“I’m not contemplating any Maidenform bonfires… But they could certainly use something around here!”
A lawyer (Peter Masterson) moves with his wife (Katharine Ross) and two kids from New York City to the suburb of Stepford, where Joanna (Ross) immediately begins to suspect that something isn’t quite right with the other wives. Along with her new best friend (Paula Prentiss), she tries to investigate, but finds that few of the women are interested in discussing any concerns deeper than housecleaning.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Bryan Forbes Films
- Feminism and Women’s Issues
- Katharine Ross Films
- Living Nightmare
- Paula Prentiss Films
- Science Fiction
Critical opinions remain mixed on the success of this first adaptation of Ira Levin’s widely read ’70s novel, with many complaining that director Bryan Forbes turned it into too much of a straight psychological thriller without sufficiently tapping into its satirical underpinnings. I disagree. Forbes — whose earlier successes as a director included Whistle Down the Wind (1961), The L-Shaped Room (1962), and Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) — does an impressive job projecting the seemingly idyllic Stepford as a suburb filled with quiet menace, leaving us with no doubt that Ross’s very life is in danger from the moment she reluctantly leaves behind her former life in NYC and suddenly finds herself surrounded by women she can’t relate to on any level (this is a true nightmare!). Her friendship with Prentiss — as well as her interactions with a wealthy, tennis-loving housewife (Tina Louise) — amply highlight the normalcy that’s missing from the rest of the Stepford wives; meanwhile, the screenplay’s slowly oppressive structure — as first Louise, then Prentiss, are “taken over”, and Ross is sneakily roped into having her portrait drawn, then her voice “captured” — is genuinely frightening.
Fans of Levin’s work (which includes the novel Rosemary’s Baby and the thriller-play Deathtrap) will know that he frequently placed wives in positions of vulnerability, positing their husbands as calculating villains whose motives are masked behind a façade of loving attention. That dynamic definitely plays out here, with Masterson doing a fine job as Ross’s husband — a man who seemingly has her best interests at heart, yet is clearly involved in nefarious dealings on some unknown level. Ross is perfectly cast in the lead role, projecting just the right amount of feminist spunk, and Prentiss gives one of her best supporting performances as Bobbie, who fearlessly shows off her body in casually sexy outfits (which are in noted contrast to the prim dresses and hats worn by the Wives). While one can certainly quibble with any number of logistical elements of the story (most having to do with the wives “transforming”), The Stepford Wives remains an engaging and culturally iconic sci-fi thriller, one which all film fanatics should check out.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Katharine Ross as Joanna
- Paula Prentiss as Bobbie
- Peter Masterson as Walter
- Tina Louise as Charmaine
- A genuinely creepy premise
Yes, as a culturally iconic psychological thriller.