Can a man be feminist? Written by Ira Levin, scripted by William Goldman and directed by Bryan Forbes, there’s a trifecta of male voices behind 1975’s The Stepford Wives, and yet it’s remembered as an iconic feminist sci-fi thriller, not a common genre. As a kid, this film sounded amazing; a woman discovers, spoiler alert, that the men in her community are replacing the woman with vacuous, cleaning-obsessed sex-robots. Watching the result as a BBC Monday night movie was disappointing, a long slow burn to a couple of dramatic visuals in the last few minutes. Returning to the same text as an adult, The Stepford Wives has rather more meat on the bone than I remembered.
Joanna Eberhart (Katherine Ross) is moving from NYC to the sticks; Stepford to be precise. She joins her husband (Peter Masterson from The Exorcist) and their kid in a station wagon and decant, but not everything about the upheaval goes smoothly. What is up with the local Men’s Association? Why do the women seem to be obsessed with the chores of sex, cleaning and pleasing their husbands? And why does Carol (Nanette Newman) stagger through a party, muttering ‘I think I’ll die if I don’t get the recipe?’ over and over again, like a broken pull-toy?
The Stepford Wives runs smoother if you know the punch-line; it’s essentially Get Out but run along sexual rather than racial fault-lines. The high-gloss of the enterprise fits the way the story flirts with suburban ennui; Joanna seems to be swimming against a sea of conformity. There’s great support from the wonderful Paula Prentiss as Bobbie, the best friend who gets rebooted as a sex doll. And Patrick O’Neal is a suave villain as Diz Coba, the architect of Joanna’s new reality; it probably wouldn’t be allowed now, but there’s several lines of dialogue which attribute his gift for machines as being due to his work on Disneyland.
Modish as a colour supplement, The Stepford Wives takes its sweet time to get to the horror, but the slow-burn is rewarding; the real horror is how Joanna’s world is disrupted by disquieting signals of male domination of females. Treated as a found text in 2020, it’s one of the better Hollywood takes on feminism, even if it’s men who tell the story, there’s a sensitivity to the reasoning behind women’s liberation that’s surprisingly acute. If the Devil was the big reveal at the end of Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, then it’s self-centred men who are the archeticts of the elaborate conspiracy portrayed here.