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Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Stepford Wives

The first theatrical release sci-fi movie of 1975 was The Stepford Wives (TSW). It is one of the landmark films of the 70s. William Golden developed the screenplay from Ira Levin’s 1972 novel of the same name. Bryan Forbes directed. Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss starred. Many in the rest of the cast were familiar faces too. Tina Louise has a small but important role as the first woman to change.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The Eberhardt family move from an apartment in downtown New York City, to an upscale suburb in Stepford, Connecticut. The move is entirely Walter’s idea. Joanna reluctantly goes along with the disruption. She notices that the women of Stepford are nice, but shallow. Joanna meets another newcomer to Stepford, Bobbi. (Paula Prentiss) Happy to find another “normal” person, they become friends. Walter is invited to join the locally prestigious Men’s Association. This flares up some lingering squabbles over male chauvinism vs. feminism between Walter and Joanna. Odd little events start to worry Joanna. Joanna and Bobbi notice that the Stepford husbands are bland milk-toasts of men, but all have adoring trophy wives. Joanna and Bobbi do meet Charmaine, (Tina Louise) another newcomer and avid amateur tennis fan with her own court. Joanna sits in on a Men’s Association meeting at the Eberhardt home, One man (a sort of Vargas parallel) sketches Joanna while the others banter fundraising ideas. The meeting leader, (Patrick O’Neal) is called “Diz” because he was once an engineer at Disneyland. Charmaine goes away for a weekend with her husband and returns a Stepford wife. Bobbi and Joanna are convinced that all the high-tech firms in Stepford must be polluting the water. They get a sample analyzed, but there’s nothing odd in the water. Bobbi goes away for a weekend with her husband, and returns a Stepford wife. In a moment of frustration, Joanna stabs Bobbi. There is no blood. Bobbi goes into repeated motions (dropping coffee cups) and repeating phrases. Joanna runs home to find that her two kids are gone. She comes the Men’s Association mansion on a suitably dark and stormy night. Diz is there and tells her it is her time. Joanna runs from dark spooky room to dark spooky room, stopping in what looks like a partial recreation of her bedroom. In it, is a copy of herself, brushing her long hair. The copy, however, has only incomplete black spheres for eyes (Eyes as windows of the soul, therefore Robo-Joanna has no soul, get it?). Joanna 2.0 looks the same, but is now a 36 DD where Real-Joanna was a 34 AAA at best. Robo-Joanna smiles a menacing smile, secures a strangling cord in both hands and walks towards Joanna. Fade to black. Fade back in to the Stepford supermarket. Tepid muzak plays while Stepford wives float along behind their shopping carts. They are all dressed in long, frilly sun dresses and wide-brimmed hats. Joanna is there too, in similar frilly attire. Zoom in on her now complete, but expressionless eyes. Freeze frame. Roll Credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Fans of the paranoia sub-genre of 50s sci-fi, can appreciate this mid 70s refresh of the trope. There are a lot of tangent topics raised by the script.

Cultural Connection
The term “Stepford wife” entered into the general cultural language. Even forty years after the movie, it is still understood. The word “Stepford” has gotten into dictionaries, meaning someone that is bland and submissive. A “Stepford wife” being  “a married woman who submits to her husband's will and is preoccupied by domestic concerns and her own personal appearance.” In 2011, Cindy McCain (wife of Senator John McCain) said, “I've seen things written about me that said "she's cold," or "she is a Stepford wife." Really, I'm just very shy.” Levin’s novel, and Forbes’ movie, made a lasting impression on the culture, even spawning

Based on the Book — The movie follows the story line of Ira Levin’s 1972 novel very closely. There are always ways in which movies cannot capture what the written word can, but in this case, the movie almost did a better job. For instance, in the book, the robotic nature of the duplicates is not made as clear. Levin may have preferred the ambiguity. Were they biological clones? Petty zombies? Forbes makes it clear that the Stepford wives are robot duplicates. The real wives were killed. This point too, is not as clear in the book. Forbes' scene with Robo-Joanna and her strangling cord make the fates of the real women terribly clear. Both the book and the movie indulge in vulgarity like a college freshman away from home for the first time. Both Levin and Forbes may have sought to use vulgarity as a marker for “real” people, but what does that say about the culture?

Better Without Bimbos — William Goldman had originally envisioned the Stepford wives to be dressed provocatively. They would be trophy bimbos. Bryan Forbes’ wife, Nanette Newman, was cast as Carol Van Sant. Newman was an accomplished actress in her own right and attractive, but at 40 years old, did not look good in Goldman’s bimbo-wear. So, the costuming took a more conservative tack. Barbie gave way to Betty Crocker. This actually saved the film from becoming kitsch — a slightly darker version of Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (’65) in which the robots are primarily eye candy. Middle-aged men making bikini-babes would have been shallow and juvenile. Them making “nice” mild suburban homemakers has more complexity.

The Dark Side of Disney — Apparently, the animatronics at Disneyland creeped some people out. Disney’s robo-entertainment was also the inspiration for Westworld (’73). Forbes’ robots don’t go bad as overtly as the Gunslinger, but the scene in which Robo-Joanna is implied to kill the real Joanna shows the same technophobia. The Disney connection is made abundantly clear in the “Diz” character, who worked for Disney. When Joanna is talking with the therapist she says she knows she is due to be replaced. It will look like her, “but it won’t be me. She’ll be one of those robots at Disneyland.” Some people saw a dark side to the magic kingdom.

Pods For A New Age — The Stepford wives are the pod people for a new generation. There is much similarity between TSW and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (’56). Both are classics of the people-being-replaced conspiracy trope. In both stories, the “normal” people exhibit several human imperfections, and they are slowly and systematically replaced by bland, emotionless duplicates. Where Body Snatchers was responding to the insidious creeping in of communism (or McCarthyism, if you prefer), the Stepford wives represent a very common 70s anxiety about technology dehumanizing us.

Feminist Film? — On a shallow level, TSW serves as a feminist indictment of male-dominated society. There is talk of male chauvinism, burning bras, equality and mean-old-men forcing women into domestic roles. Yet these are more of a red herring. Beneath that veneer lurks the darker story of men willing to live a lie. Diz rationalizes the scheme to Joanna. “Wouldn’t you do the same thing? Wouldn’t you like some perfect stud waiting on you around the house? Praising you. Servicing you. Whispering that your sagging flesh was beautiful, no matter how you looked?” That was, after all, what the men of Stepford were doing. They wanted trophy wives, or at least the appearance of them, to lie to them, even though they knew it was pre-programmed lies. Why would a tape recording of a woman saying "You're the best!" have any value to the man? In this, Levin and Forbes make a commentary about that darker side of mankind’s heart. To paraphrase the bible verses, They refused to accept the truth, instead believing the lie. TSW is also about there being something wrong with the men.

Bottom line? TSW is not to be missed. One need not be a fan of sci-fi to benefit from watching it. TSW is a cultural touchstone. There is the usual 70s technophobia, but there are some many tangental social commentaries to muse over too. The banality of suburban life. An urban-dweller’s fears of un-hip suburbia. The subtle Frankenstein: Adam trying to fabricate his own idealized Eve. Science and technology doing the immoral “Because we can.” There are more than a few cup-of-coffee conversations to be mined from TSW. The film spawned several sequels and an unfortunate remake in 2004. The original is best. Watch it.

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