The 1975 movie The Stepford Wives is based on Ira Levin’s novel of the same name. It’s the story of a woman who moves to a small town where things just don’t seem right with the local ladies who are all just a mite too keen on keeping house and keeping their husbands happy. In fact, they are so dedicated to the duster it’s downright creepy.
The shining star of the movie is Katharine Ross. She plays Stepford newcomer, Joanna Eberhart, who has just moved to the town with her husband and two small daughters. Although Ross was not the producer’s first choice for the role of Joanna, it’s unlikely anyone else could have done a better job of bringing the character to life and the scene where Joanna seeks psychiatric advice about her fear of being changed by Stepford is particularly memorable. The worst thing for Joanna is that she knows how crazy her story sounds and she says so: “If I’m wrong then I’m crazy, but if I’m right then it’s worse.” It’s a powerful scene.
Paula Prentiss is excellent as Bobbie, who is a fun, fun, fun character and, like Joanna, she is new to the town and just can’t seem to work up that traditional Stepford cleaning spirit. This makes it all the more unnerving later on in the movie when she finally succumbs and becomes proud to be house-proud and even gets herself a nice long, ladylike dress.
The other characters in The Stepford Wives are well cast too, and Patrick O’Neal is particularly menacing as Dale (Diz) Coba, who heads the Stepford’s Men’s Association. He doesn’t actually do a lot to be menacing; but he still exudes menace in his every scene. He is calm, cold and calculating and, from the first moment that you see him looking at Joanna, you just know that whatever it is that’s on his mind it isn’t anything good.
There are a few differences between The Stepford Wives movie and the book it was based upon and one of the scenes that was added to the movie is quite entertaining: Joanna and Bobbie are trying to drum up a little enthusiasm for creating a women’s lib group. They go from door to door and at one point they enter someone’s house without knocking. At first it seems like no one is home, but the girls quickly discover that the homeowners are very much at home. They are just a little preoccupied, upstairs. In the bedroom. “You’re the best Frank. You’re the champion. Ooh, you’re the master” the Stepford wife keeps telling her husband and she is getting quite breathless with all that talking. Joanna and Bobbie decide that they have not chosen the best of times to call and they beat a hasty retreat with big smiles on their faces.
The rest of the Stepford wives are available to speak to, but none of them are interested in women’s lib. Why would they be when they have a great alternative like their daily chores? In the end, the girls do find one other like-minded soul. Her name is Charmaine and, like Joanna and Bobbie, she is a newcomer to Stepford. And she has a maid to do her cleaning! She also has her own tennis court behind the house and, although she loves the game, she can never find anyone to play with her and is very glad to meet Joanna who, although out of practice, professes to play a very good game.
It’s a great relief for the girls when they find Charmaine; so it comes as a massive scare when the lover all things tennis suddenly sacks her maid, turns in her racket, becomes a typical Stepford wife, and even allows her husband to dig up her treasured tennis court in favour of his much wanted and soon to be had swimming pool.
When they see what has happened to Charmaine, Joanna and Bobbie want to leave Stepford as soon as possible. Before Bobbie can get out of the town she becomes a changed person, though, and Joanna is all alone. Worse still, it is pretty obvious at this point, Walter is a true Stepford husband who wants to make a new woman out of Joanna.
The Stepford Wives movie ends a little differently from the book, and Joanna finally finds out what the future holds for her in rather a scary scene in which Dale Coba stalks her through the dark passages of the Men’s Association and finally herds her into a room where she can only look at her destiny and say: “God!”