The term “Stepford Wife” entered the world’s lexicon shortly after author Ira Levin’s book was published back in 1972, and I’d say more people are familiar with the term and it’s meaning (i.e. a woman who seems to conform blindly to an old-fashioned subservient role in relationship to her husband) than they are with the source material it came from. There have been two theatrical adaptations of Levin’s book, and several made-for-television spin-offs, but the original novel remains as chilling and relevant as ever.
The original story is a hard thing to quantify; it’s mostly billed as a satirical thriller but there are definite science fiction elements, as for me I’d consider it a horror/mystery. This is one of those rare books that knowing the “terrible secret” from the outset only adds to the terror; knowing what horrible danger the protagonist is up against only increases the tension as you fly through the pages of this woman’s doomed journey. For those few of you unfamiliar with the story The Stepford Wives is about a family moving to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut and we follow the wife Joanna Eberhart, a talented photographer, as she slowly discovers this idyllic town may not be what it seems. That her husband joins a “Men Only” club immediately puts her on edge, which even in the 70s was considered an outdated concept by most.
She befriends neighbor Bobbie Markowe, a spirited ex city girl like Joanna who arrived a couple months earlier, and the two marvel at the zombiefied hausfraus of Stepford. The pair befriend another woman, Charmaine Wimperis, who is like minded as they are when it comes to “wifely duties” and is even more outspoken about her not even caring for sex, “Look, I just don’t enjoy having a big cock shoved into me, that’s all.” Our duo is then shocked to learn that a month later she has torn up her tennis court so her husband could have a putting green. She had become just as docile and “pleasing” as the other women of Stepford.
It’s a this point Bobbie becomes convinced there is something in the town’s water supply that is turning women into men pleasing puppets, but of course it’s more insidious than that. Joanna and Bobby investigate further and discover that there use to be a strong woman’s rights group in town, and now the founder of the group, once a strong feminist activist, is now just a simple housewife only concerned with keeping her home clean and her husband happy. Bobby starts to panic and tells Joanna she is getting her husband to move them out of Stepford before it’s too late, Joanna herself makes overtures about leaving to her husband, and he’s seems cool with the idea, only stating that it would be best to wait for the kids to be out of school before moving. Then when Bobbie comes home from a romantic getaway at a local spa with her husband Joanna is horrified to see that she has become one of the Stepford Wives.
Joanna demands to move immediately but her husband insists she see a psychiatrist as her paranoia and fear is unreasonable. She sees the shrink, who tries to reassure her that chemical brainwashing of a population of women is not possible, and is given a prescription for tranquilizers. Soon after this Joanna starts to put the pieces together; all the members of the “Men’s Association” come from a variety of technological fields, with the president of the group an ex-Disneyland employee who designed the animatronic robots for the park’s attractions, she finally comes to the conclusion that women aren’t being brainwashed but that they are being replaced by robots. She tries to escape the town, having discovered they have taken her children, but is eventually cornered by the men. The men deny the accusations that Joanna is making about them, and they ask her if she would believe them if she saw one of the other women bleed. She agrees and they take her to Bobbie’s house, and the scene ends as Bobbie brandishes a knife at her former friend.
We then get an epilogue revealing that Joanna has now become a Stepford Wife as she glides blissfully down the aisles of the supermarket. That is a pretty dark ending, and the book’s slow build up to this moment is simply terrifying. This isn’t some evil alien race or supernatural power doing this, it’s being done by ones who were supposed to be loving husbands. The book is told solely from Joanna’s point of view; we never get a look into the Men’s Association or hear them talk about their motivations, and this is a smart decision on the author’s part, what possible amount of dialog could explain a group of men deciding to murder their spouses and replace them with robots? The book is a clear satirical jab at the men of the time who were resisting the feminist movement and women’s decisions to explore life outside of the home; thus the men in this book are just shadowy figures with cold and cruel desires.
Note: Ira Levin also wrote Rosemary’s Baby, so basically I think he’s trying to say that men are assholes and not to be trusted.
