Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Double Take: The Stepford Wives


Stepford Wives at the Supermarket

The times, they were a-changing. Ira Levin’s 1972 novel The Stepford Wives,* reflected the evolving sociopolitical climate of the turbulent late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when many women, tired of being regarded as second-class citizens, and shackled by domestic life, demanded more. At the same time, they faced a backlash from those who wanted to preserve the status quo and keep them in the kitchens. Although Levin didn’t consciously intend to write a story with overt social commentary, his novel astutely captured the growing war between the sexes, through a satirical lens. Another layer of Levin’s novel (underscored in the 1975 film), was the “white flight” of upwardly mobile (predominately Caucasian) families from the densely populated, racially/ethnically diverse cities to the more vanilla, WASP-centric suburbs. Levin used his experience living in the suburban Connecticut town of Wilton as a template for his picture-postcard, Norman Rockwell-esque town of Stepford. 

* Fun Fact: The Stepford Wives started as a play, which eventually evolved into a novel.

Joanna Eberhart

Enter our protagonist, Joanna Eberhart, a smart, independent woman with aspirations of becoming a professional photographer. She begrudgingly acquiesces to her husband Walter’s desire to transplant their family to Stepford, and its quaintly manufactured trappings. With a couple of notable exceptions, she fails to connect with the women of Stepford, and their single-minded obsession with housekeeping. The move only exacerbates the divide between Joanna and Walter, when he spends more and more time away from the house, working long hours in the office or cavorting with his new chums at the shadowy Stepford Men’s Association. But beneath the “boys will be boys” veneer lies something much more sinister.

Stepford Wives_2004 Version

Levin’s novel endures, not only because it’s a taut, well-crafted thriller, but because its core implications are just as relevant today. “Stepford” and “Stepford Wife” have entered our general lexicon, to describe something (or someone) as bland, pre-programmed, or homogenous. The current climate is equally ripe for satire, with the alarming rise of groups that would prefer to return to a mythical, “great” time in America’s past, when (predominately white, heterosexual) men were men and women knew their place. An entire generation separated the 1975 and 2004 film versions, which took wildly divergent approaches. How successful was each respective film, in relation to the source material? Let’s take a look…

The Stepford Wives_1975 Poster

The Stepford Wives (1975) Directed by Bryan Forbes; Screenplay by William Goldman; Based on the novel by Ira Levin; Starring: Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman and Tina Louise; Available on DVD 

Rating: **** 

 "A lot of horror movies are dark and gloomy and sinister, but this was a horror that was in sunlight with beautiful surroundings and beautiful people. It made it so it lulled you along until it finally terrified you." – Nanette Newman (who appeared as Carol Van Sant in The Stepford Wives)   

Joanna and Bobby

Joanna and Walter Eberhart (Katharine Ross and Peter Masterson) leave the hustle and bustle of New York City to suburban Connecticut, where life is simpler and the pace is slower. Something, however, isn’t quite right in the seemingly idyllic domestic world of Stepford (filmed in Darien and Fairfield, CT). Joanna* immediately feels alienated by the cleaning-obsessed housewives and their selfless devotion, catering to their husbands’ every whim.** But as Joanna is repelled by Stepford, Walter seems immediately at home, joining the exclusive Stepford Men’s Association. They carry out their meetings, sequestered in a 19th century mansion, away from the eyes of their spouses, who dress like they belong in Leave it to Beaver. Joanna finds comradeship in two other independent spirits, Bobby Markowe (Paula Prentiss) and Charmaine Wimpiris (Tina Louise), but their alliance proves to be short-lived when both friends seemingly transform into mindless housewives overnight.*** Soon, it’s Joanna against the rest of the town.  

* Fun Fact #1: Before Ross landed the role, Jeanne Seberg, Diane Keaton, and Tuesday Weld were considered for Joanna Eberhart. 

** Fun Fact #2: Levin, himself, wasn’t terribly pleased with the results, asserting the filmmakers missed the point: “In Stepford, the women would have been in hot pants and the men would have been at a softball game with the women bringing them cold beer.” (from 2002 Los Angeles Times interview) 

*** Fun Fact #3: In the scene where Joanna stabs her friend Bobbie’s doppelgänger, it’s not Ross’ hand but director Forbes.


