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The Stepford Wives (1975)

After recently subjecting myself to the horrendous 2004 “adaptation” of Ira Levin’s classic novel, I just HAD to go back to the original. And I’m glad I did. As my mother would say, it is “comfy.” While not flawless, it is very good, and I really do like it more each time I watch it. I do, I do, I really, really do!

The remake was so obvious and obnoxious, it more than ever makes me appreciate how subtle and subdued the whole 1975 affair is. The GORGEOUS Katharine Ross plays our favorite avid-shutter-bug Joanna Eberhart, who is transplanted from New York City to Connecticut by her husband, Walter. The opening shots of the film are extremely effective, with Joanna alone, in her now empty apartment, taking one last chance to appreciate her surroundings and listen to the noise of the traffic from the street below.

Then we’re off and into the lovely suburb of Stepford. We meet the first Stepford wife in a really well done scene – Carol Van Sant is the Eberhart’s new neighbor and she makes her way through a beautifully sunlit yard with a pot in her hands to give to the new-comers and she really does look as if she has just been wound up. The thing about this version of the wives that is so creepy, and I could never put my finger on before – but have now – is that they never seem to blink. It is such a small yet effective thing – no special-effects needed – take a lesson, remake!

Betty Crocker-bot.

In the early scenes Joanna’s sense of loneliness and displacement are quite palpable and my sympathies really were with her, as literally there is no one in the town for her. Lucky for us, and for her then, she meets Bobbie, the only other woman in the town who isn’t obsessed with housework and her husband (yet). Paula Prentiss plays Bobbie and she is fabulous. I wanted her to be my friend. She uses the word “fink” and carries ho hos in her purse. She is witty, caustic, fun and the exact opposite of everything a Stepford gal is. Thank God for her!

This film doesn’t go as far with the paranoia – the is-something-really-amiss-or-is-she-really-nuts as Rosemary’s Baby did, but it is still well executed  – in effect we are seeing dominoes being lined up before us. The women all have numerous detailed portraits drawn of them by one of the men in town – another one of the men (who stutters, nice touch) has the women tape themselves for him, recording where they were born, all of the places they have ever lived and a litany of words – and in one scene we also see the men examining Joanna’s bedroom. When the Eberhart family dog goes missing, it seems such an inconsequential thing to the plot, until we later realize WHY he has gone missing and the ingenuity of it.

There are so many other good scenes here – one of the wives does not know what the word “archaic” means and Bobbie explains it to her, and later, a desperate Joanna quizzes Bobbie to see if she still knows the definition. And a scene near the end when Joanna visits a psychotherapist was very keenly done and I loved the way the doctor was written. I also enjoyed how a few scenes in Donnie Darko nicely mirrored these, with Katharine Ross playing the therapist to Jake Gyllenhaal.

Joanna’s final return to Stepford and her rain soaked odyssey throughout the town is a highlight of the film. I do wish that Joanna had put up more of a fight at the end, but what happens does feel almost inevitable, and perhaps all the more heartbreaking because of it.

The witty score also deserves a mention as does the beautiful cinematography, and the script which follows closely to the source material but never disrespects it or the audience. What is going on it not spelled out to us and does not need to be.

This is a very effective little scare machine, built well, kept oiled and aside from a few obviously dated aspects, I think it still holds up well today, and has not been severely blunted by the passage of years. There is something that keeps it from being seminal – perhaps it is too stream-lined and efficient for its own good. I would have liked to see a little more interaction with Joanna and the other women in the town – she brands them as off almost as soon as she arrives, but it seems that she barely has spoken to any of them.

Nevertheless, this is the Stepford to see, and to paraphrase what one of the wives lustily coos: Oh, Stepford ’75, you’re the best, you’re the champ, you’re the master. B

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