Something strange is happening in the town of Stepford
Since its release in 1975, The Stepford Wives, the creepy fable about a society of men who construct subservient replicas of their independent wives, has not only become a cult phenomenon, but also a virtual pop culture touchstone. The term "Stepford wife" is still used 25 years later to describe a woman who is completely and strangely devoted to cooking, cleaning, and loving her man. Working from a script from veteran screenwriter William Goldman (The Princess Bride), director Brian Forbes (International Velvet) successfully steered this potentially cheesy vehicle into the realm of intelligent social satire. On the occasion of its Silver Anniversary, Anchor Bay pays The Stepford Wives a revisit with a new transfer and some supplements. But is it worth the trip?
Facts of the Case
Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) is reluctant to leave her comfortable New York City apartment for a spacious home in the sleepy New England town of Stepford. Her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) insists that the move will better the lives of their two children, while Joanna is fearful it will hurt her chances for a career as a photographer. Soon after the Eberharts arrive in Stepford, Joanna feels out of place in a world of housewives entirely devoted to domestic tranquility. The women in Stepford behave like zombies, constantly cleaning their houses and cooking their husbands' dinner. Joanna finds a kindred spirit in Bobby (Paula Prentiss), also a recent transplant from New York. The husbands of Stepford mysteriously belong to a men's association, which requires complete devotion and nightly meetings. What's even stranger is the fact that The Association men are trying to collect information about Joanna: artist's renderings of her face, voice recordings. As Walter becomes more involved with The Association, Joanna fears that she may be in danger of becoming a "Stepford Wife" too.
The Stepford Wives is based on the novel by Ira Levin, who also wrote the book that became the 1968 film Rosemary's Baby. These two films share much in common, including the paranoia about a secret society and a husband's betrayal. Whereas the heart of the earlier film is some good old-fashioned devil worship, the equivalent in The Stepford Wives is social commentary. This is where the film shows its age. The Stepford Wives debuted in theaters in February of 1975, about four months before I was born, so I cannot pretend to understand fully the social climate of that time. It seems likely that this film was perfectly timed to be a satire of both sexual politics and the women's liberation movement. At the heart of the film is the fear that men would rather be married to subservient, devoted automatons than independent, equal women. The Stepford Wives suffers a bit simply because this notion is very dated. I believe most men of my generation desire an independent partner, and in many cases, it's actually required economically. These days families need two incomes to survive, and a career as a housewife, for better or worse, is becoming rare.
On the other hand, there are aspects of The Stepford Wives that still ring true 25 years after its release. Advancements in cosmetic surgery allow men to sculpt their women to perfect specifications, and the implications in terms of body image and self-esteem are felt. Steven Spielberg recently explored the ramifications of creating artificial beings that can love in this summer's A.I.
If The Stepford Wives was as gripping a thriller as Rosemary's Baby, the dated social commentary would be forgivable. For one thing, the film lacks a strong evil presence, though the leader of The Association, Dale Copa (Patrick O'Neal) is a little creepy. Though the women of Stepford are extremely domestic, they're so damn happy it's hard to feel they're in any real peril. The conclusion of The Stepford Wives, if you haven't heard or seen the DVD cover art, is visible from a million miles away. If the men of Stepford are taking voice recordings and drawings of their women, there's only so many guesses as to what the ultimate project is. I kept waiting for an interesting twist. It never came.
The Stepford Wives is making its second DVD appearance thanks to Anchor Bay. The previous edition of the film was a non-anamorphic bare-bones disc. This is an improvement over that release if only because of the new anamorphic widescreen transfer. The 1.85:1 image is very grainy and shows its age. Colors seem a little washed out, but this could reflect the low budget of the film. It looks more like a movie-of-the-week than a theatrically released film. Still, this is probably the best The Stepford Wives has looked for some time.
Presented with the original mono track, the disc performs adequately in the audio department. It will not wow your system, but maintains consistency with the original presentation. A 5.1 remix wouldn't have improved the experience very much, given the limited nature of the action in the film. As is, the dialogue is crisp and clear, and the louder scored sequences are free of distortion. Also included is a French mono track.
For the 25th Anniversary of The Stepford Wives, Anchor Bay has produced some interesting supplements. First up is the 18-minute featurette "The Stepford Life" sporting recent interviews with Ross, Masterson, Prentiss and director Bryan Forbes. It'll be a very welcome supplement to fans of the film, as it chronicles the translation of the novel to a screenplay, the original casting of the lead role, and the film's continued cult popularity. The original widescreen theatrical trailer is on hand, though it's in scratchy condition. Two 30-second radio spots shed some more light on how this film was marketed. Also included is a lengthy talent bio of Forbes. The disc probably would've benefited from an audio commentary by Forbes and/or the stars, but no such luck.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Stepford Wives does have a couple of hilarious scenes thanks to the unlikely pairing of stars Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss. Together, Joanna and Bobby attempt to organize a woman's lib discussion group, but find the ladies of Stepford simply want to talk about cleaning agents and recipes. Later, they overhear one of the Stepford wives having passionate relations with her dorky pharmacist wife. The actresses play off each other nicely, like an East Coast Laverne and Shirley. It's too bad they haven't worked together since then.
Though in some ways it was fun to imagine some of the perks of having a wife who worships me (thank God mine doesn't read this site), The Stepford Wives left me a little disappointed. But it may be one of those films you simply have to see—if only to understand the numerous pop culture references surrounding its subject matter. If you're a fan of the film, you'll be pleased with Anchor Bay's re-release, which patches up the earlier disc's problems and gives some historical background to boot.
I'll simply die if I don't give a verdict…I'll simply die if I don't give a verdict…I'll simply die if I don't give a verdict…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Interviews with Director Bryan Forbes, Producer Edgar J. Scherick, and Stars Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Nanette Newman, and Peter Masterson.
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