenes didn't seem real either. Nicole seemed to have too much talent for this movie and she made the thriller scenes look almost real but the story let her down a bit I feel.
* Some of the humour just wasn't funny. It was a little too dry for my liking though it is a thriller/comedy so that was a mistake on my part. It just lacked that extra humour and that is where it failed the most for me.
* Matthew Brodericks perfomance wasn't as good as it could have been and I didn't find him interesting to watch at all. I was just waiting for his parts to finish and I really didn't warm to him at all.
6) The DVD Extras
I wasn't overly impressed with the extra's but then I didn't really enjoy the film as much as I could have done so I wasn't really in the mood to listen to how it was made or commentary on everything. The deleted scenes were ok but in my opinion best left deleted as they would have made the movie a lot more over the top than it already is.
There are also interviews with the cast and as with most DVD's everyone seems to love each other and have nothing but nice things to say about each other. Whether they are actually telling the truth is another matter altogether.
All in all I wouldn't buy the DVD for the features but if you enjoyed the film and would like to know more about it you should definitely watch them as they are very informative.
*** My Overall Opinion ***
Although this wasn't the worst film I've ever watched, it wasn't great either. There are a lot of faults with it and it didn't seem to have much point to it. The story wasn't too bad and was slightly original and an easy enough watch, but it just didn't have that special ingredient to make it stand out.
I wouldn't really recommend it unless it is a really rainy sunday afternoon and you have nothing better to do. However do watch out for Bette Midlers line in one of the scenes where they are all sitting around chatting, it's hilarious and the highlight of the film!
You can buy this from supermarkets and places such as HMV and the usual price is around 14.99 depending on where you shop.
Please note, this review reveals the ending of the movie. As well as reacting to the growth of new feminism in the mid-seventies, The Stepford Wives became a coined phrase for any figure of female domestic perfection. The book by Ira Levin was initially regarded as a satirical work, poking fun at the fact that men were becoming less and less able to control their wives' actions and ambition. In brief, the plot concerns an upwardly mobile couple with two young children, who move from the bustling sprawl of New York City to the polished suburbia of Stepford. Upon arrival, the couple notice that their near neighbours the van Sants are somehow different to them. Walter Eberhart reacts to Carol van Sant's domesticity and Doris Day style with admiration, while his wife Joanna pities her. After being in Stepford for only a day, Walter is invited to join the Men's Association which he claims is simply a social club where the town's most important men can meet for a brandy and discuss community projects. Before long the New Projects committee are meeting in the Eberhart's living room, and Joanna is being unknowingly studied to perfect her "transformation". Unfortunately, the real suspense and horror of The Stepford Wives is crammed into the last 20 minutes, with the rest of the movie set aside for exposition which can drag appallingly. The strength of the novel is it's ability to string you along almost from the word go, leaving subtle clues and involving the reader in Joanna's investigation into the real activities of the men's association. By the final chapter when Joanna must run for her life from what seems like the whole of the townspeople, we know that the men's association have been murdering their wives, dumping their corpses in the reservoir and replacing them with animatronics which are programmed to be the perfect domestic goddesses. By the end of The Stepford Wives, we have
only a vague idea of the full horror of the situation, and a rathe r frustrating end sequence which tells us what we already know; that our heroine Joanna has been assimilated, and that a new couple have arrived in Stepford. The direction (Bryan Forbes) is disappointing, ruining potentially suspenseful moments by using long shots which tell the full story of every scene. The usually sparkling Owen Roizman must have been on a tea break every time important photography decisions were made, as this shows none of the suspense of The Exorcist, or the sharp realism of The Taking Of Pelham 123. Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss are effective as the two best friends who are "changed" within days of each other. Peter Masterson however , is unconvincing in the role of Walter, not seeming brave enough to choose his own tie, let alone have his own wife murdered. This movie holds no great appeal for women, Joanna is portrayed as ultimately helpless, unable to fight off either an old man with a fire iron, or a robot version of herself armed with an organza scarf. Particularly unbelievable is the notion that the gorgeous Katherine Ross would marry a balding bore like Peter Masterson, or that a woman who thought she was about to murdered by a Men's Association would go to their headquarters. In the current climate of remakes and rehashes, perhaps Hollywood should set it's sights on those pictures which were adequate in their time, but could do with some modernisation. The Stepford Wives is a prime candidate.
