Horror Movies

THE STEPFORD WIVES. Ruthless social satire in a guise of science fiction

Ira Levin’s 1972 book The Stepford Wives is a satirical tale of gender equality, written in a style reminiscent of the same author’s Rosemary’s Baby.

Paweł Marczewski

29 November 2023

THE STEPFORD WIFES. Ruthless social satire in a guise of science fiction

In essence, the theme of both novels is similar – both Rosemary and Joanna must fight to maintain their sanity when their surroundings seek to exploit them for their own purposes, forcing them into predefined roles (mother of the Antichrist or a submissive housewife). Their husbands turn out to be quite different from what they initially thought. Both of Levin’s books are solidly constructed on a psychological level, and both contain insightful social observations.

While Rosemary’s Baby addresses the secularization of American society, with these themes somewhat incidental, The Stepford Wives places the societal aspect at the forefront. The central issue is the emancipation of women, their pursuit of self-realization, and men’s reactions to these phenomena. Levin tells this story in a horror genre (though the term thriller might be more appropriate). Frank Oz, the director of another film adaptation of the novel (the first directed by Bryan Forbes in 1975), decided to present the entire story in a completely different way. His film is a comedy, or rather, a social satire, closer in tone to Death Becomes Her than, for example, Roman Polanski’s excellent Rosemary’s Baby. Moreover, screenwriter Paul Rudnick attempted to modernize the film’s message by adding several new characters, motifs, and subplots.

The Stepford Wives Nicole Kidman Matthew Broderick

In Oz’s version of The Stepford Wives, the main character, Joanna Eberhard, is a successful author of television programs. Her career flourishes until one of her reality shows, titled I Can Do Better, leads to extremely unpleasant consequences. The program breaks up a marriage, and the distraught husband severely injures his wife and the other participants, almost killing Joanna. Although this sounds like the beginning of a psychological drama, the entire story is presented with a significant touch of irony. Joanna’s career collapses, and her husband, Walter, resigns from his job at the same television station. Together, they decide to move to the small town of Stepford in Connecticut, where they plan to start a new life at a much slower pace. Stepford looks like paradise on Earth – but only for one part of the town’s population, the male part.

The Stepford Wives Glenn Close

Oz had an excellent cast, starting with Nicole Kidman in the lead role, along with Glenn Close, Bette Midler, and Christopher Walken. Close gives a fantastic performance; her Claire Wellington looks like she’s from a 1950s magazine, infantile and enthusiastic, with something pathological about her. Walken, as Claire’s husband Mike, the creator and somewhat overprotective guardian angel of Stepford, is correct, but the director doesn’t give him too much room to shine. Kidman, unfortunately, disappoints – I feel that she performs better in dramatic roles. Her Joanna is too exaggerated; it seems that neither Oz nor the actress had a cohesive concept for this role. Bette Midler, in the role of Jewish writer Bobbie, who, like Joanna, doesn’t fit into Stepford, performs well. However, the real discovery comes from the supporting cast. Roger Bart, known primarily for TV roles and a cameo in Michael Mann’s The Insider, shows genuine comedic talent. His Roger Bannister, a famous architect and a homosexual, is the only character that truly justifies Oz’s comedic approach.

The Stepford Wives Christopher Walken

The new version of The Stepford Wives is enjoyable, with many genuinely funny scenes and surprising plot twists. Unfortunately, a few false notes creep in. In a film juggling stereotypes as Oz does in The Stepford Wives, you can’t lose sight of the distance for a moment. The creators mock the stereotype of the housewife prevalent in the mass culture of 1950s America – indicated by the film’s opening sequence and the appearance of the “ideal wives” from Stepford or the supermarket. There are also satirical jabs at various contemporary stereotypes – the aggressive businesswoman, ubiquitous media, and even gays and Jews (a brilliant conversation on the terrace, where a group of women admires a Christmas ornament album, and Claire, shocked, discovers that Bobbie is among them; the lines about Jewish traditions delivered by Bette Midler in this scene are among the most successful in the film).

The Stepford Wives

Oz’s caricatures work quite well, but the problem is that sometimes the irony gives way to sentimentality and moralizing. By ridiculing a whole array of stereotypes in this way, the director and screenwriter propose another stereotype in return. If the creators decided to replace the darkly painted tale of a woman’s dependence on a man with a satire on one-dimensional notions about the fairer sex, they should have avoided one-dimensionality at all costs. Unfortunately, they failed – hence, the film falters at times, and the final scene even arouses some irritation.