Wives who say I do, I do
By Martyn Palmer
THERE are innocent men and women out there who fondly imagine that there has been some kind of truce in the battle of the sexes.
Post-feminism, they argue, men have got in touch with their female side and women are getting on with their jobs on the board. Why, then, asks Frank Oz, director of the 21st-century remake of The Stepford Wives, do he and so many other men still find themselves choking and stumbling through the battle fog: “Is it really over?” By which he means that it is not. If it were, then would a film like The Stepford Wives, the original of which represented a kind of crucifix held aloft at bra-burning feminist vampires of the ’70s, have any meaning for today’s audience? Scratch the surface of modern man, says Oz, and you will strip away a mask to reveal, at worst, the hatred beneath it and, at best, a rather confused soul who no longer knows what women want him to be.
“Do I think men are still frightened by women?” says Oz. “Yes, they are. More than anything they are confused. I mean, I’m confused, just like any other man. What do women want from us? They want us to be strong, but they want us to be sensitive. So what do they want? It’s an eternal question.”
The original film of The Stepford Wives, based on Ira Levin’s novel, was released in 1975, a whole lifetime ago. The plot now seems ludicrously dated. A young, talented photographer (played by Katharine Ross) moves to the town of Stepford, Connecticut, where the women are vapid clones who dress perfectly, smile vacantly, make sure that dinner is served on time and that the house is spotless, before turning into ever-responsive sexual partners at night.
Times have changed and the new film had to reflect that. As Glenn Close, who stars in the remake alongside Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler, observes: “The fact that Katharine Ross’s character wanted to be a photographer was considered threatening at the time. I mean, can you imagine?”
In the original film, the murderous men of Stepford turned their women into robots. The irony is, it turns out they needn’t have bothered. Back then, the ideal of domesticity as a lifestyle choice was laughed at by the sisterhood; these days, we’re told, high-flying women dream of it, as they switch on Nigella and Delia after a gruelling day in the office, and constantly feel guilty if they’re not successfully juggling the demands of work and home.
“The original is pretty clear-cut: it’s just men being afraid of women taking over the world, and so they decide to replace them with robots,” says Matthew Broderick, who stars in the new film. “But Stepford became a word that people used to describe things that were just too perfect. I don’t think today we would buy the ’70s version, so things have to be heightened a bit, and Nicole’s character is this driven, crazy woman in a troubled marriage.”
Although it keeps the same basic plot, with a young couple arriving to find strange goings-on in the town of Stepford, Oz’s film, unlike Bryan Forbes’s dark and chilling original, is played for broad comedy. Joanna Eberhart and Walter Kresby (Kidman and Broderick) move to Stepford after she loses her high-powered job as a television executive, and they opt for a less stressed life in suburban heaven (or hell). But while Walter is welcomed into the oak and leather-lined local men’s club where he can watch the sports channel, drink, smoke and tell jokes, Joanna is invited to discuss home colour schemes with the ever-smiling Claire Wellington (Close).
“For me it’s about rampant consumerism and this infatuation with the way we look,” says Midler, who plays dowdy Bobbie Markowitz, another Stepford rebel who finds herself at odds with the local ladies. “There are women out there who have turned themselves into Stepford wives. They all look the same, they dress the same and they all want to live the same way. That’s scary.”
Oz and his cast often discussed the question of whether men secretly want a Stepford wife. “I like women. I like seeing legs and I like seeing busts and behinds and pretty summer dresses,” says the director. “So I’m as sexist as anybody if you want to call me that.
“And there’s certainly a sexual component of women being submissive that is in many men’s fantasies and certainly there are some men who would like to have a slave. I think there is an aspect of that in many men. But in reality, I think most men would become pretty tired of a wife who only did what she was told and had no ideas of her own. After a month or two of having fun you’d say, ‘Jesus, honey, what do you think?”‘
Oz, 60, started his career with puppet-master Jim Henson and worked on The Muppet Show, providing the voice of Miss Piggy among others, before successfully switching to directing. He admits that there were some problems on set and says that he regrets clashing with Midler. “In the heat of the moment, we had tension,” he says. “But that happens in every movie.”
For some, Oz’s film is too gentle. It’s true, the remake is rather whimsical and camp and, at times, fails to hit the mark that the cast clearly felt they were aiming for.
“I think it says that imperfections are human and we should celebrate the differences rather than strive to look and live the same,” says Close. “And I do think that, today, that is something worth pointing out.”