This is my favourite film of all time. It moves me in ways no other film can. Every time I watch it I am spellbound. The basic plot: Joanna Eberhart (Katherine Ross), a photographer, moves from Manhattan to the archetypal suburban town of Stepford with her family after her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) buys a house without consulting her. Finding it hard to fit in, she becomes increasingly concerned that the other women in Stepford, including her neighbour Carol van Sant (Nanette Newman), seem to live for housework and pleasing their husbands.She eventually makes friends with two other new arrivals, Bobby Marco (Paula Prentiss) and Charmaine Wimpiris (Tina Louise). Soon the rebellious Charmaine is transformed into a domestic angel after a weekend away, and Joanna fears for her safety. What is going on in Stepford? What do the mysterious Dis and the Men's Association have to do with it? Why is Walter under so much stress? I won't reveal the plot to those who haven't seen it, but watch it for Katherine Ross's finest ever performance, and the wonderful Paula Prentiss in a supporting role. Ira Levin wrote the book, and this film is every bit as incisive and gripping as Rosemary's Baby, also from a book by Levin. Levin is a master at creating menace out of the most ordinary situations. This is a particularly good film if you are into looking under the surface of film and a must for women who think that men are all in on it together! For a longer critique of The Stepford Wives see below. Do not read any further if you don't want to learn more about the plot of the film. The film The Stepford Wives can be read as both a representation and a critique of the constructions of the female under a totalitarian patriarchal society. Women who do not conform to the Stepford construction of the chauvinist fantasy of the passive female are alienated and destroyed, and then replaced w
ith aesthetically pleasing (to chauvinistic men), compliant and eroticised robot doppelgangers. The contradictory ways in which women are represented in The Stepford Wives are of great significance both to the plot of the film, and to the ways in which the viewer can construct meanings from this cinematic text. As Colin MacCabe proposes in his paper ‘Theory and Film: Principles of Realism and Pleasure’: "I argue that film does not reveal the real in a moment of transparency, but rather that film is constituted by a set of discourses which (in the position allowed to subject and object) produce a certain reality…A film analysis is dealing with a set of contradictory discourses transformed by specific practices. Within a film text these may be different “views” of reality which are articulated together in different ways." (Colin MacCabe, anthologised in Mast et al, p.82) The contradictions evident in the discursive representations of women in The Stepford Wives are most obviously located in the dynamic tensions operating between the characters of Joanna Eberhart and Carol Van Sant, the first the ‘liberated’ central character of the film, and a newcomer to Stepford, and the second an exemplar of the chauvinist fantasy of the Stepford wives of the film’s title. Central to the representation of women in The Stepford Wives are the inherent contradictions evident in the concurrent male and female ownership of the gaze, which is mediated through the filter of the patriarchal ideologue of Stepford, and through the identification of the audience with Joanna Eberhart. The focus of this essay will consequently be primarily on the role of the gaze in the representation of the female in The Stepford Wives, and in particular, the changing dynamic of the ownership of the subjective gaze. Also addressed will be the dynamic of the simultaneous central positioning and marginalising of female cha
racters. The representation of women in The Stepford Wives will also be examined in relation to the physical appearance of women in the film as an indicator of the dominant and prevailing patriarchal ideology. Joanna Eberhart is constructed as both the subject and the object of the film. The placement of a female character in the centre of the narrative structure of the film is both a subversion of the marginal role of women in the patriarchy, and, with her eventual characterisation as a helpless victim, a confirmation of the status quo in patriarchal Stepford. The representation of Joanna, and by extrapolation, all the women in the film, as helpless victims of male dominance and aggression can be contextualised as part of the cinematic horror tradition. In the 1970’s, when The Stepford Wives was made, a number of films, such as Looking for Mr Goodbar, Halloween, and Friday the Thirteenth, featured liberated women segueing into female victims as their central characters. This preponderance of female victims of male aggression in the genre of horror in the 1970’s has been described by J B Twitchell as an expression of “sadistic misogyny engendered by the Women’s Movement”. Joseph Grixti notes that: "The implications of this phenomenon when it expresses itself in works of horror fiction…are complex and potentially regressive – particularly when they endorse and compound stereotypical and ideologically motivated images like those of non-domesticated women being punished for transgressing traditionally established sexual boundaries…" (See ‘Horror Fiction and Social Unease – An Overview’, in Joseph Grixti, Terrors of Uncertainty: The Cultural Contexts of Horror Fiction’, p.23) Representations of women in The Stepford Wives are complex and often contradictory, at the same time both reinforcing and subverting the dominant patriarchal ideologue of Stepford, a
