An Interview With “the girls” From The Fabulous Windy City Times

Domo Arigato, Mrs. Roboto
Kidman, Midler and Close on being Stepford Wives
by Lawrence Ferber

In a world where humans receive more enhancements than their computers—facelifts, liposuction, Botox, and hair removal/replacement—could electronic upgrades be the next step?

“I wish I had some mechanism where I was totally efficient with my time,” admits Glenn Close, co-star of the upcoming Paramount Pictures comedic thriller The Stepford Wives, with a laugh. “And a chip that smoothes out your skin and hikes you up, that would be fabulous.”

In The Stepford Wives, the men of a charming fictitious town take this upgrade notion a bit TOO far, transforming their women—as well as a gay man—into idealized, perfect folk. An update of the 1975 shocker based on Ira Levin’s bestselling novel, the new Stepford assumes a creepy yet comedic shape in the hands of openly gay writer Paul Rudnick and director Frank Oz, who previously collaborated on 1997’s In & Out.

Nicole Kidman stars as Joanna Eberhart, high-powered president of the national television network EBS. Life’s grand until she’s fired and suffers a nervous breakdown, which sends her fleeing, along with hubby Walter (Matthew Broderick) and their two children, from New York City to the tranquil, picture-perfect enclave of Stepford, Conn., for a fresh start. But is this picture somehow askew? Like de facto town leader Claire Wellington (Close) and Sarah Sunderson (Grammy nominee Faith Hill), all the Stepford women echo a June Cleaver/Martha Stewart archetype—lovely, glowing and flawless at crafts, entertaining and cookery. This rouses suspicion in Joanna and fellow new residents Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), who’s trying to salvage his relationship with conservative boyfriend Jerry (David Marshall Grant). Meanwhile, Walter chums up with fellow husbands of the Stepford Men’s Association, including ringleader Mike Wellington (Christopher Walken), and learns their frightening secrets … .

“The Stepford wife has no personality of her own, really,” explains Kidman. “She exists solely for the man in her life.” Yet in Rudnick’s re-imagining, even homosexual men are subject to Stepford’s perfect community standards—although hardly in the ex-gay sense. Roger Bart’s character is eventually modified into another type of man. “He’s had the ‘gay’ bits of him rubbed off and I think he’s passing as ‘gay-straight,’” Midler reports. “Log Cabin Republican straight.”

While the original 1975 film may seem dated to 21st century eyes, at least one element of its premise applies today, insists Kidman. “A lot of men, when they answer that question ‘would you prefer your wife to exist completely for you, only for you,’ if they answer it honestly, a lot of them say ‘yes,’” she opines. “I don’t know if deep down they would really want it, but it certainly sounds sort of appealing to them, right? Well, the [Stepford] Men’s Association is about creating that.”

Midler feels that the 1975 vision “was really pretty grim. It passed for social commentary,” she says. Indeed, the film presented a nightmarish—albeit far-fetched—hypothetical backlash measure to the time’s burgeoning women’s lib movement. As for the remake, “I think partly we’re having fun within the context of a thriller.” Kidman says, “But the issues broached are also food for thought.”

Midler agrees. “This film is not only dealing with the superficial, it also has serious subtext which needs to be explored. It’s not just the exterior [of these women that gets changed]—it’s the interior. You have no opinion, your worldview shrinks. You’re just a person who’s satisfying somebody else’s picture of what they want you to be.”

“In this day and age there’s something disturbing about women being made into subservient beings,” agrees Close, whose ebullient character Claire leads the other Stepford wives in an aerobics class dubbed “Claireobics.” “I’m always perfectly coiffed, manicured and made-up,” she notes. “Even in the exercise classes you have to look good.”

Midler admits she has found herself in real-life situations where she adjusted, changed or conformed to satisfy a man or clique’s expectations/demands. “I remember when I went to Paris for the first time, in 1973 or 1974, I was wearing big platform shoes, really tight jeans, a chubby and a bag with long strings someone had made for me,” Midler recalls. “I was wandering the streets and these children surrounded me and started laughing and pointing their fingers at me. I couldn’t figure out if I was unfashionable or the fashion hadn’t come there yet. So I looked around at what everyone else was wearing and they were very Stepford-y! They were wearing pink and green dresses, I remember this so vividly, the only colors you saw in shops was pink and green! And everyone was wearing blouses with ties or skirts. It was all very ladylike and it seemed to me that if you dressed in this way you would be part of a group. So I started to buy these clothes, I looked so silly in them, and I was so confused by what I was doing to myself yet I kept on doing it.”

Surely one of the most extraordinary facts about The Stepford Wives—and perhaps its ironies—is that some of Hollywood’s most powerful, self-assured actresses play (or end up as) subservient living Barbie dolls. “We have such a strong cast,” Kidman offers. “I mean, we’ve got Bette Midler, Glenn Close and Faith Hill!”

Back to the subject of ironies, one bit of conformity the Stepford Wives’ actresses willingly submitted themselves to during production was The South Beach Diet. “All of us,” laughs Midler. “That’s the only book anyone was reading on that shoot. My makeup girl and I went out to the local grocery store and got all the things you’re supposed to have, like the non-sugar Jell-O, the cheeses and celery. And we started and nobody stayed on it but me. I lost tons and tons of weight on it.”

Midler describes her character, Bobbie, as a “stereotypical” NYC West Sider. “She’s overweight and doesn’t give a damn, she lives a life of the mind. She’s a real slob and she writes books and she’s kind of wacky and opinionated. All the things her husband wishes she wasn’t.” To play the bulky-bodied Bobbie, Midler donned a fat suit filled with birdseed, which occasionally attracted hungry winged visitors. “The sparrows, doves and the starlings,” she recalls. “I was lifting my t-shirt every now and again to flaunt my birdseed boobs.”

Of course, off-screen some government officials are seeking to modify gay and lesbian lives with constitutional amendments rather than silicon chips. “I’m really concerned about getting young women out to vote,” Close, a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage rights, enthuses. “That’s what I want to concentrate on. I’m totally in a state of grief and outrage about what’s happening in this country where our rights are being chipped away very, very subtly, and the impact of what this administration has had on this world. I feel like a plowed-up field and I think it’s very dangerous at times.”

Meanwhile, perhaps we’ll someday see a Stepford sequel in which the ladies enact a little turnaround and upgrade their men. Heck, at least one of them already has! “I’ve been in a few relationships where I told them what to wear—to their misfortune,” Midler laughs. “I’m not much of a stylist.”

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