In 1975 director Bryan Forbes, with screenwriter William Goldman, brought Ira Levin’s book to the big screen in what is a very faithful adaptation. Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) and husband Walter (Peter Masterson) move with their two children from the big city to the charming town of Stepford, she befriends fellow newcomer to town, the sloppy, irrepressible and fun Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), and briefly hang-out with Charmaine Wimperis (Tina Louise) until she is Stepfordized into having her tennis court plowed under to make way for her husband’s swimming pool (not a putting green as in the book). The movie pretty much covers all the events found in the book and even adds in a few; when one of the Stepford wives is “injured” in a fender bender Joanna notices that the ambulance is heading in the opposite direction to where the Stepford hospital is located, and later at a party that same wife is then seen repeatedly stating, “I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe.” This “glitch” is our first clue that robots may be involved. In the book we only suspect robots because of president of the Men’s Association Dale “Diz” Coba (Patrick O’Neal) being expert on robotics from his prior work at Disneyland, but in the movie the “glitches” and the attitude of them women quickly has the viewer suspecting what’s actually going on.
In the book and movie Joanna doesn’t believe his nickname “Diz” came from his working at Disneyland, stating, “You don’t look like someone who enjoys making people happy” and the film doubles down on the douchery by having Coba state, “I like to watch women doing little domestic chores.” As villains go he is one of the best, you just love to hate him, as he just oozes entitlement and menace.
One of the key differences between the book and this movie is that we occasionally gets scenes with Walter and the group from the Men’s Association while as I mentioned earlier the book is only from Joanna’s viewpoint. In the book Walter is more of a cypher, we don’t get to know much about him, and when he returns from his first night at the men’s club Joanna is awakened by him masturbating next to her. This implies that Walter was very turned on by the idea of his wife being replaced by a submissive robot, while in the movie we have a moment where Walter tells his wife that he really does love her, as if he isn’t quite on board with having her replaced, and Coba at one point questions if Walter is really sure about Stepford. The movie Walter is made a little more sympathetic, for a man planning murder that is, while the book Walter is clearly a man just biding his time until his sex toy arrives.
The biggest difference between the book and the 1975 movie is the ending; where the book has Joanna meeting her end under the knife of robot Bobbie the film turns it around and has Joanna stab Bobbie, who then proceeds to not bleed and wanders around the kitchen glitching spasmodically. This kicks aside any doubts as to what is going on and motivates Joanna to find her children and flee for her life. When she goes home she finds her children missing and is forced to beat the information of where they are out of her husband, and he tells her that they are up at the Men’s Association, and like an idiot she believes him. This results in her being trapped inside the Men’s Association with Koba and her robot double.
The movie then ends as the book did with the robot duplicate of Joanna placidly purchasing groceries at the local supermarket, where we also see one of the newer residents and next victim of Stepford arguing with her husband, and thus the horrific cycle continues. As adaptations go this is one of the better ones, though not completely faithful to the book (as they are two different mediums that’s really an unrealistic goal) but it captured the spirit of the Ira Levin’s novel perfectly. The only moment I didn’t care for was when “Diz” Coba confronts Joanna at the end telling her, “It’s nothing like you imagine, just a, another stage. Think about it like that, and there’s nothing to it.” This sounds more like something you’d hear from the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers not from someone who is murdering women and replacing them with robots. Did he honestly think Joanna would suddenly realize being killed would improve her life? More likely he just loves to hear himself talk. Minor changes aside this is an excellent thriller with its only real fault being the pacing, at two hours it feels rather sluggish at times, but overall this a movie well worth checking out.
Worth checking out is not something that can be said of the 2004 remake by Frank Oz. This version of The Stepford Wives is mostly known for the problems during film making, where absolutely no one was having a good time with some cast members even threatening to walk. It’s not easy to make a good movie, it doesn’t matter how many talented are people involved a lot can still go wrong, but in the case of this movie everything went wrong.
