September 06, 2011

The Stepford Wives (1975)

American playwright and novelist Ira Levin earned himself a place of honor in the pantheon of the horror genre when in 1967, his novel "Rosemary's Baby" was published. Masterfully made into a film by director Roman Polanski in 1968, this story of modern day Satanism is now forever engraved in the collective conscious as a classic of horror, and of cinema in general. However, there was more in Ira Levin than just "Rosemary's Baby", and the early seventies, the author returned to horror with the novel "The Stepford Wives". While again telling the story of a young woman facing a dangerous conspiracy that surrounds her world, and again exploring the sensations of loneliness and paranoia; the tone that Levin used in "The Stepford Wives" was one more of a satire than mystery, though not less horrific. As in the case of "Rosemary's Baby", soon there were talks of making Levin's new thriller a movie, and the man set to helm it was British filmmaker Bryan Forbes, fresh from the success of his romance drama "The Raging Moon".

"The Stepford Wives" revolves around Joanna (Katherine Ross) and Walter Eberhart (Peter Masterson), a young couple from New York City, who move to the Connecticut suburb of Stepford, hoping for a new life in a calm environment. Joanna, an aspiring photographer and free spirit, finds herself at odds with the neighborhood, as most of the Stepford wives are submissive, docile and servile women dedicated solely to keep everything perfect, while their husbands spend most of the time at the Stepford Men's Association. Nevertheless, Joanna finds a kindred spirit in Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), another newcomer to Stepford who seems as out of place there as Joanna. Together they join trophy wife Charmaine Wimperis (Tina Louise of "Gilligan's Island" fame) and create a women's association, though to their dismay, all that the Stepford wives discuss are trivial and shallow activities. When Charmain suddenly appears transformed into a "perfect housewife" in the Stepfrod way, Joanna and Bobbie decide that something is seriously wrong with the town of Stepford.

Adapted to the screen by novelist and scriptwriter William Goldlman (though Forbes rewrote a lot of the material himself), "The Stepford Wives" is an interesting mix of horror and science fiction that explores genre conflict in a satirical, yet still haunting way. Like the novel, the film showcases a liberal woman being trapped in a dystopian world where a chauvinist idealization of the concept of "perfect housewife" is the norm. Written at a time when women's liberation was seeing the first fruits of the movement, "The Stepford Wives" is a powerful reflection of the social issues of its time, as a sharp criticism to the still-implicit chauvinism of the era, and the idea of subservient women dedicated to please the husband. As a horror thriller, "The Stepford Wives" is a marvelously conceived tale of conspiracy and paranoia. Like in "Rosemary's Baby", paranoia plays a key role, though Joanna is a very different character than Rosemary. Stronger and less passive, her role perfectly defines the film's theme: a firm stand against conformism.

In "The Stepford Wives", director Bryan Forbes builds up a thriller that twists the idea of the perfectly beautiful suburban environment and transforms it into a nightmarish place. And interestingly, to achieve this horror atmosphere Forbes doesn't use the traditional elements of scary movies: there is no decay nor darkness in Stepford, but sunshine and perfection. And Forbes takes this homely perfection to a grotesque exaggeration that ultimately makes it creepy, disturbing and unnerving. With this increased emphasis on the suburban theme, Forbes makes his Stepford take another subtext beyond its gender conflict, it becomes a tale of oppressive conservative values against the liberated individual. This subtext increases the sensation of paranoia, perfectly achieved by Forbes carefully constructed narrative as Joanna finds herself alone struggling against an evil that seems greater than herself. The film's pace is slow, yet never tiring, unfolding the plot with care as the secrets of Stepford begin to bare their teeth.

The acting is for the most part pretty effective, though not without its shortcomings. Leading the cast is Katharine Ross, playing Joanna Eberhart, the young woman in the middle of the conspiracy. As Joanna, Katharine showcases a strong presence that allows her to carry the film without problem. With a natural beauty and great charm, Ross skillfully portrays the strong willed Joanna as a modern everywoman: intelligent, inquisitive, witty and sexy. Nevertheless, the highlight of the film is Nanette Newman's performance as Carol, the archetypal Stepford wife. It is in Newman's character where the satire of the film is most perfectly conveyed, with her Carol being a caricature of the idealized perfect housewife. Newman's character, in all her exaggeratedly perfect sunshine happiness, goes from oddly annoying to bizarrely creepy through the development of the film. As Joanna's friend Bobbie, Paula Prentiss is a tad less successful, though not really bad, she just simply pales in comparison to Ross and Newman.

The male side of the cast is considerably less successful in their performances. Granted, their screen time is minor, but that's not a justification. Peter Masterson is the worst offender, and it's a shame given that his is the main male role in the film. His performance is weak and uninspired, and pales in comparison with Ross, who plays his wife. A slightly bigger problem than the male cast is perhaps the sad fact that "The Stepford Wives" has not aged well with time. The production design and Owen Roizman's work of cinematography (bright, and with a slightly excessive use of soft focus) feel so decidedly 70s that has left the film as basically a product of its time. Nevetrheless, despite this "The Stepford Wives" remains a quirky piece of horror and science fiction that, even when its twist ending is probably too well known by now, it's still a haunting tale of conspiracies that also toys with interesting themes regarding gender equality. Interestingly, Forbes (and Levin's) satiric point seems to still be grossly misunderstood.

In its initial conception, Ira Levin (and scriptwriter Goldman) had envisioned the Stepford wives as a more sexualized concept (akin to Playboy bunnies). Forbes decision of changing the concept towards the idealization of housewives that was common in the more conservative 1950s brought the film closer to suburban horror, and ultimately gave the film an edgier social commentary, considering the women's liberation and gender equality movements that had took place in the 60s and 70s (against what several critics have pointed out, it can be argued that "The Stepford Wives" is pro-feminist. Of course, within the constrains of its genre). While far from a milestone of the genre, Bryan Forbes' adaptation of Ira Levin's classic "The Stepford Wives" is still a quite interesting and offbeat entry in the horror genre.


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