Movie Discussion: Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975)

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  • The Film: The Stepford Wives
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: February 12, 1975
  • Studio: Fadsin Cinema Associates & Palomar Pictures
  • Distributer: Columbia Pictures
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: Bryan Forbes
  • Producers: Edgar J. Scherick, et al.
  • Screenwriter: William Goldman
  • Adaptation? Yes, from the 1972 novel The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin.
  • Cinematographer: Owen Roizman
  • Make-Up/FX: Gene Callahan
  • Music: Michael Small
  • Part of a series? Yes. This movie was followed by a string of made-for-TV sequels, including 1980’s Revenge of the Stepford Wives (starring Don Johnson and Sharon Gless), 1987’s The Stepford Children (starring Barbara Eden) and 1996’s The Stepford Husbands (starring Donna Mills and Michael Ontkean).
  • Remakes? Yes. Frank Oz directed a comedic remake in 2004 called The Stepford Wives, starring Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Yes. Hollywood star Katharine Ross. Character actress Paula Prentiss. TV star Tina Louise.
  • Awards?: Best Actress [Ross] at the 1976 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.
  • Tagline: “Something strange is happening in the town of Stepford.”
  • The Lowdown: This week we watched The Stepford Wives, Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Ira Levin’s best-selling novel (note: Levin also authored Rosemary’s Baby). Forbes actually passed away this week in a totally random coincidence. The movie is about Joanna (Katharine Ross), a wife and mother who begrudgingly moves from New York City to the suburban Connecticut town of Stepford as the urging of her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) to escape the “rat race.” Once there, Walter joins up with a shadowy Men’s Association, headed by the Machiavellian Diz (Patrick O’Neal). Joanna is lonely and bored by life in Stepford, though she does befriend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss), another recent urban transplant who shares Joanna’s feeling that something is “off” about most of the wives in Stepford. The women dress in bizarre, matronly gowns and focus obsessively on housework and pleasing their husbands, seemingly having no identity outside of the role of wife/mother. Joanna and Bobbie’s attempts at forming a feminist consciousness-raising group are foiled, despite an assist from lonely trophy wife Charmaine (Tina Louise). Soon the women begin to realize they may be trapped in a dark patriarchal conspiracy… Though the film did only moderately well at the box office upon release, it was a hot conversation piece and has become an indelible part of the American vernacular – to this day the term “Stepford wife” is used to denote a woman who appears superficially “perfect” but lacks interior depth.

If you haven’t seen The Stepford Wives our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Kristine: So, this is a movie I have heard about literally my whole life (it came out in 1975 – the year I was born) and I was soooooooooo disappointed.

Sean: No way. Why?

Kristine: It was not a very good movie. I was really looking forward to it. I thought it would give me the genuine creeps plus bring the campy fun and it did neither. I felt like I was watching a Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week. It was very sad-making.

Sean: I think this movie, more than most of the movies we’ve watched, is a true sociological document of its era/time period. My big question for you coming in to this discussion was if you thought it worked as a piece of pure entertainment. I got my answer.

Kristine: Yeah. Nope. Do you love it?

Sean: I do love it.

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 9.25.33 AM
Kim Cattrall being rushed to a Sex and the City location shoot

Kristine: Tell me everything.

Sean: I actually think The Stepford Wives is a perfect pop artifact. I just think the entire conceit of the movie is total genius.

Kristine: Robots.

Sean: What a perfect story to channel the fears and anxieties of the 1970s women’s-lib era.

Kristine: But you truly believe this is an accurate sociological document? C’mon. The “troublesome” women were so fucking un-troublesome. Season 1 Betty Draper had as much feminism coursing through her veins as these NYC 1970s women did.

Sean: I think you’re being unfair, but I love it.

Kristine: AND Richard Yates made suburbia and the male need to collect ladies and pull the wings off of them a thousand times creepier and sadder. And that was 15 years earlier.

Sean: I’m not sure Yates and The Stepford Wives belong in the same category, though right? Levin’s novel was a pulp potboiler, Yates wrote a languid meditation on spiritual entropy.

Kristine: I am willing to concede that my irritation with this movie might, in part, come from anticipating if for like 25 years. But I still think it is not a good movie. I really thought there would be some sharp satire.

Sean: I probably wouldn’t argue that its a well-made movie…. But still, I feel dispirited. I want to run to my bedroom, yell “You don’t understand me!,” and slam the door really loudly.