Incident at the Pool

The Stepford Wives lays bare the awful truth about the “boys club” mentality, with the Men’s Association an antiquated rationalization for misogynistic behavior. The men in the film, galvanized by association leader Dale Coba (Patrick O’Neal), exert their considerable peer pressure on Walter to fall in line. Through the dynamics of the group, the men perpetrate what would be unthinkable as an individual. The Stepford men fear women as equals, so they must keep them subordinated. In a brief moment of vulnerability, Walter’s tearfully confesses his love to Joanna, but it’s not as much an admission of spousal devotion as a resignation that he’s already sold out. As Joanna gets closer to the truth behind Stepford’s patriarchal conspiracy, her husband gaslights her at every step. The disturbing climax, reinforced by the chilling final scene, suggests that suburbia has no place for diversity or outliers.* In the town’s push for absolute conformity, there is no escape. 

* Fun Fact #4: Jordan Peele cited The Stepford Wives as an inspiration for his own suburban nightmare film, Get Out.

Joanne's Doppleganger

In the world of The Stepford Wives, plausibility takes a backseat to building a satire of Swiftian proportions (instead of eating babies, they’re killing their wives). The women of Stepford are only good as servants and sex objects – a terribly dull existence for life partners. But the men of Stepford are equally vapid – they don’t want significant others that are intellectual equals or display independence, they only desire subordinates. And what about their children (as my wife pointed out)? It wouldn’t take very long for the kids to notice something’s wrong with mom. But exaggeration and contrast (tempered with a healthy suspension of disbelief) are cornerstones of satire. While the film version makes some necessary omissions and changes from book to screen, it remains largely faithful to the novel, underscoring the wide chasm between the men and women of Stepford. The Stepford Wives wasn’t met with unanimous praise upon its release, with some feminists decrying it as anti-woman, but it’s since withstood the test of time. If nothing else, it’s forced many to re-examine what a partnership means. 


The Stepford Wives 2004 Poster

The Stepford Wives (2004) Directed by Frank Oz; Screenplay by Paul Rudnick; Based on the novel by Ira Levin; Starring: Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, Roger Bart and Jon Lovitz; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: **

“The Stepford Wives was too big and it was unsatisfying to do. Not that it was unsatisfying to do, but it was unsatisfying as a result, because as much as I loved parts of it, and I'm really proud of so much of it, the entire movie wasn't what I wanted it to be. It's my own fault, I didn't follow my instincts.” – Frank Oz (from 2007 AV Club interview with Nathan Rabin) 

Joanne at the Supermarket

If the 1975 film version utilized Levin’s novel as a template, the remake used the story as a springboard. But what should have been a refreshing update proved to be a glaring weakness. Compared to the relatively low budget of the original film, the $90 million remake seems bloated (other than the sheen of Hollywood schmaltz and A-list actors, you’d be hard pressed to find where the money went). Instead of depicting a modest, bucolic neighborhood, the 2004 version goes one louder, making Stepford an exclusive gated community filled with gaudy, soulless McMansions. This could have been a good launching point for commentary about mass consumerism and America’s “bigger is better” mentality, but the satirical elements never go beyond the superficial.

Joanna at Awards Show

A successful book adaptation doesn’t require slavish devotion to the minutiae of the source material, but it should, at the very least, capture its spirit. Somehow, the filmmakers made the wrong choices about what to change every step of the way, starting with Joanna Eberhart (played by the usually reliable Nicole Kidman). This version of Joanna (a producer of a mean-spirited reality TV show) comes across as self-centered and unsympathetic. Likewise, it’s difficult to buy Matthew Broderick as her would-be alpha male husband. His character seems too wishy-washy to comply with the Stepford conspiracy. When he ultimately musters the courage to stand up to the town’s male leadership, it’s more of a plot contrivance than a natural progression of the character. But one of the film’s greatest mistakes is showing its hand far too soon. One of the wives begins to malfunction (sped up for “comic” effect) at a barn dance, leaving no ambiguity about Stepford’s secret. Compare this to an early scene in the 1975 version, in which one of the Stepford wives (following a seemingly minor car accident in a supermarket parking lot) appears to be experiencing a nervous breakdown. While her reaction seemed somewhat abnormal, given the context, it was entirely plausible.

