Novelist Ira Levin had a great knack for taking outrageous premises to their fullest extreme, so his books were adapted into the classic shocker Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and the campy but entertaining thriller The Boys From Brazil (1978). Released between those pictures was the Levin adaptation The Stepford Wives (1975), which explores a scheme by suburban men to transform their brides into compliant automatons. Featuring a zippy screenplay by William Goldman and several memorable scenes, The Stepford Wives should be a terrific little shocker, but it’s held back by an inert leading performance and lackluster direction. Nonetheless, the film’s slow-burn narrative is fun, and the conspiracy at the center of the picture is so creepy that problems of execution can’t fully diminish the project’s appeal.
Katharine Ross stars as Joanna Eberhart, a beautiful young wife living in New York City with her attorney husband, Walter (Peter Masterson), and their two young kids. Much to Joanna’s chagrin, Walter abruptly relocates the family to the squeaky-clean suburb of Stepford, where the wives are all beautiful women preoccupied with housework and the sexual needs of their husbands. Joanna goes stir-crazy fast, bonding with fellow newcomer Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) and searching for signs of intelligent life in the Stepford universe. Meanwhile, Walter joins the mysterious Stepford Men’s Association, so Joanna and Bobbie investigate whether the association is behind the strange behavior of the Stepford wives. The story moves along at a good clip, with creepy hints of the truth peeking out through the shiny surfaces of Stepford life, and Joanna’s descent into desperation is believable.
Some supporting characters, including sexy housewife Charmaine (Tina Louise), could have benefited from greater development, but the way the movie withholds details about enigmatic Stepford power-broker Dale Coba (Patrick O’Neal) adds intrigue. Still, the middle of the movie lags simply because the performances aren’t engaging. Ross, the delicate beauty of The Graduate (1967) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), delivers competent work but never gets under the skin of her character, while Masterson is forgettable and Prentiss is overbearing (though, in her defense, that’s a key trait of her character). Since the leads are wash, the best performance in the picture is given by Nanette Newman, who plays the most weirdly submissive of the Stepford wives, Carol. Van Sant.
Compensating significantly for the bland acting is the grainy cinematography by Owen Roizman, whose images give the plastic surfaces of Stepford a dark edge, and the tense score by Michael Small. Ultimately, the blame for The Stepford Wives’ failure to achieve its full potential must fall on director Bryan Forbes, a versatile Englishman who made a number of tasteful but unexceptional pictures; he presents the story clearly but without any panache or urgency. FYI, three sequels to The Stepford Wives were made for television—Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980), The Stepford Children (1987), and The Stepford Husbands (1996)—before the original picture was remade in 2004, with Nicole Kidman starring.
The Stepford Wives: FUNKY