The ladies of Stepford have abandoned their maxi-dresses for botox and reality TV – but are they still scary? Nanette Newman, one of the original Wives, gives her verdict on the remake of the 1970s cult movie
Friday July 9, 2004
I have just enjoyed 90 minutes of deja vu. I’ve been to a screening of The Stepford Wives – Mark II, directed this time by Frank Oz and starring Nicole Kidman and Glenn Close. It was a funny feeling, rather like going back to Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley. Because in 1974, I was an inhabitant of another Stepford. My husband, Bryan Forbes – in an unashamedly nepotistic move – cast me as one of the wives in the original. Bryan’s film was a cutting-edge thriller set in the picture-book perfection of New England, while this new version is played for laughs.
Stepford Mark I has never really gone away. Thanks to television, old films no longer disappear into oblivion, but have a continued life on our TV screens. As a result, Bryan’s film has become a cult movie with a whole new audience. Perhaps this is why people ask: “Why remake films like Stepford?”
It is simply that, if a film has proved itself with the fickle public already, the film industry reasons that if you cram it with stars and pour millions of dollars into it, you stand a better chance of success. Fear of failure is always an issue in movieland, so going back over old ground is a bit like having a corner of a security blanket to stroke. Personally, I can’t see why films shouldn’t be remade. Well, that’s not quite true – I would hate to hear that Some Like It Hot or Gone With the Wind was being remade. But apart from those two, as far as I’m concerned, everything else is up for grabs. So, when I heard that Stepford was being redone I couldn’t wait to see it.
As I hadn’t seen Bryan’s version for some time, I watched it again to discover why it was worthy of an update. I think the intriguing thing about it was the way in which everything seemed so normal the at beginning of our film. Admittedly, the people living in the fictitious town of Stepford were excruciatingly nice, but somehow you went along with it. All the wives were beautiful, they only had eyes for their husbands and they had When-Sally-Met-Harry-type orgasms and were domestic goddesses in the kitchen, a la Nigella.
When the newcomer to the town (played by Katharine Ross) slowly began to realise something was wrong, it was at the same moment that the audience began to feel uneasy. The full horror crept up on you, slyly taking you by surprise. It was all the more frightening because of the ordinariness of everything: no creaking doors, no dark rooms or shadows around every corner – this was scary in bright sunlight and somehow more sinister because of it. The fantasy element seemed possible.
If science could find a way of programming and creating the perfect wife, would some men do it? In the original Stepford Wives they did, and they’re still doing it in 2004. Only now, the sexual climate is different. In 1974, although women had burnt their bras, swung through the swinging 60s and made love not war, women’s lib was still firmly on the agenda. Today, most of the battles have been won; ideally, we are equal partners in the home and the workplace, and some men are quite happy to become house-husbands. In response to all these changes, the new Stepford film has turned the original into a comedy with the accent on consumerism.
The new film starts with an all-too-accurate swipe at reality TV shows. Nicole Kidman is the president of the mega-TV company that makes them, and she’s fired. The desire to succeed has always been her motivation in life, so this is a personal catastrophe, and we see her suffer complete meltdown (no one does this better). But this is nothing compared to the meltdown she is experiences when her husband (Matthew Broderick) relocates her and their two children to the small town of Stepford. Everything there is beyond botox. It is silicone valley, and everyone is nipped and tucked to the extreme. The wives look like Hugh Hefner’s top 100 centrefolds – and the husbands love it.
Glenn Close is here playing perfection to perfection. She worships her husband, although there is a hint that she may have an awful lot of bunnies simmering on the back burner. Bette Midler plays the role in which she never disappoints – the sarcastic, sassy, sloppy, Jewish wife, brow-beating her husband until she becomes the ultimate Stepford wife.
Naturally, you couldn’t have a community today without including a gay couple, one of whom is a flamboyant architect (played by Roger Bart). He has some of the best lines. Armed with a torch, he goes to see what has made a noise: “I feel like Nancy Drew in the middle of a midlife crisis,” he says as he creeps along the corridors. He is eventually turned into a Stepford gay. Perhaps someone is thinking of another remake – The Stepford Queens.
The film deliberately plays for camp and kitsch, and then suddenly it becomes quite gothic. Where the original left us with the chilling prospect of the perfect robot wives, this one gives the wives the last laugh. The final scene is almost identical to the scene in the first version where they are pushing trolleys in a supermarket – except this time there’s a twist. I won’t say what it is, but I enjoyed it.
So there you have it: two very different takes on the Ira Levin novel, both showing what happens when our material and emotional desires seek perfection. Both films prove that we are always fascinated by fantasy – with just an uneasy dollop of truth.
· The Stepford Wives is released on July 30.