Retro Movie Review: The Stepford Wives published in City Monthly Magazine April 2004

I went to see a movie the other night and in the coming attractions section, Nicole Kidman came on wearing nothing but a smile and a flimsy nightie, cooing about the upcoming movie, Stepford Wives, starring herself, Matthew Broderick and Bette Midler. That was the entire trailer. I guess when you've got Nicole Kidman in a nightie that's pretty much all you really need to get someone's attention.

I knew it was a remake of some cheesy 70's movie, but not much more. So found myself at upstairs in the DVD department of Amoeba looking for the original movie, and was surprised when the clerk said I'd find it in the horror section. Horror? OK. Just doing my homework. I try to live in the moment, but a little preparedness can go a long ways sometimes. Which reminds me I need a new box of tissues for the Explorer. Here's a free hint, too - don't try to dip your tempura while you're in stop-and-go freeway traffic. I may have to get the seats steam cleaned.

Home, finishing up my chicken teriyaki, I settle in to watch a movie I know nothing about, other than it's a horror movie. Starts off kind of slow. Filmed in 1975, the sets and the production values are reminiscent of Charlie's Angels. Which reminds me, that the box set of Season Two has just come out, the one where they introduce Cheryl Ladd as Farrah's little sister, Kris Munroe. Funny to think that the little tvs of the seventies in all their mono glory weren't big enough to reign in the glory and the wonder that was Farrah Fawcett Majors for more than one season, and now I'm watching them back to back in digital surround sound on a 35 inch widescreen tv, while Farrah's in a loft in Venice rolling around in paint. Funny how time changes things.

Or maybe doesn't. Hmmm.

Katharine Ross, who starred in 'The Graduate' with Dustin Hoffman, and with Paul Newman and Robert Redford in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid', is the main Stepford Wife. She reminds me of Ally McGraw (not Ally McBeal) from "Love Story" with Ryan O'Neal, who reminds me of Karen Allen (who was great in 'Starman' with Jeff Bridges) who reminds me of Karen Carpenter. Karen Allen would have been a much better choice to play Karen Carpenter in that tv movie they did in the early 80's. They both have those big brown doe eyes and a mischievious tomboy air.

In this movie, Joanna (Katharine) and her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) decide to move away from Manhattan (you can tell something's amiss already, based on that decision alone) and find a comfortable (and sturdy investment) three bedroom house in Stepford, Connecticut. Plenty of room for their dog and two children (one of whom is Masterson's seven-year-old daughter Mary Stuart Masterson, making her film debut). Wasn't she great, 15 years later, in 'Fried Green Tomatoes'? Kathy Bates was also so good. Kathy was really great in 'Misery', too; in fact, won a Best Actress Oscar. She also starred as 'Dolores Claiborne' in a rare great movie based on a Stephen King book.

Joanna is a photographer trying to get a big break (although moving away from Manhattan seems not necessarily a wise career choice when you're an artist; Dolores Claiborne would have had the sense to stay put in Manhattan.) So obviously she's creative, independent and a free thinker. She even gets into it with Walter at one point for not letting her make any decisions, "You bring me here and ask me if I like the house but then I find you've already made a down payment!" One day she's feeling melancholy, out in the field (photographing bugs and weeds I guess) and she runs into a new neighbor, Bobby Marco (Paula Prentiss) and they decide to start a women's conscious- raising group.

But they don't get very far, as most of the other Stepford Wives are vapid, perpetually happy homebodies with flawless boiffants, who seem to exist only to serve their husbands. The only one they can find who's interested in anything more than the wonders of spray starch, is Charmaine (Tina Louise, from Gilligan's Island, although she'd hate that I just mentioned that), but after a weekend trip with her husband, she's suddenly changed her mind.

Then one day the family dog disappears, which is never a good sign. Not in real life and most definitely not in the movies. Whenever a dog dies, you know all hell is about to break loose. And yes indeed, it's all downhill from there. The sinister pieces slowly start to fall into place, and, like all good Hardy Boys mysteries, winds up on a dark and stormy night, in a big mysterious mansion; a showdown in a laboratory between Joanna and a mad scientist (Patrick O'Neal, who starred with Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2 but reminds me of a slightly younger Terrance Stamp), who gets away with these things, "because I can, my dear."

The Stepford Wives was quite controversial in it's time and was protested by feminists, apparently most of whom who had yet to see the movie, thus missing the irony (which is in itself, ironic). The film was based on the satiric sci-fi novel written by Ira Levin, who also wrote 'Rosemary's Baby' (starring Mia Farrow in a markedly similar role). In addition to the similar style and pacing, both movies share a plot theme - a woman in a strange place becomes convinced that the people around her are plotting evil against her. The claustrophobia of suburban life, the patriarchal foundation of society and the mindlessness of the devoted wife are the foundation of this compelling thriller which remain relevant almost thirty years later.

Rod Reynolds

© 2004 The Art Dept Los Angeles

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