nd proposing an ethos of inevitable disempowerment and a means of escaping the controlling male gaze by taking control of it. Although a means of escape is indicated in the form of Joanna’s control of images with her photography, under the totalitarian rule of the Men’s Association the only escape is the metaphorical and literal destruction of the female self, and an acceptance of Stepford as a homogenised model of Disneyland for the Patriarchy, complete with mechanical women to cater to every whim and fantasy of the (exclusively) male human population. In Stepford, only the representation of women is allowed, with consequent exclusion of real, flesh and blood autonomous women, and the fabrication of passively eroticised domestic automata, as defined by The Chambers Dictionary: "…a machine that imitates the movement of a living creature, activated by a concealed mechanism such as clockwork; such a machine as a toy, amusement or decoration; a living being regarded as without consciousness; a person who acts by routine, without intelligence or feeling…" The above definition neatly encapsulates the only way that women are acceptably represented under the totalitarian patriarchal rule of Dis, and the members of the Men’s Association. Central to this repressive representation of women operating within the confines of the film is the control and ownership of the ways in which women are perceived and represented: the gaze. The subjectivity of the gaze is demonstrated in the film with a number of devices, such as a shot of the bespectacled pharmacist looking through a pair of glasses on a display in his shop. (The Stepford Wives, 0:59:09) Laura Mulvey has described the dynamic of the gaze in the following terms in her paper ‘Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema’: "During its history, the cinema seems to have evolved a particular illusion of reality in which this contradictio
n between libido and ego has found a beautifully complementary fantasy world…Hence the look, pleasurable in form, can be threatening in content, and it is woman as representation/image that crystallises this paradox." (Munns and Rajan, p.326) This paradox can be exemplified most clearly in the representation of the ‘Stepford wives’, such as Carol Van Sant, and Charmaine Wimpiris, who had initially been a member of the triumvirate of liberated women newly moved to Stepford. These women are shot in soft focus, and are constructed as a patriarchal ideal of womanhood, both erotically pleasing to the men of Stepford, and concerned only with domesticity. The meeting of the consciousness raising group that the newcomers try to set up merely acts as a forum for the consumerist fantasies of housework extolled by these Stepford wives (The Stepford Wives, 0:50:42-0:53:13). Carol’s first appearance in the film is in a pastoral setting, shot in soft focus, wearing an apron, and bearing a home-cooked meal (The Stepford Wives, 0:06:35). Her representation as a caricature of female male-centred domesticity is emphasised by the sharp contrast she forms with Joanna, the only other adult female shown at this point in the film. The visual pleasure gained from this eroticised and anodyne representation of woman in the form of Carol is subtly interlarded with a threat that is at first unfocused, and then increasingly and claustrophobically evident in the representation of women offered by the passively consuming Stepford wives. The transformation of Charmaine from a dissatisfied and rebellious woman to a seemingly contented though two-dimensional house-wife creates a clear example of the coded threat of representation/image replacing pseudo-reality. The opening shots of the film, before the credits have begun, show Joanna Eberhart gazing questioningly into a mirror in her empty apartment. She is then seen emerging from her apartme
nt building and joining her family, as they embark on the move to Stepford. This enables the audience to construct her as a person in her own right; an independent woman rather than just a mother and a wife. Whilst waiting to set off, Joanna takes a photograph of a man carrying a naked female mannequin across the street (The Stepford Wives, 0:01:55), both signalling her occupation as a photographer, and the contradiction this creates by thus subverting and highlighting the mechanisms used in the objectification of women by the phallic gaze as discussed by Mulvey in her introduction to ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’: "Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning." (Munns and Rajan, 322) This is the first of many indicators of the significance of representation in The Stepford Wives, constructed in this instance as the photographic image. This initial sequence of events can be seen as pointing to a thematic concern with representation, in particular on the representation of ‘woman’, both in the film, and by its characters. Stanley Cavell notes that when a photograph is cropped by the camera, and therefore by the photographer, anything that is not in the photograph is excluded, and at the same time, implied by its absence: "The implied presence of the rest of the world, and its explicit rejection, are as essential in the experience of a photograph as what it explicitly presents." (Taken from Stanley Cavell’s ‘Photograph and Screen’, anthologised in Mast et al, 291-292) The representation of women in The Stepford Wives, as the powerless victims of a totalitarian patriarchal society therefore also codes women as emp
