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by Kathi Maio

The Town Hollywood Couldn't Forget

THERE ARE stories that are timeless and others that are timely. The former tend to get more respect, but I've never understood why. Predicating a narrative upon "classic" motifs and archetypal characters is actually easier than painting a vivid and insightful portrait of one's own moment of time. Zeitgeist shifts so rapidly, and since our 24/7 media-society is always in a constant frenzy of instant analysis and self-parody, it is especially tricky to pull off anything close to social satire.

When a writer or filmmaker does capture the moment, it often challenges the reader or viewer in ways a timeless fable never could. At that moment, it pushes people's buttons forcefully. Years later, someone who experiences the same work might not have the same love it/hate it gut reaction, might even perceive the work as "dated," but they can still appreciate the story as a snapshot of the social landscape of an earlier time.

The Stepford Wives is such a story. Whether Ira Levin was, as I have heard, inspired by a trip to a Disney theme park in the midst of a relationship breakup, is beside the point. His 1972 novella was actually an ahead-of-the-curve study of the male "backlash" mentality, even before the media had put a name to the phenomenon.

In that slim horror tale, a college-educated young mother named Joanna Eberhart moves to a prosperous Connecticut suburb with her husband and their two children. By page two of the story, Joanna is already alarmed by the obsessive domesticity of the women in her new community, so she pointedly tells the Welcome Wagon lady and town paper columnist that she is both a semi-professional photographer and a woman with interests in "politics and in the Women's Liberation movement." She claims that her husband shares those interests. And, indeed, Walter Eberhart appears to be a forward-thinking man of his time.

But appearances are deceiving, especially in gender politics. As one by one the few other independently minded women in Stepford are transformed into floor-scrubbing drones excessively and selflessly devoted to the care and feeding of their husbands' appetites and egos, Joanna becomes increasingly suspicious of the men of the town. As for her own caring husband, she realizes too late that Walter is true to type, but not to the flesh-and-blood woman he married.

Those who didn't dismiss Mr. Levin's slim story about a town of replicant homemakers as a meaningless potboiler often got a bit hot and bothered about the social commentary therein. He was accused of being anti-male and conversely charged with being anti-feminist…a sure sign that he was indeed saying something about gender relations in the early seventies (even if no one could quite figure out what that something was).

Likewise a few souls were upset with screenwriter William Goldman and director Bryan Forbes for their relatively faithful screen adaptation in 1975. Some were outraged that men were demonized in the story. Others saw it as anti-woman or, as Betty Friedan was reported to have viewed it, a "rip-off of the women's movement." Either way, it was certainly a movie of its time, naturalistic but creepy. Katharine Ross played the long-haired, doe-eyed hippie housewife heroine fairly well. (Although with her somewhat flat affect, her final transformation was more a triumph of costuming than acting.) As for Peter Masterson (who later became a journeyman director), he was almost too believable as a melancholy modern man who wonders why he has to work so hard at a law office and then come home and have his wife hassle him about how he should be sharing in the childcare duties and housework, and how he shouldn't exclude her from the family decision-making.

William Goldman's screenplay heightens the gender tension of Levin's novel, and improves on the suspense as well as the unsettling shock of its ending. But neither he nor director Forbes could make this a timeless story. No, they made a domestic horror film that is very much a picture of its very precise seventies cultural moment.

Which makes you wonder why the story has been tweaked and altered and remade so many times in the last almost thirty years.

First there was the mildly amusing TV movie called Revenge of the Stepford Wives. Although the chief villain was still the dignified but ominous head of the local Men's Association, Diz (Arthur Hill, taking over from big-screen counterpart Patrick O'Neal), it was no longer a tale of robotic replacement wives. Presumably because they were hoping for a more hopeful conclusion—or at least one that would allow real women to take their revenge on male villainy—the first remake altered the men's m.o.

Instead of automatronic substitutes, the local husbands opt for mind control and pill-popping. When TV producer and all-around uppity gal Kaye Foster (pants-wearing Sharon Gless) comes to Stepford to profile the low-crime, low-divorce suburban utopia for her TV news magazine, she immediately becomes suspicious. With the help of a brash newcomer, Megan (Julie Kavner), they investigate why every woman in town seems to have a thyroid condition that requires them to take medication every time a siren blasts throughout the day.

Eventually, Megan is also transformed into an uber-hausfrau through a process that involves a brainwashing device that looks suspiciously like a pink salon hairdryer. (At the end of the process, she's a frilly clean-freak, but as you can imagine, the fabulous Ms. Kavner couldn't look like a Barbie, even when she tries.) At this point, Kaye's main purpose is to save her new friend from a fate worse than death, which is to say, a wardrobe of long gingham frocks and floppy hats.

Played as straight suspense, Revenge of the Stepford Wives now plays as an accidental comedy for its loopy plot devices and bizarre casting. (Would you believe Don Johnson as Julie Kavner's earnest rookie cop husband?) Still, even this odd sequel manages some incidental social pulse-taking, as it seems to acknowledge that career women are here to stay and that women aren't nearly as easy to control as men would hope.

