Saturday 16 July 2016

Movie Review: The Stepford Wives (1975)

A suspense drama, The Stepford Wives is a grim parable about women's struggles in a male-dominated world, and a reasonably effective surreptitious thriller.

Aspiring photographer Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) reluctantly joins her lawyer husband Walter (Peter Masterson) in relocating away from noisy New York City to the quiet community of Stepford in suburban Connecticut. Walter quickly settles in and joins the shady Stepford Men's Association, but Joanna finds all the women of Stepford strangely demure, obsessed with the trivia of housework and uninterested in any intellectual pursuits. The only friend she makes is fellow new arrival Bobbie (Paula Prentiss).

With Walter spending more time with the men and exhibiting increasingly odd behaviour, Joanna and Bobbie try to drum-up interest among the other women in issues related to feminism and women's liberation, but the Stepford wives stubbornly adhere to 1950s stereotypical definitions of what a woman's role should be. An increasingly frustrated Joanna starts to worry that something is very wrong in the community, and that she may be under threat.

Directed by Bryan Forbes and based on the book by Ira Levin, The Stepford Wives does suffer from what appears to be a limited budget, with production values just a notch above made-for-television fare and a secondary cast hampered by inadequate talent and underwritten roles. Forbes is unable to inject anything resembling panache or tension into a story that is intended to be at least moderately unsettling.

It is left to Katharine Ross, in one of her better outings, and Paula Prentiss, happily vivacious, to brighten up proceedings, and they deliver all that is good about The Stepford Wives. Ross as Joanna perfectly captures the struggle of women to stand by their husbands despite growing misgivings, and she conveys the internal push and pull between self-fulfillment and adherence to established rules of domesticity. Bobbie in the hands of Prentiss is provided with fuller freedom to step into modernity, and she represents women less constrained by the past and ready to more fully participate in today's societal challenges.

As a drama, the film is a pessimistic view of gender relations and specifically what men desire from the women they theoretically love. Outside of the cosmopolitan city, the wealthy suburbs remain docile grounds where men govern, their meetings off-limits to women, and wives are subjugated into strictly defined household duties defined as cooking, cleaning and delivering sexual satisfaction to their husbands. They are not asked to think, participate or contribute in any other way. It is a static world divided along gender lines, utopian for the men and dystopian for the women, ironically enabled by the proliferation of technology supposed to improve human connectivity and interaction.

The suspense elements are less impressive. It takes a long time and plenty of repetitive hints, some as obvious as Joanna being asked to record thousands of dictionary words into a recorder, for her journey to reach its climax. Then the conspiracy is barely explained before she has to endure a confrontation with her fate. It is all passable entertainment, but beyond the concept, the film never threatens to deliver truly memorable moments.

The Stepford Wives became a catchphrase for women caught in an old fashioned time warp. Like the wives themselves, the film fulfills its role but is otherwise uninspired.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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