*. This should have been great. Ira Levin had come up with a nifty little story with the kind of iconic force as social and political commentary that would help make the term “Stepford wife” a part of the language. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie you know what a Stepford wife is. Then William Goldman did a great job on the screenplay and the players were well cast and all perform well.
*. And yet this is still an unimpressive movie that feels like it left a lot on the table, with only a few hints at what might have been. Where did it go wrong? I can think of two main problems.
*. In the first place there’s the direction by Bryan Forbes. I made a note while watching it that it looked like a made-for-TV movie from back in the day when made-for-TV movies had a distinctive look. And I don’t mean a good look either. I mean cheap and uninteresting. Imagine my surprise on finding out, per his obit in The Guardian, that Forbes had been “one of the most important figures in the British film industry.” I think this is because he wore a number of different hats. I don’t think they meant he was all that great a creative force, especially as this is his best known turn as director. David Thomson: “His films tend to run together, without dominant themes or personal style.” None here, anyway.
*. Forbes thought it odd that they’d ask a British director to handle such “an American subject,” but guessed that it was thought he’d give it a new perspective. Producer Edgar Scherik wanted Brian De Palma originally, and that would have been special but Goldman nixed the idea (I don’t know why). So as a result they got Forbes, who rewrote the script, much to Goldman’s displeasure.
*. The other reason it went wrong has to do with the tricky matter of tone. How do you play such material? Just what sort of approach did they want to take? Was it a horror film? The slow build of suspense and the finale in the gloomy haunted house of the Men’s Association (with a thunderstorm lighting up the windows) would suggest this reading. A social satire? Yes, obviously. Comedy? There are some very funny scenes — I particularly like the doomed first meeting of the women’s group — but there’s nothing like the turn to laughs that the 2004 movie would take. Science fiction? That part is downplayed here, as in the novel, but Frankenstein is always playing in the background.
*. One divergence in tone that set Goldman against Forbes had to do with the sexuality of the wives. Goldman thought, I think reasonably, that they should be more overtly sexy, appearing like Playboy bunnies. Forbes went for a more up-scale domestic look with those long sundresses, hats, and gloves. I can see where both are coming from and just think they needed to give the sexy its due. There is some overheard sex talk, and reference to bigger, firmer boobs, but I think seeing the new Charmaine (Tina Louise) in her rubber outfit was necessary to underline the fact that these upgraded versions didn’t just keep the house clean but also performed as sexbots. Let’s face it, if these wealthy men just wanted cleaner homes they could hire a maid.
*. No, these are horny guys. Making me all the more curious as to what it is they do at the Men’s Association every night. Eat nachos and watch blue movies? And how many members of the Association are there to require a mansion that size to meet in?
*. I mentioned that Goldman did a great job adapting Levin’s book. The addition of the dog works really well. The short-circuiting of Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) is neat. I like the way we feel a bit more of Walter’s corruption, nicely realized by a hang-dog Peter Masterson. The women’s meeting is hilarious. But Forbes just kills whatever potential energy or drama the script gives him. I was particularly puzzled at why they changed it so that we never see Joanna (Katharine Ross) twigging to what’s going on. That’s always a great moment in any movie, when you see a character suddenly becoming aware of something. It’s there clearly in the novel when Joanna realizes the significance of Coba having worked at Disney, where he helped create their robots. In the movie the trigger line is kept, but we never see the penny dropping.
*. Another example is the ending, when Joanna confronts her eyeless but enhanced replacement. I can’t help thinking that this should have been one of the great reveals in film history, up there with Michel rising from the tub at the end of Les Diaboliques. And to be sure it is at least memorable, but it’s not at all as shocking and effective as it should be. It just plays flat.
*. Perhaps the most damning thing to say about all of this is how badly it’s dated. Maybe it’s all the women walking around without bras. Maybe it’s the car of choice for Stepford families: a station wagon with fake wood paneling. But the thing is, the subjects this movie addresses haven’t gone away. If anything the men here with their robot lovers are very much the precursors to the widows of Internet porn. And gender politics is as hot button a topic as ever. But this movie seems rooted in a particular time and it’s not our own. We still talk about Stepford wives, but who are they? The “real” wives of reality TV?