Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Sci-Fi Summer #6: The Stepford Wives (1975)

Men (some) have always attempted to silence women. When his wife wonders why all the women act so strange in the neighborhood he tells her it's all in her head. When women assert themselves as a group some men get really nervous and defensive. Terms like socialist or communist will be tossed around, or the old standby Un-American. The Stepford Wives explores the patriarchal forces in post-feminist America.

The premise of the story is well known: men at the Stepford suburb are building sexy female robots to replace their wives who are getting older and more outspoken. When the film's protagonist Joanna (Katherine Ross) confronts the builder of the robots he challenges her, arguing women would've replaced their husbands if they had figured out the technology first, suggesting the war of the sexes was no different than the Space Race. The simplification speaks to the corrosive motives of these men. 

William Goldman's script adds depth to the already well written novel by Ira Levin. The themes resemble Levin's Rosemary's Baby: gas lighting, paranoia, and reactionary America. Joann is more savvy and self-assured than Rosemary, she's a mother and pursues photography. Her husband Walter is at least 10 years older, a workaholic lawyer who immediately joins the Men's Association of Stepford. Everything's idyllic at first, but Joann begins to notice strange behavior among the women. 

Joann befriends Bobbie, another newcomer to Stepford, an iconoclast wonderfully played by Paula Prentiss. Bobbie supplies comic relief and has a great BS detector. Joann and Bobbie start to investigate when they notice the other wives only care about housework and looking good for their husbands. They wonder if there's something in the water. But the conspiracy goes much deeper.

The Stepford Wives also satirizes consumerism and white flight. Like many middle class white Americans in the 1970s Joann and Walter moved into the suburbs for the "good schools, low taxes, and clean air." It's revealed at one time the community hosted feminist icon Betty Friedan suggesting a social ferment was arising, but it was quashed by the Men's Association. Joann feels constrained by the suburban setting, longing for the energy of the city. The inherent conservatism of the suburb seems to act as a check against the progressive milieu of the city. 

The lush look of the film makes the community look like a Disneyland fantasy of a suburb. The use of the supermarket as the spiritual center of the town reinforces the theme.

The Stepford Wives holds up remarkably well. A direct influence on Jordan Peele's Get Out and the Netflix series Black Mirror, the film has taken a new relevance in the current social and political climate. 

**** (out of 4)

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