owered, although this is not represented explicitly within the confines of the screen. This female empowerment is implied with the techniques used to generate sympathy for and identity with the character of Joanna, such as the opening shot of Joanna in a mirror (The Stepford Wives, 0:00:10), substituting the audience’s gaze for Joanna’s, and enabling them to see through her eyes. This initial shot both indicates the point of view that will be taken for the rest of the film, and emphasises the highly subjective character of the gaze. Later in the film Joanna shows her photographs to the owner of a gallery in New York, simultaneously presenting her view of the world, and restating her role as a producer in direct opposition to the objectified and passive female consumers of Stepford. Subverting and drawing attention to the patriarchal hierarchy of ownership still further, she uses her maiden name of Ingles for her photography (The Stepford Wives, 1:20:18.), thus restating her characterisation as an independent woman, and underlining the invisibility and lack of identity women have in a patriarchal model of society. Directly after this scene, and consequently underlining her role as a producer, is one in which she realises that Bobby Marco has changed into a Stepford wife, transforming her formerly liberated friend into a patriarchal representation of woman. Bobby’s words are telling: "Nothing’s wrong with me. I just want to look like a woman, and keep my house looking decent too." (The Stepford Wives, 1:20:37-1:22:23) This creates a sharp counterpoint between Joanna’s need to be, and role as, a producer of meaning in her own right, and Bobby’s new role as a consuming and consumable product of patriarchal fantasy and control. Joanna Eberhart’s characterisation as a photographer is highly significant. On several occasions her actions usurp and threaten the patriarchal ownership o
f the gaze. By taking photographs Joanna actively selects what she wants her projected audience to see. In Stepford the gaze is constructed as almost wholly male. Women are presented for the voyeuristic pleasure of the male gaze, their physical appearance and even their body shapes dictated by the chauvinist fantasies of the members of the Men’s Association. Joanna skews and rejects the male ownership of the voyeuristic and phallicised gaze in the scene where she watches a slightly eroticised encounter between Carol Van Sant and her husband Ted in their garden (The Stepford Wives, 0:12:42-0:13:30). This voyeuristic behaviour further codes Joanna Eberhart as an active agent in the film, claiming ownership of the scopophilic gaze. Later on in the film, after Ike Mazzard has presented her with a sketch made during the New Projects Committee meeting at the Eberhart house, Joanna rejects his representation of her. She highlights the subjective and ideologically-bound character of representation when she tells her husband Walter later: “This isn’t me” (The Stepford Wives, 0:36:58). Most of the sketches Ike Mazzard makes of Joanna are made up of fragments, which has the effect of showing the audience how women are transformed and reductively objectified in Stepford. When Joanna forewarns the psychiatrist of her inevitable destruction at the hands of the Men’s Association later in the film she identifies the significance of the ownership of the gaze to both the ruling patriarchy in Stepford, and to herself as an indicator of self-hood: "There’ll be somebody with my name, and she’ll cook and clean like crazy but she won’t take pictures and she won’t be me. She’ll- she’ll- she’ll be like one of those robots in Disneyland (my emphasis)." (The Stepford Wives, 1:31:44) Joanna Eberhart is represented as different to the Stepford wives in appearance and behaviour as well
as attitude. She and the other two women newcomers, Bobby and Charmaine, are marked as liberated by their smoking and drinking, as well as their loose and flowing hair, all of which are established as signifiers for uncontrolled and dangerous sexuality, particularly in the case of hair (Marina Warner gives a detailed analysis of the symbolism of hair, and its association with animalistic traits in women in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, 353-369). It follows that the sexually passive Stepford wives have very styled hair, controlled by lacquer, and often wear hats which cover their hair. The Stepford wives are the blandly embodied representations of a consumer culture: as Joanna says of Bobby after her transformation “Everything in her house looked like a TV commercial” (The Stepford Wives, 1:24:12). In Stepford the controlled representation of reality provided by commercials is preferable to the reality offered by the representation of autonomous women in the film. The need