Where at times the 1975 version was a scene for scene adaptation of the book this remake is almost an in name only adaptation; Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is no longer a mild mannered amateur photographer with hopes of making it big, now she’s a successful reality television executive producer with such idiotic shows as “You Could Do Better” where women leave there husbands so they can screw porn stars. The original book and movie was a satirically look at the battle of the sexes; taking a hard and nasty look at men who preferred their women barefoot and pregnant, while in this version women are, and I quote, “high-powered, neurotic, castrating, Manhattan career bitches” and according to the villain of this piece the world would be a better place without them.
When one of her reality shows, where spouses choose between each other or prostitutes, results in one of the jilted men going on a shooting spree, Joanna is fired and has a nervous breakdown. Apparently a woman who has reached the top of her profession is still a brittle little girl inside. *sheesh* Her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) quits his job as vice president of the Network and decides the best thing for their family, after Joanna receives shock treatment, is a change of scenery so they leave for the small gated community of Stepford, Connecticut. All the homes in Stepford are palatial mansions, with all the latest technological toys installed, which made me wonder just how two unemployed television execs are affording this, but let’s not let logic and sense spoil the fun. Walter seems to be enjoying the new surroundings, all the women are gorgeous and comment favorably about his “package,” but Joanna doesn’t seem to fit in. She still insists in dressing all in black and wearing pants while the Stepford wives wear flower print dresses and heels, even when doing aerobics. And yes, this looks as dumb as it sounds.
Joanna has two allies in the war against conformity; Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler), a writer of such books as “I love You But Please Die,” and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), a flamboyant gay man who has moved to town with his long-time partner and staunch republican. Roger replaces the Charmaine character from the original and it could have worked if it wasn’t such an over-the-top clichéd performance, and when he is changed, sporting a Brooks Brothers suit, he informs Joanna and Bobbie that, “I now know that being gay doesn’t mean a guy has to be effeminate or flamboyant, or sensitive. I’m no sissy.”
The mystery element that is a highlight of the book is completely missing here; instead we are treated to our bumbling heroes stumbling around the Men’s Association like they were in an episode of Scooby Doo. When Joanna discovers that Bobby has been changed like the others there is no foreboding terror, just bad comedy. I’m not saying there isn’t a way to turn a dark satiric thriller into a comedy but Frank Oz clearly didn’t have a clue as to how to pull this off, and the failed comedy isn’t even the film’s greatest crime, that would be Oz’s abject cowardice. In both the book, and the 1975 movie, women were being killed and replaced by robots, and it’s clear that was going to be the case here as well, but then once again Frank Oz fell victim to test screenings. When he made the musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors he had the film end with the plants killing the heroes and taking over the world, but when it tested poorly he dumped that ending and tacked on a stupid happily ever after.
Well the exact thing happened with his remake of The Stepford Wives; the women of Stepford were supposed to have been murdered and replaced with robots, but test audiences did not respond well to this so they did some reshoots and changed the ending. Now we are told that the women have had microchips planted in their brains and their bodies augmented to the ideal form (Or their chipped brains are placed inside clones. The movie refuses to be clear on this), and this allows all the women to be “saved” at the end of the movie by having the nano-chips deactivated. Extra footage was shot to work this “miracle change” but then they didn’t bother to remove earlier footage that clearly shows the exact opposite of this. When Walter is at the Men’s Association the leader Mike (Christopher Walken) tells one of the husbands to give Walter the $20 dollars he owes him, and the man does this by calling his wife into the room where she then spits out the money like an ATM machine.
• The husband hands her his ATM card saying, “I need $20 you know the pin.” This implies that she is an actually ATM machine which means the local bank has to make daily drops of money to her.
• Reading an ATM card, internally entering a pin number, and then spitting out cash proves that this woman is a machine and not a brain chip controlled person or even clone.
• They do this all in front of Walter without the insurance that he isn’t going to freak out and inform the authorities.
• Walter’s reaction is, “She gives singles?”