Skipping over The Stepford Children (1987), which is a variation about parental control instead of gender relations, the next remake was, you guessed it, The Stepford Husbands (1996), a rather pathetic inversion of the original story in which a nasty social matron (dear typecast Louise Fletcher) and her psychologist crony help the women of Stepford turn their immature, sports-watching husbands into sensitive guys who like to cuddle and cook.

Laughable without being the least bit fun, Husbands stars Donna Mills as a career woman who loves her very cranky, self-pitying hubby (Michael Ontkean) just the way he is. It is telling that the wife here is totally non-complicit with the softening of her mate. When she finds out about the abusive therapy and psychotropic drugs that are being used on her newly sympathetic guy, she immediately tries to get him out of town. The overall message seems to be that real men truly don't eat quiche and if they are ill-tempered, rude to your friends, and bounce a basketball in the house incessantly, then that's the kind of manly man you want to keep and preserve.

If that TV flick says something about the nineties, I shudder to think what it is. All it said to me was that the Stepford saga was completely bankrupt. Done. Due to be permanently retired. But that's just not the way in Hollywood.

Instead playwright, screenwriter, and "female" film reviewer for Premiere (under the pseudonym Libby Gelman-Waxner), Paul Rudnick, joined forces with his In & Out helmer (and former Yoda and Miss Piggy) Frank Oz to do yet another big-screen version of The Stepford Wives.

I'll give the duo points for realizing that there just wasn't a lot of suspense left in the old yarn. So they moved away from nail-biting horror and opted to make a brightly colored cartoon of a social comedy.

If you had to make a new version of The Stepford Wives, that was certainly the way to go. But if you were going to go in that direction, you needed to follow through with more laughs, more bite, and more gender insights than Rudnick and Oz could muster.

Star power is present and accounted for. Nicole Kidman plays the new Joanna, a brittle, slightly maniacal TV executive with a talent for brutal battle-of-the-sexes reality programming. When she is fired and has a breakdown, complete with electroshock, her devoted husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) moves her and the two kids to a gated community in Connecticut—full of beautiful McMansions, where the men all drive vintage muscle cars and motorcycles, and the women all drive expensive SUVs.

Fairly early on in the proceedings, you realize that when it comes to visual gags, this movie has it going on. But it's all so superficial. Set decoration, costuming, and props do not a movie make. And when it comes to deeper social insights, or even deeper belly laughs, this very good-looking film just can't deliver the goods.

The most intriguing thing to explore in a twenty-first-century Stepford Wives might have been women's ambivalence toward social power and familial relationships. It's not always angry white guys who want to keep women down. These days, it might actually be a deranged active "choice" by a woman.

After all, from Fascinating Womanhood to The Total Woman to The Rules and the latest preachings of Doctor Laura, male-identified women have often done the best job, in the last quarter century, of undermining women's autonomy. At a time when the media bleats at women to return to the home to happily care for their children, "Extreme Makeover" shows encourage us gals to nip and tuck and enhance our way to interpersonal happiness, and shows like Sex & the City seem to suggest that even successful women should dress like cotton-candy Barbies and teeter through the lonely city streets on very expensive, very high heels, gender relations are a lot more complicated. Yet still rife with delicious fresh possibilities for social satire. All of which are ignored by the new Stepford Wives.

Oh, it turns out that there is a woman behind the new Stepford plot, but you get the feeling that this was only done to offer a kooky surprise in the final reel. And our mastermind doesn't want to control or oppress, she just wants everyone to be happy. Why she started by giving total fantasy-fulfillment only to the men is a little unclear, as is much of the rest of the movie.

As I've expressed to you many times, a movie's failure to follow its own internal logic is one of the greatest sins a science fiction film can commit. That being the case, it is possible to dismiss Stepford Wives as one of the most miserable failures of recent memory. It can't even seem to make up its mind whether the women of Stepford have been replaced with robotics or not!

[Spoiler Alert] On the one hand, the re-engineered wifies are plainly portrayed as bots. They have blow-up adjustable boobs, can put their hand on a hot stovetop without pain, and possess the ability to double as an ATM. And if they square-dance with too much enthusiasm, sparks come out of their ears. Still, in the end, the movie changes its mind and says that it was all nothing more than a minor chip implant.

Clearly, this was in service of an upbeat ending. At some point during the rewrite process the filmmakers decided that they wanted their principal female players happily intact during the final coda. So, they decided to make the rest of their movie a lie.

The Stepford Wives is a miserable failure, it is true. It is the result of too many test screenings and not enough originality and commitment on the part of the filmmakers. The film is as fond of the Men's Association cronies who literally objectify their wives as it is of the brassy women-who-do-too-much they victimize. You get the feeling that, above all else, this toothless satire was striving not to offend a single audience segment. In failing to have a viewpoint, it ends up—more than any previous Stepford project—saying absolutely nothing about its moment in time.

But what can I say? It is not a total loss. Here and there, it manages to entertain. And to see Bette Midler, Glenn Close, and Christopher Walken hamming it up through a movie together…well, it's almost enough to make it worth watching. Almost.

As for this worn and tattered tale of marital politics in a small New England village, can we agree that it is totally and completely dead now? Over? Done? It's not enough to hope. We need to be protected from the resurrection of Stepford's undead. Somebody grab a stake.

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