Kristine: Make me understand why you love this movie. You have changed my mind before.

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Ladybonding in the drugstore – SO 1970s

Sean: I just see Joanna as the embodiment of the 1970s woman, unsure of her place in the world but just starting to figure out that she loathes the patriarchy and like, probably wants a career. Also, I fucking adore Bobbie. And the Bobbie/Joanna friendship carries the movie for me.

Kristine: Yes, that is all fine. Yes, Bobbie is great. However, my eyes were rolling because once again the female protagonist has a “safe” lady profession: photographer. How many times have we seen this? It’s such a cop out. “Photographer.” “Designer.” Not to say that those aren’t serious professions, but they are certainly portrayed as safe and unintimidating in weaksauce movies like this. And Joanna doesn’t even call it “photography.” She calls it “taking pictures.” and her big break? The thing that was going to bring her success and prestige? Was when she realized she had been missing the greatest subject matter all along – pictures of her kiddies frolicking on the lawn. WTF? Unless you’re Sally Mann, no upscale, serious NYC photography gallery is going to be clamouring for pictures of your brats.

Sean: She actually says, to the old lady writing about her for the local newsletter: “I’m a hopeful, semi-professional photographer.”

Kristine: Fine, maybe once. But the rest of the time she calls it “taking pictures.”

Sean: I feel like you’re missing the point that Joanna is supposed to represent an entire generation of women who aren’t quite sure how to break out of the home/domestic world and enter the workforce. She is supposed to be uncertain about herself professionally.

Kristine: I am not missing that point. But I am annoyed that she is another photographer. Sean, admit this happens in movies all the time, still to this day.

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Feminist cyclops

Sean: Well, it so happens that we’ve run into the lady photographer several times for the blog. I am willing to cut this movie more lady photographer slack for being 38 years old, when “the lady photographer” was maybe less of a trope than it is now. But so what if her photos are of the kids playing? Good for her. So what about it? That’s the world she knows. That’s like begrudging a mommy blogger who parlays a book deal – if she can do it, more power to her.

Kristine: If Joanna was a real person it would be fine. But this is a movie pretending to be about ideas, and she is supposed to be our fledging feminist whose consciousness is awakening. I think the movie cops out.

Sean: How does it cop out? I am really interested in this question.  Also, when you’re done, I have an argument to make about the photography.

Kristine: I get that it’s all about how she can “see” what’s happening and all the stuff with the one guy sketching her eyes and her unfinished robot eyes at the end and blah blah blah. As we have said before, photographer is one of the go-to jobs films give to ladies when they want them to have some spirit and independence, but they still want them to seem attractive and accessible (i.e. not ball-busters). In the world of these kind of films, “photographer” and the like is something that you can do and have a career like a modern woman, but still stay at home and take care of children and a household. Now, I am not saying flexible jobs like that aren’t awesome and crucial in the real world, or that it is in any way what the life of a lady photographer is really like. Let me repeat. I am not hating on lady photographers who stay at home and use their family and home life as their primary inspiration and subject matter, in real life. I love ladies valuing and embracing domesticity. I am hating on lots of (mostly male) screenwriters using the lady photographer as a lazy way to give a woman the storyline of having a passion and purpose, while making sure she is not seen as a hardline careerist (i.e. masculine and unattractive) in anyway.

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Conspiracy art or 1970s-era douche ad? You decide.

Sean: I was actually thinking about how Joanna’s photography is similar or connected to Keith Jennings, the photographer in The Omen. In both cases, as you say, the photography is about “seeing” or using the lens as a way of recording events that can later be interpreted. They’re both sussing out conspiracies. I actually think the issue of seeing, and of self-regard in particular, is a central concern in The Stepford Wives. The first time we see Joanna she’s looking in a mirror, alone and its not a moment of narcissism, but a moment of self-reflection. The whole movie is about Joanna trying to figure out who she is…

Kristine: It’s a tad heavy handed for my taste.

Sean: Well, I won’t argue that it is subtle.

Kristine: I actually like Katherine Ross in the role, and I like that this movie came after she made The Graduate, like in some ways Joanna is the spiritual successor to Elaine Robinson.

Sean: I also love Ross and Paula Prentiss as Bobbie and fucking Tina Louise (a.k.a. Ginger from Gilligan’s Island) as the redheaded trophy wife. Could you believe?