Joanna and Bobbie

One bright spot in the remake is Bette Midler’s performance as Joanna’s nonconformist neighbor Bobbie Markowitz,* who seems to be the only character that could have been transplanted from the original film. Midler is obviously having fun with the role, and delivers some of the best lines. Unfortunately, Midler and Kidman don’t have nearly the same chemistry as Ross and Prentiss in the original film. We’re forced to take their friendship at face value, when in reality they’d probably never move in the same circles. 

* Fun Fact #5: According to a 2002 Hollywood Reporter article, Joan Cusack was originally cast to play Bobbie.

Microchip Implants

If the original film required suspension of disbelief, the remake stretches our resilience to the breaking point. We’re never entirely clear on where the film stands, with the transformation of the eponymous wives. Instead of employing android duplicates, the Men’s Association uses computerized brain implants to make the wives compliant. But when one of the wives pays out like a cash machine, it’s clear there’s more than microchips in the mix. When we learn that the effect of the neural implants is a reversible process, it takes the horror out of the original premise. 

Explaining the Process

(MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) Perhaps the greatest betrayal of Levin’s story is that the source of the wifely switcheroo isn’t a male-led conspiracy, but the brainchild of welcome wagon lady Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), who only wanted to preserve the status quo. Instead of co-conspirators, the Stepford men (including her husband, the Men’s Association leader) are nothing more than pawns. When we see the Stepford husbands bumbling around in a supermarket towards the end of the film, it’s an obvious nod to the original’s final scene, but it isn’t as much a tribute as it’s a mockery. This is not to say that there couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be a comic reimagining of The Stepford Wives, but the 2004 version lacks the sardonic edge the material requires. Better luck next time?  

Sources: “The Art of Darkness” (2002), The Los Angeles Times, by Mary McNamara; “Cultural Studies; Stepping Out in Stepford Style,” (2002), The New York Times, by Ginia Bellafante; “The Stepford Wives: Inside the Making of the 1975 Feminist Horror Classic,” Entertainment Weekly, by Devan Coggan (2022); Hollywood Reporter (Nov. 25, 2002); Frank Oz Interview (2007), AV Club, by Nathan Rabin  



  1. An excellent compare and contrast review of the original and remake of The stepford wives, Barry!

    I can't imagine anyone else but Catherine Ross playing Joanna in the original and I would have loved the scene Joan Cusack as Bobbie in the remake! Though Bette midler was easily the best part of that film.

    I agree with your assessment of both films. I love the original and have watched it many times over but I've only seen the remake once.

    Oh, and I had no idea that The stepford wives started out as a play! I almost feel ashamed that I did not know this since I've been reading a lot of Ira levins plays lately.

  2. Thank you very much, John! I agree that Catherine Ross was perfect for the role of Joanna. It would have been interesting to see what kind of spin Cusack put on the role. No idea why she dropped out. Oh well, the less said about the remake, the better.

    And now I want the Stepford Wives play, too! :)

  3. Perhaps it's because I am a product of the Seventies, but to this day I find the original adaptation of The Stepford Wives terrifying. As a devoted nonconformist, I would have been out of place in Stepford. And I really wouldn't want a wife whose biggest thrill in life is cleaning the house and cooking! Anyway, I remember my best friend Brian and I talked about the 2004 version and we agreed that it missed the point both of the novel and the 1975 version. I've seen it once and I really haven't much desire to see it again! Anyway, great write-up on both films!

    1. Thanks, Terence! I agree with you 100%. I'm very happy with the fact that I'm married to an independent woman and not a robot. :) I remember seeing the '75 version on TV, probably sometime in the late '70s, and the ending really freaked me out. The original film has held up very well, and it's more terrifying than ever, given the implications. The 2004 version... not so much! Thanks for dropping by!

  4. I so prefer the original, did you recognise a wee Mary Stuart Masterson as one of the kids? I recently discovered Louise Fletcher, Donna Mills and Sarah Douglas in The Stepford Husbands. I reviewed it for my tribute to Louise and loved it. It feels tongue in cheek right down to the casting.. love your thoughts on it.

    1. Hi Gill... I almost forgot that Masterson was in this! Thanks for the reminder. :) The original film is tough to beat. I really need to check out The Stepford Husbands. That sounds like a great cast!