The Stepford Wives (1975)

*. 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?

37 thoughts on “The Stepford Wives (1975)

  1. fragglerocking

    I did see this a long time ago, but can’t remember what I thught about it at the time, probably not much, movies are just movies when you’re 16. It must have had some impact though as I definitely did not go down the Stepford road to wifery!

    1. Alex Good

      Well I certainly hope you’re not a robot! Plus England in the 1970s (which actually was the only time I visited) wasn’t as bright and shiny and affluent a place as the U.S. in the 1970s. In fact, it sort of got me down (though I never went to Gateshead). I’m not sure what a Stepford wife in England at the time would have looked like.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Oh I was a tourist driving about with my mom. We sort of went all over. Even Wales and Scotland. We were in London for a few days.

        There were punks in the street! And the food was awful.

  2. Tom Moody

    Sexuality was a big part of Levin’s message in the book. The two creepiest moments were (i) Joanna waking up to discover her husband masturbating in the bed next to her, after his first “boys’ night out” at the Men’s Association and (ii) Joanna discovering that her replacement has pneumatic breasts. The movie turns the wives into some sort of Southern Belle archetype, “feminine” but not Hefner-sexy. The point about dominant-but-infantile men is lost.
    What remains vital from the movie is its depiction of that scary moment when “you realize your free-thinking best friend has become one of Them.” (Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a robot twist.) I feel that way, whenever a tech-skeptical friend I thought I could trust starts talking about how a smartphone changed his life.

    1. Alex Good

      I still don’t have a smartphone.
      I agree, and think the book still hasn’t had a decent adaptation. Part of the problem is tone, but also I’m not sure it knows how to deal with the men. In the ’90s version (notes coming tomorrow) they’re even more like nerdy kids. But that’s just a joke. In this movie they at least try to give the husband some shading. He has to gradually become compromised/lose his soul, even though you have to wonder if his coming to Stepford in the first place was all part of the plan. None of this is really filled in though. They also could have done more with that horror of replacement that you mention. But again it all got lost with that question of what kind of a movie they were making. It gets hung up between horror and satire.

      1. Tom Moody

        As I recall the book was clearer that the couple stumbled into Stepford and the husband was gradually corrupted from a sensitive guy who was OK with ’70s feminism into a raving reactionary along with the rest of the men’s club. The book is dated in some ways — feminism was not yet mainstreamed and there was nothing like today’s gender choice politics, woke authoritarianism, or “Karens” — which may explain the problem with tone. It’s not clear where to draw the battle lines. Whereas the book was successful as straight-up horror reacting to the backlash against feminism, with a twinkle in its eye of good social satire.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I re-read the book recently, and while it’s already fading from my mind (this happens a lot) I think it’s left ambiguous about whether or not Walter was in on it from the beginning, or willing to look into it anyway, maybe just to see what was on offer. I think it’s a very good book and maybe it’s the tone, maybe it’s the shifting way we keep casting gender politics and what feminism means, maybe it’s the way the men aren’t fleshed out enough, but it’s never been successfully put on screen. The Oz version is entertaining in places, but as an adaptation it’s really a disaster.


        If you went round to Forbes’ house, his wife Nanette Newman would come out with tea and biscuits, just like she does in the film. She advertised Fairly Liquid for decades afterwards.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I seem to remember some people saying that the long dresses etc. were done because Forbes didn’t want to dress his wife up in sexy costumes. I thought she was sexier than Tina Louise here though. She looked really good. But then I also preferred Mary Ann to Ginger. Can’t comment on her biscuits though.


        Astonishing for Larry David to make a ten season tribute to you. But then, reappraisals of Bert I Gordon’s works are very now, and must open doors…he’s still alive! At 98! Must be eating the food of the gods…

  3. Bookstooge

    It’s probably about time for another movie version, but gender reversed, for political correctness’s sake.
    I’m thinking “The Henniker Husbands” as a working title. That’s as far as I’ve gotten at 5 in the morning 😀

  4. Helene

    Added it to my to read and to watch. Curious now (also if the book is as dated), and I thought I watched it but I don’t recall anything about it!

  5. Morgan

    Reading the comments, I am now inspired to check out the book. I found the movie only lightly satirical in tone. The women’s replacements are portrayed as living (if you can call it that) commercials who even speak humorous product endorsements to each other. Paula Prentiss’s mouthy, scattershot character reminded me of that other early 70’s female archetype, the mad/manic wife ala Anne Sexton. Even her fembot-replacement was somewhat over the top and did add an odd drop of humor to the eerie brew. Perhaps this was to let the viewer off the hook somewhat. For the most part it was quietly creepy, especially the scenes where her husband is digesting the horrible offer he has been given by Coba after his first visit at the Mens Association and later when Charmaine’s husband has to be driven home because he has drunk himself into a stupor after making his own dreadful exchange. I had forgotten that it is finally revealed how the fembot’s kill their originals, thus answering the question of what happened to the other wives. When Joanna’s eyeless replacement turns the stocking into a garrote and walks toward her I felt a cold lump in my stomach at the indecency of such a fate.The murder of a women’s true self by a male created fantasy with no soul, in fact as well as metaphor. I think it’s quite an excellent little feminist nightmare/horror move and I wanted to thank you for bringing it to my attention again.
    Also, IMHO this film is somewhat better looking than an 70’s TV movie. I loved the gauzy dreamy light that suffuses the women making it all a bit surreal and very, very 70’s.
    This may be my favorite role of Patrick O’Neal’s. He’s perfect for it. A true Satan in gray and black..
    Joanne: “Why?!”
    Coba: “Because we can, ”


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