Kristine: Yes, they were all good. And Bobbie’s fate made me sad.

Sean: Ugh hated her fate.

Kristine: But oh my god, Joanna’s ex-boyfriend Raymond Chandler. Do you agree with me that he was an ape troll and not hot in any way???

Sean: Dude, he looked like Muammar Gaddafi. I was like, What in the Libyan dictator hell?

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 9.38.45 AM
The man who put Pan Am out of business

Kristine: Good. If you said he was hot I was going to scream. You weren’t dying during the scene when Bobbie and Joanna are talking about the men in their past and Joanna goes on and on about making Raymond “Gaddafi” Chandler tell her the plot of his latest hardboiled detective book before he could fuck her???? Because it was quite a scene.

Sean: I though that was ridic. I noted the random noir references and thought it was weird.

Kristine: So, I thought, despite some of the actresses being entertaining, the movie was pretty dull and it felt like it was three hours long.

Sean: Well, I guess I actually find the monsters in this movie – the Men’s Association – to be (a) actually fucking terrifying, (b) a totally brilliant invention by Levin and (c) awesome social critique.

Kristine: They were bastards, no doubt.

Sean: Let me just say that the “feminists of the day” picketed this movie and complained it was anti-woman. It makes me sad/mad to think of a bunch of humorless feminists not getting that the whole movie is a critique of patriarchy.

Kristine: That’s weird. I think the movie is poorly done, but I certainly think it’s trying to make a feminist statement. I just don’t think it knows how.

Sean: The most awesome detail about the Men’s Association is that the head honcho is a former Disney executive. I think that’s a stroke of brilliance.

Kristine: I agree. Oh, he was a fucking bastard. “I like to watch women do little domestic chores.”

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 9.49.55 AM
Why were boobs so pointy in the ’70s?

Sean: The ending is so fucking awful and nihilistic, and the linking of this disgusting men’s fantasy to Disney (icon of “wholesomeness” that is and has always been the opposite of wholesome) is just awesome. I love how Joanna finds her replacement and the robot is stacked with huge tits when she herself is small-breasted. That says everything, with that one image, about these men and their objectification of women and denial of their personhood.

Kristine: Hee hee.

Sean: I find the Stepford Wives themselves really fascinating as projections of male desire. Like, Carol Van Sant is not sexy, but sort of weirdly matronly in her peach-colored robe and white pants and gardening hat (when Joanna spies on the Van Sants kissing in the yard) – like a prematurely-aged grandmother. Is THIS what men want? Weird. I mean, “She cooks as good as she looks”?

Kristine: Yeah, I thought it was interesting they want these sex slaves with gigantic tits…  but they also want them to dress like they’re in the polygamist Mormon compound from Big Love.

Sean: Right?

Kristine: Can I use this as a natural segue into something I liked?

Sean: Yes, baby.

Kristine: I loved the slinky 1970s fashion. Both Joanna and Bobbie turned it out. And they were hella sexy. I loved Joanna’s slinky nipple-tastic knit dress when she plays hostess for the Men’s Association. And I loved all Bobbie’s mid-riff bearing tops and shortie shorts. Loved loved loved.

Sean: My boyfriend was dying at the clothes.

Kristine: I loved them.

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 9.32.00 AM
Midriff-baring realness

Sean: Joanna at one point wears matching denim daisy dukes and a fitted ruffled halter top.

Kristine: Didn’t you think both Bobbie and Joanna were hot as hell?

Sean: Yes and also, smart and sassy and genuinely hilarious. I loved their friendship a lot and how they were both messy and informal and like, “whatever” about being hausfraus.

Kristine: Next thing I loved, which you have already touched on, was how the men don’t turn to, like, sorcery or black magic and swirling capes to do their evil work. They use the industries they are professionals in. That was cool and somehow seemed right for the 1970s. I liked how Joanna kept driving by all the industrial buildings and sensing they were somehow the answer to the terrible goings-ons, but not quite being able to make the connection. Once again, it is all about the men stomping out nature with something manufactured, that they have complete control over. I liked how the men were essentially just professional dudes (master industrialist-capitalists), not master warlocks. Which leads me to my next like… Which is: I like imagining a married couple in the ‘70s going to see this and the wife looking at her husband all askance, wondering, “Is this what he really wants? Would he ‘turn’ me if he could?” But the movie might be too silly to actually inspire that kind of fear and paranoid reaction.