Neither the book nor the 1975 movie gets into how the Men’s Association picks its members but it is implied that the men are completely aware of the “women being replaced by robots” plan before actually arriving in Stepford; one can assume that the Stepford men feel out like minded individuals whose skills could add to their overall plans. Dropping this bomb on a recently unemployed television executive, right in the heart of their lair, is very careless. I guess we can assume if he reacted poorly they would have murdered him on the spot, but that just adds to the whole incredibly stupid part of their plan. That Walter’s true love for his wife is the town’s eventually undoing proves their vetting process sucks. Yet the idiocy isn’t over yet; after a tearful Joanna is lowered into the bowels of Men’s Association with her husband, to be turned into a fembot (or whatever the fuck these things are supposed to be) in their secret lab, we cut to her and all the Stepford wives serenely purchases groceries in their pastel gowns.
As it turns out true love won they day after all and Walter had just faked turning his wife into a bimbot, and while she distracted Mike with a waltz during formal ball he was able to sneak down into the lab and deactivate the nano-chips, because television execs are all well versed in neurobiology and the computer sciences involved. In fact he defeated the machine by simply repeatedly pounding on the key pad, and because this is a comedy we are supposed to accept this works. Yet this idiotic plot isn’t done with it’s moronic reveals as Joanna then knocks Mike’s head off and he’s revealed to be a robot, and that the real orchestrator of Stepford is Mike’s wife Clair (Glen Close) who, like all the Stepford wives were at one time, was a powerful career minded woman who was so caught up in her work that she ignored her husband which resulted in him cheating on her. Clair then murdered her husband and his lover and then decided that the world would be a better place if she turned back the clock to a time before women were turning themselves into figurative robots. She chose Connecticut as a good place to start when she asked herself, “Where would people never notice a town full of robots?” After her moronic monologue she kisses her robot husband’s severed head and is electrocuted.
We are then treated to an epilogue where we find Joanna, Bobbie and Roger on Larry King as they inform the world that all the husbands are now serving a house arrest sentence in Stepford, and forced to do the menial chores they’d programmed their wives to do. I know this is supposed to be one of those poetic justice endings but it comes across as decidedly lame; these men committed what accounts to both physical and mental rape of their spouses, they should not be squeezing the Charmin they should be breaking rocks in Leavenworth. And what of the wives who we learned were all CEOs, judges and powerful movers and shakers in the world? Their recently chipped controlled brains are now in these genetically grown bodies, can they possibly return to their old lives? Would a Fortune 500 company risk taking them back? Are they even considered human under the law? Sure this is a stupid comedy, and I’m probably way overthinking this, but it’s clear the makers of this film but no thought into it at all. That they took a satirical story about threatened masculinity, that still resonates today, and then made the villain a woman. What the fuck?
Women’s rights and the feminist movement have come a long way since the 70s, women are no longer expected to fulfil preconceived gender roles, but the fight isn’t quite over yet. Women are often still being paid less, and laws are continually being written to control the very rights to their own bodies, so a 21st century remake of The Stepford Wives would have still been relevant without having to make drastic changes to the story, hell at the time of this article most of the Republican leadership believes that America should go back to the carefree days of Leave it Beaver and Make Room for Daddy, so making a movie about the modern woman being “castrating career bitches” who are brought down by their emasculated husbands is just insulting. That they were being manipulated by a woman, who simply wanted to go back to wearing chiffon, makes it even worse. It kind of sends the message that, “Men aren’t chauvinistic pricks, it’s modern women who are the problem.” How this movie was originally supposed to end, before test screenings forced the director to hand over his balls, we may never know, and just how much responsibilities lies with screenwriter Paul Rudnick is another unknown factor. What we do know is that Frank Oz was at the helm of this disaster and he hasn’t done much since.
The Stepford Wives
Ira Levin’s novel may contain some dated elements but its core idea is as relevant today as it was when he first wrote it, and it did spawn at least one good movie. Avoid the Frank Oz remake like syphilis.