Based on the 1972 best seller by Ira (Rosemary’s Baby) Levin, adapted to the big screen by William (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) Goldman, and directed by Bryan Forbes, The Stepford Wives is an interesting thriller that doesn’t quite thrill and a social satire that doesn’t quite go far enough. There isn’t an equal balance but the material carries the film until its final scenes when the movie finally goes off track and loses all the momentum it has tried to build up for its first 90 minutes.
Katharine Ross stars as Joanna, a housewife and wanna be photographer in New York City with two young daughters, who is preparing to move to the suburban community of Stepford, along with her lawyer-husband Walter. Stepford seems like a quaint, ideal suburban neighborhood but Joanna almost immediately finds herself going a little stir crazy without the hustle and bustle of city life. She finds that most of the women of Stepford are obsessed with their housework and unusually devoted to their husbands. On the first day Walter is greeted by their neighbor Carol, who delivers a casserole to him.
Soon enough some relief comes in the form of Bobbi (Paula Prentiss), another newcomer to the community. She is sloppy and freewheeling and speaks her mind. They also befriend Charmaine (nicely played by Tina Louise, Ginger from Gilligan’s Island), an avid tennis player who finds an opponent on the court in Joanna. The three of them decide to create a club for women (Walter has joined an all male club so fair is fair after all) but find that most of the wives who come to the meeting only want to talk about housework. This is a terrifically satirical scene and I began to think I was watching a devious black comedy unfold. Another involves Bobbi and Joanna walking into a house overhearing the occupants making love with the wife seemingly reaching rapturous heights of orgasm. Later they run into the couple and we see that the wife is a beauty while the husband is your typical older small town pharmacist.
My opinion was heightened when a series of scenes occur grabbing the attention of Walter and Joanna. Their neighbor, Carol, is in a minor car accident at the supermarket and begins repeating the same phrases over and over. When the ambulance takes her away both Walter and Joanna notice that it drives off in the opposite direction of the hospital. Then, while driving by Charmaine’s house, Joanna and Bobbi spot a bulldozer digging up the tennis court and a visit to the house proves that Charmaine has changed and appears to be more like the other wives than Joanna and Bobbi.
This is where the movie veers off some and turns serious by wanting to become a thriller. Joanna knows things are wrong but Walter thinks she is just having a hard time adjusting to suburban life. Bobbi also knows things are not kosher. At first they think it’s something in the water so we get an obligatory scene of them taking a water sample to a scientist (who happens to be an ex-lover of Joanna’s) Joanna goes to the city to show some of her photos to a photographer and when she returns things have gone from bad to worse. The movie then makes a near fatal error of trying turn into a thriller. Joanna has more or less been sucked into a Twilight Zone-ish situation – we already know that. Director Forbes feels the need to beat it over our heads instead of continuing to poke a little fun at the situation.
The film really goes off the rails in its final sequences as Joanna learns the truth and begins facing off against the villains. Forbes throws out any desire to further satire his material and tried to grab the audience by the throat with thrills. He even sets one of his final set pieces in a gothic looking mansion (which must totally stand out in a community like Stepford) amidst a powerful rain storm complete with thunder and lightning. I was starting to think I was watching a Vincent Price movie.
The Stepford Wives is a marginally decent movie with a strong one waiting to break out (the film was remade by Frank Oz in 2004 and was even worse). Maybe the material is just not suitable for a good production. Or maybe the film could have used a different director (imagine what someone like Elaine May might have done with this script). The wives should have been noticeably different from their real selves. We should have seen more of them being frumpy and lazy and then have them far sexier after the change occurred. Reportedly screenwriter Goldman had written that the women would all wear miniskirts in their new state but director Forbes vetoed that and went for a more traditional ’50s look. It doesn’t work.
The performances range from merely adequate to terrific. Katharine Ross was absolutely beautiful but her acting ability was marginal at best. Peter Masterson (as her husband) is limited by the script in the kind of performance he could have given. (Incidentally, Masterson’s daughter Mary Stuart, who would become a successful actress in her own right, made her screen debut as the youngest daughter here). Paula Prentiss gave the performance of her career as the best friend. The film comes alive every time she is on screen and her absence is felt when the story veers away from her. Several of the smaller roles of the wives are poorly performed as if their robotic state carried over to their talent.
In the end The Stepford Wives is more frustrating than satisfying. There are plenty of strong moments but there are just as many weak ones as well. I think either another re-write of the screenplay was in order tilting the tone of the film one way or the other and not trying to divide it evenly. There is still a great satirical movie or a great thriller waiting to be made from this material.
Unfortunately this version is not it.