of the patriarchy to create their literally and metaphorically plastic representations of women in the image of the originally liberated women takes place in the face of the threat embodied in the characters of Joanna, Bobby and Charmaine. The function of the production of consuming and consumable women as a method of regaining and expressing control is underlined by Dis’s reply to Joanna’s plea of “Why?”: "Why? Because we can. We found a way of doing it and it’s just perfect, perfect for us and perfect for you. You’re a very good subject. Perhaps the best we’ve had." (The Stepford Wives, 1:46:37) Joanna is a good subject for ‘transformation’ into a Stepford wife precisely because she is characterised and represented as independent, and has taken control of the ownership of the gaze by means of her photography. In The Stepford Wives women are represented as an
inherent threat, which must be counteracted and destroyed in order to maintain control of society in the totalitarian patriarchy of Stepford. As the climax of the film approaches, the controlling and dominating character of Stepford, the mechanisms and strategies of patriarchal control become more transparent, effectively representing Joanna as something to be managed and controlled, and kept in a state of enforced passivity. Joanna’s isolation in this repressive society, and her husband’s alignment with the authoritarian Men’s Association are underlined by the violent exchange between her and her husband as she tries to collect her children and escape from Stepford: Walter: We don’t want you to get upset again, now go upstairs and lie down. Joanna: Don’t talk to me like that I don’t want to lie down I want my children. Walter: (shouting) Joanna go upstairs and lie down now! Joanna: (shouting) Don’t tell me what to do you bastard! (The Stepford Wives,1:34:10-1:34:24) As stated in the introduction to this essay, The Stepford Wives represents women in a contradictory manner. By building the narrative around a female, rather than a male character, the film both subverts and compounds the representation of women as constructions of the patriarchal phallocentric gaze. The characterisation of Joanna Eberhart as a photographer, and thus in control of the gaze through the images she selects and frames with her camera, is a rather self-conscious way of foregrounding the subjective nature of the gaze. Joanna’s role as a photographer, producing rather than being produced, is also, in tandem with her use of her maiden name, used to connect the prevailing patriarchal discourses of the film with the subsuming invisibility that marriage offers to women in the world outside the film. The critique of the patriarchy that this film seems to offer is that coding women as r
epresented rather than real must eventually and inevitably lead to their destruction as autonomous beings, and their absorbtion into a patriarchally idealised representation of the female. Joanna vocalises this schematic of control through representation when she talks to the psychiatrist, trying to both grasp and articulate what is going on in Stepford: "I think the men are behind it…All of them…My husband, everybody. The women don’t– can’t arrive in Stepford loving housework. They change once they get there. I think the men make them change…I don’t know what they do exactly- they- they- draw our pictures and they tape our voices and the women all look neat and pretty." (The Stepford Wives, 1:29:24-1:30:36) The above quote encapsulates the concern with the representation of women which runs through the film, and highlights the relationship between representation and ideology as discussed by Mulder and MacCabe. BIBLIOGRAPHY PRIMARY SOURCES The Chambers Dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers-Larousse, 1994. The Stepford Wives. 1975. Video-cassette. Dir. Bryan Forbes. Cinema Club-Anchor Bay Entertainment Inc., 1997. SECONDARY SOURCES Fox et al. The Sixth Virgin Film Guide. London: Virgin, 1997. Grixti, Joseph. Terrors of Uncertainty: The Cultural Contexts of Horror Fiction. London: Routledge, 1989. Mast, Gerald et al, eds. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Munns, Jessica and Gita Rajan, eds. A Cultural Studies Reader: History, Theory, Practice. London: Longman, 1995. Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers. London: Vintage-Random House, 1995. Joseph Grixti's book, Terrors of Uncertainty, is one of my particular favourites, as I am interested in both horror fiction and the cultur
al context it springs from.
Ira Levin's scary novel about forced conformity in a small Connecticut town made the Stepford Wives a compelling 1975 thriller. Katharine Ross stars as a city woman who moves with her husband to Stepford and is startled by how perpetually happy many of the local women seem to be. Her search for an answer reveals a plot to replace troublesome real wives with more accommodating fake ones (not unlike the alien takeover in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The closer she gets to the truth, the more danger she faces--not to mention the likelihood that the men in town intend to replace her as well. Screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and director Bryan Forbes (King Rat) made this a taut, tense semi-classic with a healthy dose of satiric wit. --Tom Keogh, Amazon.com