Sean: I’m actually wondering if our different reactions to the movie have anything to do with being raised by two very different mothers in the 1970s. Like, for me, this movie speaks to something fundamental that my mom lacked – a willingness to question or reject the patriarchy.

Kristine: I was thinking that, too. And cursing myself cause I forgot to ask my mom about seeing this movie back in the day.

Sean: Just the horror of men who literally don’t want women to have any personhood, but be true objects, is so on-the-money 1970s paranoia.

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Ginger Grant post-Jazzercise

Kristine: See, my mom had an established career before she married, she married late (for the times) and had children late (when I was born she was 36) and she married a younger man seven years younger than herself. So.

Sean: Well, there it is. My mom was an indentured servant in her marriage to my father, had no job skills, no education, and was a young mother (had my sister at 19, myself at 23). He used to call himself “The Benevolent Dictator” and “Bad Dad” and strut around the house barking out orders. He was also a violent, abusive drunk and a psychological sadist.

Kristine: Yeah, I think you are right about this factoring into our different responses.

Sean: I also like how this movie comments on the 1970s sociological phenomena of the great move from cities to suburbia. Note that the film ends with the “first black family” arriving in town, completing the sociological equation.

Kristine: Yes. Do you agree that it is so much better that the men are just “normal” incredibly evil professionals, as opposed to warlocks or Satanists?

Sean: Yes, I totally agree.

Kristine: I liked the scarce moments when the movie did go into camp territory (intentionally or not, I do not know). To wit: the incredibly dramatic dog-napping of Fred. When Joanna smashes her hubby on the head and then says is a calm, deadpan voice, “Where. Are. The. Children?” And of course Bobbie and Joanna’s confrontation (in the kitchen, natch), after Bobbie has been replaced by a robot, repeating “How could you do something like that?” over and over. I loved those moments.

Sean: I agree with all those. The “where are the children?” running around in the Gothic rainstorm? I fucking lived for that shit. You said this reminded you of a Lifetime movie like it was a bad thing – if anything this is the ultimate Lifetime movie and that is why I love it. Plus it is ten times darker and more twisted than any actual Lifetime movie could be.

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Hi shirt says “Papa Power,” his wooden mannequin says “I plan on replacing you with a robot”

Kristine: Fair enough. My last like is… I actually liked the character of Joanna’s husband, Walter. I liked how he started out very much in the mode of Jack Nicholson in The Shining – gruff, critical, curt. But then, as he descends into darkness, he doesn’t become Mr. Mucho Macho, right? We seem him being emotional and unsure, he starts drinking to deal with his conflicting desires… And it seems like his motivation is that he just wants to fit in with the cool dudes. Maybe even more than he wants this happy homemaker wife, right? He is a weak, pitiful man and I thought his character was perhaps the most real.

Sean: I agree with everything you just said, but I loathed him so bad anyway. When he asks for a Sanka? I was filled with rage.

Kristine: Absolutely gross. Especially because Katharine Ross is so lovely.

Sean: Plus Joanna doesn’t seem to love Walter, even when she says she does. Their marriage is so sexless and unfriendly.  This exchange? He says, “I can warm my ass by a real fire. You ever make it in front of a log fire?” and Joanna answers, icily, “Not with you.” I mean, this movie makes marriage and heterosexuality into a fucking total abject nightmare and I kind of love. I feel like gay people advocating for the right to marry should sit down and watch this movie and then ask themselves, “Really?”

Kristine: What about when Walter holds out his fucking coffee cup to Joanna when she is surrounded by the mob of children she is trying to feed?

Sean: And when she is locked in the darkroom and he is so annoyed that he has to watch the kids? Monster.

Kristine: Yeah. But that exchange is true to life. 1,000 times over! Don’t you agree that Walter’s motivations were conformity and weakness more so than actual desire for a robot wife?

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You know shit has gotten real in suburban Connecticut when there’s blood on the New Yorker

Sean: I mean, to me the central mystery at the heart of the movie IS the character of Walter – and how on Earth he can actually devalue his wife’s personhood to the point that he is happy to see her murdered and replaced by a robot. That darkness in the hearts of the husbands is the most compelling aspect of the story, for me, and if I have any critique of the movie, it’s that the movie sort of sidesteps any actual examination of that darkness. But I understand that the movie wants instead to focus purely on the women’s experience and on their subjectivity. That night that she finds Walter crying in the dark living room? And its clear that that is the night he sold her out to the Men’s Association? He tells her “I really do love you” – it’s really disturbing.

