The 1975 film The Stepford Wives begins with photographer Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) leaving the urban malaise of New York City with her two children and her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) and moving to the picture-perfect village of Stepford, Connecticut, ready to start life anew and raise their brood in peace and tranquility. Strong, intelligent, with an independent streak, Joanna, we learn, has been a proponent of equal rights for women if not a strident feminist, and she is surprised to find that the housewives she meets are throwbacks to the 1950s, obsessed with homemaking and wanting nothing more from life than to please their husbands. Only her like-minded friend Bobbie Markowitz (Paula Prentiss) appreciates that something is clearly wrong here. Bobbie, too, thinks that the wives of Stepford are behaving more like life-size Barbie dolls than women of their own generation, and Bobbie is suspicious as well of why all their husbands spend so much time at the local men’s association.
Gradually, Joanna learns. Threatened by the women’s liberation movement, the men of Stepford have taken matters into their own hands. They are doing away with their wives one by one and replacing them with “gynoids,” android duplicates. Unfortunately, by the time Joanna discovers this, Bobbie has become the latest of these “trophy wives,” and the movie’s epilogue, delivered at the supermarket no less, suggests a similar fate for Joanna.
Directed by Bryan Forbes and scripted by William Goldman, this first movie version of Ira Levin’s best-selling 1972 novel did very well at the box office, earning a substantial $4 million from its domestic release alone, and it introduced into the American lexicon the term Stepford wife, a phrase meaning not simply “mindlessly deferential” but also “robotically conformist.”
The 2004 remake, also titled The Stepford Wives, fared less well, both with critics and the public. Frank Oz, who was chosen to direct, and Paul Rudnick, who wrote the script, both were best known for their ways with a comedy, and together they created a broad, campy farce. In their version, Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is a cold, driven television executive who has been fired when one of the reality shows she produces ends in disaster. Joanna and her ineffectual husband Walter, here a network vice president played by Matthew Broderick, move to a gated Connecticut community where they are immediately greeted by a Martha Stewart–perfect realtor, Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), and her husband Mike (Christopher Walken), who welcome them into their plastic paradise.
Once again, Stepford proves to be a community where all the women Joanna’s age seem to awaken each morning wearing makeup, wanting nothing more than to bake their brownies and scrub their toilets and be there at the door when hubby gets home. The husbands are different, however. Goldman’s script depicted the husbands as sinister, manipulative, eerily efficient corporate types, whereas Rudnick’s makes them out to be men whose masculinity has been diminished by the highly successful women they married.
Joanna cannot understand why these women have forfeited their careers and embraced a model of pliant domesticity last seen in the Eisenhower era. Only two others in Joanna’s circle think this is odd as well: a feminist author, Bobbie Markowitz, and half of a newly arrived gay couple, Roger Banister. Rudnick’s specialty is sarcastic dialogue, the piercing one-liner, and the movie is well cast in this regard, for Bette Midler (Bobbie) and Roger Bart (Roger) deliver their lines with perfect aim as if they were poisonous darts. It is a truly funny movie, and, to their credit, the filmmakers achieve this without mocking the original. There is little or no suspense in this version, however. How could there be? The term Stepford wives is so deeply imbedded in the American psyche that everyone in the audience already knew the story. That may well be why Oz and Rudnick chose to end the film as they did, to catch the audience off-guard.
Their ending, which reportedly had to be rethought and then reshot before the film was released, is more upbeat than the original’s, for theirs spares Joanna, and it has a brilliant woman behind the scheme in question. But such departures from the original are problematic. What does it say about us that a cautionary tale about the gender war has been turned into a battle of the sexes fought for laughs? Is it somehow a tribute to female capability that it is Claire who is the villain, rather than her husband Mike, as the script leads us to suspect for much of the movie? What are we to make of men so desperate to wear the pants in the family that they would “cybertize” their wives? What made those pants worth wearing to begin with? The first third of the movie is the movie at its best, for Kidman reprises much of what she achieved in To Die For (1995), once again giving a dangerously ambitious woman a high, lethal sheen. Joanna is not a particularly sympathetic character though. Nor is Bobbie in this version. Nor is anyone else.
Viewed decades later, the original, with its hip clothes and burn-your-bra politics, seems seriously dated. The remake, on the other hand, gives us pause to think about how much has changed between men and women in the past quarter century, and whether those changes were all for the better. One can only hope that was what the filmmakers intended.
SEE ALSO Conformity; Feminism; Feminism, Second Wave; Gender; Inequality, Gender; Marriage; Women and Politics; Women’s Liberation; Women’s Movement
Fowler, Douglas. 1988. Ira Levin. Eugene, OR: Starmont House.
Goldman, William. 1983. Adventures in the Screen Trade. New York: Warner Books.
Thomson, David. 2006. Nicole Kidman. New York: Knopf.