Joanna moves with her husband to the commuter community of Stepford, Connecticut, where the womenfolk are placidly subservient to their husbands. When her best friend transforms into a Stepford Wife, Joanna worries that the men of the town are in on a
Ira Levin’s satirical horror novel, which follows the ‘betrayed wife realises she is the target of a conspiracy’ plot of his Rosemary’s Baby, becomes an effective, paranoid thriller in this careful adaptation by screenwriter William Goldman and director Bryan Forbes. Goldman clashed with Forbes over the director’s decision to cast his own wife, Nanette Newman, as the archetypal Stepford wife, arguing that the robot women should have looked like Playboy centerfolds – but Forbes made the right decision, in that Newman, who later made a run of housewife TV commercials in almost exactly the same persona, incarnates a subtler, creepier vision of some man’s idea of a perfect woman.
The vision of willowy housewives in pastel floral dresses and huge hats drifting mindlessly around a supermarket remains chillingly apt as a caricature of the subjugation of women, and the climax works up some real shrieks as heroine Katharine Ross is confronted by her false-chested, black-marble-eyed doppelganger. The Nicole Kidman remake plays Levin’s story as outright comedy, but this cannily leavens its horror with wry humour (Paula Prentiss is especially funny, in both her incarnations) and gradually lets a smooth Disneyland mad scientist (Patrick O’Neal) reveal just what the men of Stepford have done to their real wives.
Followed by TV sequels (Revenge of the Stepford Wives, The Stepford Children and The Stepford Husbands), plus a great many blatant imitations (Disturbing Behavior, Zombie High). Mary Stuart Masterson, daughter of co-star Peter, has an early role as one of Ross’s children.
Not played for laughs like the Nicole Kidman remake but the creepy horror maintains a wry and seductive humour nevertheless.