MAUREEN DOWD on “Stepford Wives”

Hot Zombie Love
New YorkTimes
June 15,2003

The leafy Connecticut towns of New Canaan and Norwalk are getting ready for the invasion of the body-snatched. The Stepford wives, those frilly minded, man-pleasing zombies who glided through suburban colonials and supermarkets three decades ago, are back — clutching casseroles with blue potholders and garden tools with white gloves.

Usually, I avoid remakes. But I’m intrigued to see what the director Frank Oz and the screenwriter Paul Rudnick do with their new version of the 1975 cult thriller and ingenious spoof on male fear of female assertion, “The Stepford Wives,” a William Goldman screenplay from an Ira Levin novel.

Nicole Kidman will take Katharine Ross’s role of a woman who moves to an immaculate Connecticut suburb with her husband (Matthew Broderick). She and her new pal (Bette Midler) discover that the place is more wicked than wicker, and that the women walking around in ruffles are preternaturally unruffled (Faith Hill et al.).

In the original, the men in town take revenge on the Betty Friedan ethos and notions about unshaved legs, burned bras and competing his-and-her careers by killing off their newly liberated wives and replacing them with shaplier and more submissive robot doppelgänger in aprons who knit and coo. (The fembots with Farrah hair and blue eyeshadow sometimes go haywire and breathily repeat things like, “I’ll just die if I don’t get that recipe.”)

Christopher Walken is now the villainous town founder, so Nicole will need her wits about her to escape.

Mr. Rudnick says the plot has only increased in resonance because men have grown even more anxious about gender issues and begrudge having their hegemony shredded by women, gays and minorities. “Straight white males act like the angry new endangered minority,” he says. “Men only evolve with a gun at their head.”

Ms. Ross played an amateur photographer whose husband felt she neglected the home. Mr. Rudnick has ratcheted up Ms. Kidman’s accomplishments, making her a network president, and her husband an underling and junior vice president.

“There’s still social pressure — everyone looking at a guy with a wife who makes more money, going, `He’s the chick,’ ” the writer says.

He notes that the “embedded biology” of romantic fantasies has not changed: “Men want a babe and don’t care about her earning power. Women want a rugged poet or musician with a private jet.”

It will still make a great thriller. But the real chiller is that the evil husbands in the original did not need to murder. They just needed to wait. In the long interval between the two movies, women have turned themselves into Stepford wives.

They can no longer wince at their mates because they have frozen their faces with Botox. They’re sedated with Prozac, Zoloft, Xanax and Paxil. (As one mother told New York magazine about rampant pill-popping: “People say `I’m anxious’ and I think, how quaint.”)

Women puff their lips, balloon their breasts and suck fat from their hindquarters. The spring fashions were so hourglass sexy, frothy and pastel, they were dubbed “Stepford style” in the Times fashion section.

Martha Stewart (a haywire robot with a team of lawyers) led women — and culture — back to the wifely arts of cooking, gardening, decorating and flower arranging. Hillary Clinton, once so angry about tea and cookies, is now so eerily glazed and good-natured that she could be the senator from Stepford.

If 70’s feminism produced the squat and blunt Betty Friedan, this decade has produced the sensual and zaftig Nigella Lawson, who wryly calls herself a “domestic goddess” and is a purveyor of what fans call “gastro porn.” More of a male fantasy than Stepford husbands could ever conjure up, the British cooking show hostess is always in the kitchen purring hot home economics advice such as mangoes are “best eaten in their natural state, and preferably in the bath.”

There’s even a retro trend among women toward deserting the fast track for a pleasant life of sitting around Starbucks gabbing with their girlfriends, baby strollers beside them, logging time at the gym to firm up for the he-man C.E.O. at home.

As Mr. Rudnick slyly points out: “Men and women are working in tandem to create the Stepford wife of tomorrow. Once the technology advances, there’ll be a Botox babe who runs on solar power.”

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