Monday, 13 February 2012

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Dir. Bryan Forbes
Starring: Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman

There must be something in the water in Stepford. It is an idyllic Connecticut town surrounded by trees and meadows. The beautiful large houses are set back behind manicured lawns; out back there are tennis courts or swimming pools. The residents include company bosses, TV executives, scientists and lawyers who work in the local high-tech industries or commute into Manhattan. Their wives stay at home to raise the children and keep their homes clean. They are dutiful, obedient, playful – perfect wives.

Too perfect. The women of Stepford waltz around in pinafore dresses and sunhats talking about the best cleaning products to use like they are Nanette Newman off the Fairy Liquid adverts. In fact one of them is Nanette Newman from the Fairy Liquid adverts! Newcomer Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross - best known as Elaine Robinson from The Graduate) soon makes cause with the rebellious Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss). “It’s like maids have been declared illegal, and the housewife with the neatest place gets Robert Redford for Christmas.” They try to empower the local women (“pan-scrubbers”  and “hausfraus” according to Bobbie) by organising a women’s lib session to get them to open up; the concerns that emerge, however, are guilt that they did not do any baking that day because they were so busy polishing the floors to a shine. The session denigrates into a discussion about the merits of Easy-On Spray Starch. Even Joanna and Bobbie’s ally Charmaine (Tina Louise) seems to have a personality transplant, ceasing to criticise her husband, sacking her maid, and allowing her tennis court to be dug up to make way for a pool. Meanwhile the men – including Joanna’s husband Walter (Peter Masterson) – are bonding well up at the Stepford Men’s Association.

Bobbie starts to suspect that there must be something in the water that is making the women meek and submissive – some run off from the town’s biochemical industries. They get a sample of the water tested; results come up negative. But then Bobbie comes back from a weekend away with a new wardrobe, bigger boobs and a passion for housework and Joanna gets scared. She becomes convinced that the behaviour of the womenfolk is not just birds of a feather flocking together or some local chemical imbalance. She starts to think that somehow the Men’s Association is behind it all… But by the end of the film when Joanna meets the other Stepford wives in the supermarket everything seems to be “fine”.

You'll just die if you don't get that recipe:
Nanette Newman (right) shows how to cook up the perfect Stepford wife

The phrase ‘Stepford wife’ is now common parlance. It is used to criticise overly domestic women, those whose ambitions stretch no further than keeping a clean home, a contended husband and a well-cared-for family. In the 1970s when the film was shot, and when the original novel by Ira Levin was published, a wife of this sort was probably seen as a good attribute. Today it all seems weird – far too Desperate Housewives. But with the ‘70s being the age of women’s lib this film really strikes a chord. The men of Stepford are in turns piggish, calculating and malevolent. Their only redeeming feature really is the fact that they don’t want other women, they only want their wives. Just better versions of their wives. Meanwhile we see women with spark, individuality and ambition have it all drained out of them. In Revolutionary Road this was a natural by-product of being trapped in the “hopeless emptiness” of the suburbs; in The Stepford Wives it is much more malign. In Revolutionary Road Frank dooms April as a consequence of his decisions; in The Stepford Wives Walter makes an active choice about what he wants. Ironically, for me, I would say that Revolutionary Road is probably the more horrifying, just because it is more realistic.

One odd thing that bears noting is that The Stepford Wives seems to have been a real family shoot. Nanette Newman was married to the film’s English director Bryan Forbes. One of Joanna and Walter’s daughters actually was played by the real-life daughter of Peter Masterson. This was the screen debut of Mary Stuart Masterson, who later went on to play Idgie in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafĂ©.

What have I learnt about Connecticut?
Where Revolutionary Road showed the suburbs of the aspiring middle class The Stepford Wives shows the homes of those who have succeeded and have money – historic three-storey detached properties with acres of land, set back among the trees, often with pools or tennis courts. This is a snobbish place where men-only clubs survive and hold power. The fact that Stepford is seen as ‘liberal’ by some townspeople just because it had the first Chinese restaurant in Fairfield county and it is about to have a black couple move in speaks volumes about quite how WASP-ish society is around here. Yet nearby Westport has a reputation for attracting writers and artists.

Can we go there?
What, you still want to go to Connecticut? Are you having marital difficulties?

Like Revolutionary Road, The Stepford Wives was filmed on location – and in exactly the same area of south-west Connecticut: Darien, Fairfield, Norwalk. The industrial units can be found in Norwalk (companies headquartered here in real life include pharmaceuticals company IMS Health, mechanical and electrical engineers Emcor Group and Applera Biosystems who are working on the Human Genome Project). The spooky gothic home of the Stepford Men’s Association is also in Norwalkthe Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum. The local shops can be found in the intriguingly-named Goodwives Shopping Center in Darien. The rustic exterior of Dr Fancher’s psychotherapist’s office is in Weston. Ira Levin has said that he based Stepford upon the town of Wilton however. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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