June 18, 2020

The Stepford Wives (1975)
Grade: 52/100

Director: Bryan Forbes
Stars: Katharine Ross, Peter Masterson, Paula Prentiss

What it's about. Stepford is an idyllic suburban town, particularly for the Phyllis Schlafly types active around the time the movie was made. There is no crime or poverty. The men are dull or creepy, yet invariably married to gorgeous Betty Crocker housewives.

New arrivals Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss soon become best friends, but they are frustrated with the other residents. The husbands belong to a mysterious men's association, and the wives never want to leave the house aside from the weekly trip to the grocery store.

After Paula Prentiss unexpectedly changes into June Cleaver, Ross decides she has had enough. She will leave the robotic wives and dislikable men behind, especially her dull and disinterested husband Peter Masterson. But she can't find her two young children, and already the walls are closing in on her.

The plot is reminiscent of the Star Trek episode "I, Mudd", except from the point of the view of the women that the robots are replacing.

How others will see it. The Stepford Wives was ignored by the Golden Globes and the Oscars. The movie has mustered 15K user votes at imdb.com, some of whom may have seen it for Katharine Ross' eye candy. The user ratings are good but not great, and show a modest gender spread. Men grade it 6.8 out of 10, while women see it better at 7.2.

The user reviews are a mixed bag, but everyone agrees that The Stepford Wives is better than the 2004 Nicole Kidman remake, and certainly better than the three made-for-television sequels (Revenge of the Stepford Wives, The Stepford Children, and The Stepford Husbands).

How I felt about it. The first time one sees The Stepford Wives, it is a mystery. The second time, it is a dark comedy. The story is so preposterous that a refutation misses the point entirely.

The plot is not intended to be taken literally. It is a feminist allegory: men seek to subjugate women within marriage. The moral was indeed valid until circa-1967, when the "Leave it to Beaver" housewives began to rebel, around the same time that young men protested the draft, and blacks marched to end segregation.

The Stepford Wives was based on a 1972 novel by Ira Levin, also the author of the source work for Rosemary's Baby. That was another tale of a paranoid young housewife, only the villains were in a satanic cult instead of a men's club enforcing a right-wing sexist philosophy.

But despite its notoriety, The Stepford Wives is not a particularly good movie. Where did it go wrong? To begin with, Peter Masterson is miscast. Why would model-gorgeous Katharine Ross marry a dull, balding complainer? Paula Prentiss camps it up, and Tina Louise acts as if she would rather be somewhere else. The children exist mostly as a McGuffin making it difficult for Ross to simply leave her chrome-dome husband. The long scene with the psychiatrist just slows the film down.

But the real problem of the film has to do with the director. He is under the misguided impression that The Stepford Wives is a suspenseful drama, when instead the writers of both the novel and screenplay intend it to be a comedy. Only Franklin Cover, the "Jeffersons" veteran somehow in a movie marriage with Ginger from "Gilligan's Island", plays it for laughs, gloating from close range while a tractor destroys his (late) wife's tennis court.

We are supposed to be afraid for Ross. But the woman waits until she has recorded the dictionary, from A to Z, before trying to take the kids and run. And when her paranoia is confirmed by O'Neal, that she is to be murdered and replaced by a robot, all she can muster up is polite conversation.

It's not all bad, of course. Nanette Newman, despite the nepotism involved in being the director's wife, gives the best performance. Creepy Patrick O'Neal is second best, though he has few scenes. And the script shows signs of promise. Still, it's not enough to put the film over.