Betty Friedan pronounced its trendy nods to feminism and bra burning ”a rip-off of the women’s movement.” Other feminists reviled it as well, and a surprising number of critics trashed it.
But what did they know? Twenty-two years after its release, The Stepford Wives is a cult phenomenon. Based on a best-seller by high-concept pulp-meister Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby), it further popularized a lasting catchphrase to describe domestic perfectionism. The satiric thriller also spawned two made-for-TV sequels, Revenge of the Stepford Wives and The Stepford Children (only the former is on tape). Yet since the dawn of the home-video era, when it got a limited release on cassette, the first Wives has been virtually unavailable. Now it’s stepping back out in a new wide-screen transfer that’s as shiny as a Stepford kitchen floor.
There are no problems with waxy buildup when it comes to the narrative either, since the movie’s jabs at American consumerism and the suburban wasteland remain slyly on target. Projecting a flower-child vulnerability, Katharine Ross plays a budding photographer who reluctantly moves from Manhattan to a Connecticut suburb with her husband (Peter Masterson, father of Mary Stuart, who appears as one of their two children). The mystery starts when Ross teams up with another bored housewife (a wonderfully spunky Paula Prentiss) to uncover why the town’s docile, plastic-looking wives so relish cleaning and cooking — and why the husbands all belong to a males-only club that meets at a sinister mansion.
Unlike the film’s robotic wives, the plot is not without flaws. The men come off as ciphers, leaving it a tad unclear why they’re so damn evil — especially Masterson’s character. But if William Goldman’s playful script doesn’t always jibe with Bryan Forbes’ sober direction (a quibble of some cranky critics at the time), that’s okay: Their schizy collaboration is precisely what makes the movie work, since the viewer is often unsure where the story is going. When a consciousness-raising powwow between Ross, Prentiss, and the other women abruptly disintegrates into a passionate discussion about cleaning products, for instance, the effect is simultaneously hilarious, scary, and even sad. In fact, viewed today, the movie plays better than ever as a melancholy parable about the loss of one’s soul.
Not that The Stepford Wives doesn’t still provide suspense and chills. It expertly drops intriguing clues as it builds to an extremely bleak, creepy ending. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never feel the same way about shopping in a supermarket again. B+