A radical makeover of the 1975 film The Stepford Wives debuts in theatres on Friday, June 11, the same calendar page as our so-called National Day of Mourning for the late Ronald Reagan. The movie, directed by Frank Oz, from a script by Paul Rudnick that owes little or nothing to novelist Ira Levin’s source material, provides another reason to bow our heads in grief—or in shame.
I haven’t seen the original Stepford for several years. I remember it as a bone-dry psychological thriller, claustrophobically effective at portraying paranoia, and bolstered by Paula Prentiss’s supreme comic turn as Bobbi, the let-it-all-hang-out loudmouth neighbor who befriends the shy newcomer Joanna (played then by Katharine Ross). Part of what made Prentiss memorable were her vulgar disruptions of the film’s clinical tone, her Borscht-belt wisecracking vocal rhythm that gave the audience someone to hold on to. Bette Midler, who plays Bobbi in the new version, would have seemed a natural for the role. But there’s no emotional depth in the Oz/Rudnick “vision.” Everyone in their Stepford community gets to be a comedian, or at the very least a dispenser of robotic one-liners. Therefore, the filmmakers nullify any need for comic relief. They’re off in candy-colored, floral print Sitcom-Land from the opening credits onward, and Midler’s Bobbi is neither funny nor moving as a result. In 1975, Bobbi’s transition from a messy human to a perfect android affirmed Joanna’s gnawing fears: the town husbands really were killing their wives, replacing them with electronic models who would submit and obey. That scene in Bobbi’s kitchen, where she comes out in a ruffled gown (“Don’t tell me you don’t like it”) identical to how the other wives dress, imparted a palpable sense of dread, even more so when Ross plunged a knife into Prentiss, drawing not blood but a computer malfunction.
There isn’t anything comparable in the new Stepford Wives; it’s weightless, a product as mechanical as the life-size dolls on-screen. In the original film, Joanna was a photographer. Here, as played by Nicole Kidman, Joanna isn’t an artist or freethinker—she’s the president of a fictional television network that specializes in reality shows. She’s a part of the corporate machinery, and in these early scenes, Kidman shows a bit of satirical savvy as she addresses a conference of her affiliates. Her Joanna is every inch a calculating spin-doctor, a woman who’s successful because she’s internalized the lies she tells and thus made them real. Moments in, violence erupts in response to one of Joanna’s barbaric reality series; the network fires her, and Kidman’s silent, slow dissolve as she takes in this infusion of truth is more or less the lone well thought out moment in all 93 multiplex-friendly minutes of The Stepford Wives.
The ending, too, has been changed. Since Oz and Rudnick have reshaped the basic premise to cater to America’s pop cultural requisites for revenge, comeuppance, and lots of explanations, there’s no place for the ambiguity that made the 1975 film’s conclusion so maddening. That final scene, as Ross turns to face the camera as she, her husband and two children drive away from Stepford, imprinted the suggestion that perhaps Joanna hadn’t become a robot, that her newly acquired ultra-feminine frills were mere protective camouflage. It’s the uncertainty, I think, that accounts at least in part for why viewers returned again and again to the first Stepford, an engrossing yet unremarkable film, and for why the movie attained cult status, lending us a fine new adjective to describe lockstep conformity.
It’s difficult to satirize something and be part of it at the same time. The Stepford Wives, version 2004, conforms to every possible test market cliché right down to the three or four endings glommed on together, none of them at all funny, thrilling, or satisfying. Costume designer Ann Roth has done a commendable job on the cocktail dresses and B52s-inspired wigs that adorn the ladies; there, however, accolades end. Kidman has no chemistry with Matthew Broderick, cast as her husband, and scant rapport with Midler. There’s a scene in which Bobbi and Joanna trespass on the forbidding Stepford Men’s Association that recalls Abbott and Costello prowling through an old, dark house, but that’s about it. The only ignited spark happens between Kidman and Christopher Walken, who plays the architect behind the spousal re-programming. When they face off in a climactic confrontation, there’s a hint of a real movie. With the right script, Kidman and Walken could go toe-to-toe ferociously, this moment tells us. Yet the flash between them flickers, and then it’s gone. – NPT
June 10, 2004
Originally published at The Raw Story.