Kristine: Yes, I agree. And I do think that was what happened that night. The men ARE menacing but they are also super pathetic – like the fugly pharmacist who programs his super hot Swedish model wife to say things like, “No one’s ever done it to me like you do” and “You’re the master!” when they are having sex. Exactly what kind of omega male gets off on a robot telling them that because they are programmed to do so? Are we to include that it was the strength of the original human wives that caused the husbands to become so insecure they sought out this “solution”? Remember the old lady gadfly says, “Stepford was once the most liberal town” in the area.

Sean: Well, it’s framed as a response to the women’s “consciousness raising groups” and collective action, right? I thought the whole thing was about returning to the 1950s (remember that during the 1970s was a huge boom of nostalgia for the ’50s, which we’ve discussed before in connection to Halloween) and returning women to purely domestic roles. It’s about turning back time and stopping social progress dead. Turning the American suburb into a kind of living wax museum of retro-gender politics.

Kristine: Right. So, I pointed at the screen and was like, “ooh, ooh” when Walter orders Joanna to “”Go upstairs and lie down!” – because it was exactly the same as Laubardemont in The Devils telling Sister Jeanne to “Stay here forever and be quiet.” I am sensing a theme in the collective consciousness of the 1970s…

Sean: Oooh, I like that connection. The 1970s are truly the first decade of post-feminism, post-civil rights, when African-Americans and women are like, entering into new roles in the culture. Thus, I thought ending with the black couple was brilliant.

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Patriarchy cuts across the “color line”

Kristine: Even though it was in the “heavy handed” category, I liked the ending with the black couple too. It was proof positive that the movie is trying to address these issues of social change and the power sector (the middle class and rich white males) trying to stop progress or change at any cost, and is not just using a veneer of feminism to make a movie with boobs, boobs and more boobs.

Sean: Well, I truly am sorry you didn’t enjoy this movie.

Kristine: I am sad that I didn’t like it, too. I was looking forward to it. I’m sad that you’re sad. I went in with an open mind and loving heart.

Sean: I guess 25 years of anticipation is the kiss of death for a Lifetime movie on crack.

Kristine: I guess it is.

Sean: This is the worst night of my life. I can’t believe you didn’t think this was brilliant.

Kristine: I feel so bad. Do you want me to lie? I made a lengthy list of things I liked.

Sean: Don’t fake an orgasm for me, baby.

Kristine: Stop it.

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Fucking FABULOUS

Sean: My motto is “Only real squeals.”

Kristine: Ugh. If Tina Louise was your tennis instructor in the early 1980s, would your little gayling self have gotten a boner?

Sean: That question and everything about it is disgusting and demonic. But that image of Tina Louise’s husband chortling fatly while they drill up her tennis court? Amazing.

Kristine: Why is it demonic and disgusting? Sean, the human body is beautiful and having a boner is a perfectly healthy reaction. You really need some quality time with Our Bodies, Ourselves. Alone in a rural cabin replete with hanging macramé decorations and lots of potted ferns.

Sean: I didn’t get boners for fabulous bitches like Tina Louise. We would have torn up Connecticut, though. I grew up in fucking Stepford for godsaakes. This movie is my family, without the swearing, screaming matches, broken furniture and psychological degradation.

Kristine: Whenever I don’t dig something you cherish, you never let me live it down and characterize it as a moral failing on my part and a betrayal of our friendship.

Sean: I never said any of that.

Kristine: You have about The Thing.

Sean: Oh yeah I did. But just that time. Get ovuh it.

Kristine: Another true-to-life 1970s dick dad moment, courtesy of Walter: “Why do my children look like they are homeless?”

Sean: OMG doesn’t he actually say “ragamuffins”?

Kristine: Yeah. Just his general demeanor of “My family embarrasses me, and it’s my wife’s fault.” Ugh.

Sean: Last question, were you a Ginger or a Mary Ann girl?

Kristine: I was a Mary Ann girl back in the day, but I am a Ginger woman now. Because Ginge is a drag queen.

Sean: Fab.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: This is horror movie homework. Essential to know but not fun to complete AND Total Trash! I’m not sure I loved it.

The Freak’s Rating:  Pop perfection.

Fake-ass realness
Fake-ass realness