Saturday 18 October 2008

The Stepford Wives (1975)

As the Eberhart's leave the Big Apple to move to the rural Stepford Village in Connecticut, Joanna sees a man carrying a mannequin. Her daughter tells her dad that she saw a man carrying a naked lady, to which he replies that that's why they're moving to Stepford. What they find is that this little slice of suburbia seems to contain nothing less perfect than a mannequin. While their new house is huge and the neighbours friendly and everything should be wonderful, somehow Joanna doesn't feel right at all. Something is wrong.

The other recent arrival, Bobbie Markowe, is full of life too and they become fast friends, but all the other women are traditional wives in every way, spending their entire time cooking, cleaning and taking care of their men. They even come round the next day to apologise when they get drunk at a party. Meanwhile these men run the show: there's a men's association, closed to women, that's an honour for any man to be invited into. Joanna and Bobbie try to set up a women's consciousness group to level the playing field but run into all sorts of problems.

For a start they only find one other wife who fits the bill. She's Charmaine Wimpiris, a fiery red head who spends her time playing tennis and is frank about how her husband doesn't love her. The rest don't even want to join: they're too busy with their housework and that's all they care about. When Joanna persuades a husband to talk the wives into coming, they all speak like they're hawking products on a commercial. Most obvious among them is Carol Van Sant and that raises all sorts of questions, none of which have to do with the fact that she's played by the real life wife of director Bryan Forbes, Nanette Newman.

In England at least, Nanette Newman isn't best known for being Bryan Forbes's wife or even for her acting. She's best known for being the face of Fairy Liquid on commercials, a washing up liquid. 'Hands that do dishes can be soft as your face with mild green Fairy Liquid': it's like something that Carol Van Sant could say. I don't know when she started that job, but they were well established when I first saw them in the early eighties and could well already have been showed by the time this film was made.

Carol is the beginning of the suspicion that grows in Joanna and Bobbie, but he's hardly the end of it. The biggest wake up call is when Charmaine suddenly changes personality entirely. Suddenly she's in love with her husband, suddenly she's happy that he brings in a bulldozer to break up the tennis court, suddenly she's content only to do what he wants. From the stereotypical Playboy male perspective, they're perfect women. From Joanna's perspective they're Disneyland robots and she becomes more and more scared that she'll become one: content only to cook and clean and not pursue her dream of being a memorable photographer.

William Goldman wrote the screenplay, from Ira Levin's novel, and they're hardly minor names in the business. Levin was a playwright and novelist who racked up a number of key titles. Best known for Rosemary's Baby, he also wrote this film and The Boys from Brazil, all three of which became major films. Also filmed were Sliver and A Kiss Before Dying, along with some of his plays: Deathtrap, which holds the record as the longest running comedy thriller on Broadway, and No Time for Sergeants, which was Andy Griffith's second film and the one that put him into uniform. It set the stage for much of that era's comedy as well as Griffith's career.

Goldman was a novelist too, of books that became moves like The Princess Bride and Marathon Man, but he's far better known as a screenwriter, winning Oscars for his work on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men. He's written so many well regarded screenplays that his book about writing them became a standard: Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. I've dipped into that one before but I think it should become my next reading material on bus rides to work. He also wrote a sequel and many other books on cinema, including editing a fascinating volume called The First Time I Got Paid for It: Writers' Tales from the Hollywood Trenches that saw many writers talk about how they got into the business.

I spend so much time here on the two writers because this is all about the story. There's talent involved at every step here and nobody lets the side down, but as great as Katharine Ross, Nanette Newman, Tina Louise and especially Paula Prentiss are as various Stepford wives and however solid the direction by Bryan Forbes, the music by Michael Small and Suzanne Ciani, the cinematography by Enrique Bravo and Owen Roizman or the editing by Timothy Gee, especially towards the end of the film, this is really a peach of a story and its the writers who deserve the biggest chunk of the credit.

Levin wrote The Stepford Wives in 1972 and it became a film in 1975. However it's as timely today as it was then, if not even more so and you know something's a success when it becomes more relevant over time not less. Think Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World. Like those, this is a science fiction story that doesn't even seem like a science fiction story. It really stands as a serious commentary on gated communities, the cultural impact of RealDolls, the Japanese approach to robotics, attempts to profile everyone based on accepted norms, social and cultural pruning, trophy wives, a whole host of concepts that were either non-existent or not widely known or considered in 1972.

Beyond being a prescient science fiction masterpiece, it's also many other things. It's a masterful monster movie where we don't see the monster until the end. It's a great example of a postcode, with certain elements (especially the end) that certainly couldn't be got away with a decade earlier under the Production Code. It's a feminist manifesto: we hardly ever see the men and when we do they're only used to prop up a society run by men for the purposes of men (the word 'archaic' is focused on). And while I can't really comment on this part, it appears to be a horror film for women. It's a lot of things, that's for sure. What it isn't is on any of the Top 100 lists I'm working through. That surprised me.

1 comment:

Robert said...

I saw this movie on TV in the 70's when I was a VERY young kid. It scared the snot out of me! So much so that I still remember the movie vividly even though I have not seen it for 30 years.