Twenty-some years from now, someone will try to rewrite Judge Patrick Bromley's review, and it will be lousy in comparison.
Something strange is happening in the town of Stepford.
Cashing in on their big-budget, would-be summer blockbuster remake (as of this writing, it's pretty much already tanked) of The Stepford Wives, Paramount releases its own edition of the cult-classic 1975 original to DVD.
Facts of the Case
Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross, The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and her husband Walter (Peter Masterson, The Exorcist) have just moved from bustle and chaos of New York City to the picturesque town of Stepford, Connecticut. She's not there too long, however, before she begins to notice some strange occurrences surrounding the women of Stepford—they seem to be obsessed with domesticity. With the help of her new friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss, Man's Favorite Sport?, Catch-22), Joanna uncovers the dark secret of Stepford—but she may already be too late.
It's hard to react to the original Stepford Wives years after its release—especially when, I'm ashamed to admit, the first time I'd actually sat down to watch it in its entirety was for the purposes of this review. The movie's been around long enough and has gained enough notoriety that I was already well aware of its "secret" (that I've also seen the 2004 remake didn't help matters) going into the film.
The movie itself doesn't necessarily help matters, either—it tips its hand fairly early on. Though not as upfront about its eventual revelation as the remake it inspired (which lets us know what's going on within the first half-hour), director Bryan Forbes gives far too many clues. They're not story clues, they're cinematic ones—creepy zooms or multiple ominous music cues. Had the story unfolded more gradually and in a more straightforward way—taking its time before playing its hand—it might be even more effective than it already is.
And effective it is, in that it has a singular purpose and executes itself with clarity. In those terms, the film is successful—even good—but only so long as you don't take it too seriously. That's not to suggest that the movie is "camp," as it has been labeled over time, but just that it's too downright simplistic (even silly) to function as a purely dramatic work. What it is is a piece of pop cinema with a sci-fi bent trying to make a social statement—it's a little like the Chuck Heston vehicle Soylent Green in that way.
Only in the 1970s could a film like this have been able to see its grim story all the way through to its logical conclusion (if you don't believe me, see the Nicole Kidman remake). What would now be considered a "downer" ending is, for me, the only way to make the film work; having the movie's foremost feminist win might have been acceptable, but would have ended up only making a statement about empowered women—not the male perception / fear of empowered women, which is what both the film and its chosen ending succeed in doing. Anyone who would argue that the film is anti-feminist (which many did when it was released—I suppose we're more irony-savvy today) is totally missing the point. Looking at the film from an explicitly literal standpoint, I suppose that point could be made, but if anyone's going to look at it purely literally, good luck explaining the bigger picture to them. Some folks can't be reached.
Katharine Ross ("Elaaaaaaine!") gives a valiant effort, but ultimately winds up the film's weakest link. She's beautiful, sure, but has something of a propensity for acting as though she's in a made-for-TV movie. The supporting performances are sort of a mixed bag as well—Nanette Newman (director Bryan Forbes's wife) is stiff beyond the requirements of her performance, and head bad-guy Josef Summer is too cartoonishly creepy. Paula Prentiss and Peter Masterson, on the other hand, are so effortlessly natural it's as if they're not acting. Masterson is especially convincing as a guy who's affable but obnoxious, well-intentioned but downright dorky—we believe he's exactly the kind of guy who might consider turning his wife into a robot.
Paramount delivers a serviceable incarnation of The Stepford Wives on DVD (I believe it's the film's third treatment on the format). The transfer, provided in the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and enhanced for optional 16x9 playback, is somewhat soft and can have a hazy look, but for a film that's nearly 30 years old I would argue it looks fairly spectacular—undoubtedly the best we're going to get. The audio track duplicates the film's original mono soundtrack; while that's great for purists, it might not have killed Paramount to at least provide the option of a souped-up audio track, just in case someone wants it (as they did on their release of Posse earlier this year).
The handful of extras included on the disc run the gambit from standard to superior. There's your average trailer (surprising that a trailer for the 2004 remake was not included, though I can't say I'm upset) and a Bryan Forbes text bio, but those are fairly boring. The original radio spots included aren't terribly interesting either, but do provide a welcome dose of nostalgia. The crown jewel of the disc is the short (only seventeen minutes) retrospective documentary included. It's amazing that in so little time, so much of the production's history and context (a large chunk of which is devoted to acclaimed screenwriter William Goldman's disapproval of Forbes's finished product) is included—we really get a feel for what it was like to be a part of the filming of The Stepford Wives. If only every retrospective featurette could get this far behind the scenes.
Interesting, isn't it, that the film was not a financial success and yet remains so well known (even without the remake) almost 30 years later? I would attribute some of that to the film's relevance; though one can certainly sense it was made at what was sort of the beginning of the feminist movement, the themes it presents still contain a great deal of validity. Plus, its fairly ingenious central idea (for which novelist Ira Levin deserves credit) is executed well enough that the film has entered our cultural lexicon forever—like Fatal Attraction, the phrase Stepford Wife has become a kind of verbal shorthand in everyday conversation.
The Stepford Wives is by no means a great film, but it is a good one. Though not a box-office blockbuster, nor one of the more critically lauded films of the decade, it's somehow carved out its own niche and become a staple of '70s cinema. It is, in its own way, kind of a classic.
Being that only the original film is on trial here, the Court finds both Paramount and The Stepford Wives not guilty.
Now come to the table, honey. Dinner's ready!
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• Retrospective Featurette
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