COVER STORY: PERFECT LIVES FOR PERFECT WIVES?
The Daily Record
Jul 24 2004
BETTE MIDLER flashes a gleaming smile as she offers what she reckons to be the recipe for a perfect marriage … good sex and a sense of humour.
‘I think what really counts is company, sex and just a sense of being able to laugh together,’ says Bette, who has been married to Martin von Haselberg for 19 years and has a 17-year-old daughter, Sophie.
The 58-year-old actress and singer is talking about perfection in a partner because that’s the subject of her latest movie, a remake of the 1975 chiller, The Stepford Wives.
The original film – which was described as gothic women’s lib – was about a seemingly model community where the women are spookily flawless creations.
Every single housewife is scrupulously tidy, immaculately dressed and utterly and slavishly devoted to catering for the slightest whim of their husband.
But the reason for all these ideal homes and even more ideal wives turns out to be nightmarish.
Originally a scary novel by Ira Levin – author of Rosemary’s Baby – The Stepford Wives starred Katharine Ross, of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid fame, as the newcomer who discovers that all is not well with the blissful country haven of Stepford.
Now, almost 30 years on, Bette has teamed up alongside Nicole Kidman, Glenn Close and chart-topping country singer Faith Hill, who makes her big screen debut, in a blackly comic version of the story.
The Stepford Men include Matthew Broderick and Oscar winner Christopher Walken.The film is directed by Frank Oz, who provided the voices of Muppets Fozzy Bear and Miss Piggy andwho directed Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Little Shop Of Horrors.
Surprisingly, perhaps, none of the stars were fans of the original movie, although they were all familiar with Stepford Wives as a term.
‘When I signed on to do the movie, I hadn’t seen the original, but I subsequently did,’ says Nicole Kidman. ‘Strangely enough, I knew what Stepford Wife meant. It’s weird how this film penetrated the culture.’
In the movie, Nicole plays a burned-out TV reality show producer – sacked after one of her shows goes horribly wrong – who uncovers the secret of Stepford, while 57year-old Glenn Close plays the Queen of Stepford who, with her screen hubby Christopher Walken, holds sway over this crisp and clean community.
Like Nicole, Glenn only watched the first film after being cast in the new one.
‘I thought it was very dated,’ says Glenn of the 1975 version. ‘It was interesting, but I didn’t think it was terribly scary.’
And as Bette Midler stresses, while this version of The Stepford Wives has gone for laughs, it still has things to say about an image-conscious society.
‘It’s a spin on what’s going on in American life today with all this makeover madness and plastic surgery madness and people being completely aware of how attractive they can be and only being interested in the superficial,’ says Bette.
‘I think the extreme that this movie suggests it will be taken to is pretty scary.’
Nicole agrees whole-heartedly with that view, adding that a chilling aspect of the story is the robot-like nature of the women of Stepford.
‘They don’t have a brain that functions on its own,’ says the Oscar-winning star. ‘I think that’s horrifying. People conforming is not good.’
Singing star Faith Hill, 36, who is married to country star Tim McGraw and has three daughters, believes the film’s strength is that it is relevant to today.
‘It’s the whole issue of trying to transform everyone that walks the face of the earth into this perfect, ideal person,’ says Faith. ‘This film shows how ridiculous and unrealistic that is.’
And single mum Glenn Close describes a society based on image as being very unhealthy, saying: ‘I have a 16-year-old daughter Annie and I suffer for her. It is very difficult for girls. They’re told to look one way, but to act another way. It’s very confusing, and not good.’
In the movie, Bette’s character is transformed overnight from being a free spirit whose home is so untidy it looks like a bomb has hit it, to a cupcake-baking ideal wife.
‘I am pretty neat and I’m pretty messy,’ jokes Bette, when I wonder what she’s like in real life. ‘I’m pretty messy, but I clean up after myself. My husband trained me. He wouldn’t let me in the kitchen if I didn’t learn to clean up after myself.’
Bette also suggests that she’d never fit into the Stepford scheme of things when it comes down to her areas of domestic excellence.
‘I’m very good at opening beer and wine bottles and I’m good at picking up pet toys and making pancakes and baking powdered biscuits,’ says the giggling star.
Faith is also happy in the kitchen. ‘I’m a southern cook and I’m a good fiddler,’ which she goes on to explain has nothing to do with music. ‘It means just kind of floating around the house and dilly-dallying.’
Nicole likes cooking, but says she would like to improve her culinary skills. ‘It actually relaxes me. I don’t see it as work. Otherwise, forget it. I can’t sew and I’m a very poor knitter.’
As the film deals with the battle of the sexes, it features a bunch of husbands who are intimidated by successful career women and who change them to fit a stereotype that suits these selfish men.
But what, if anything, might Bette Midler like to change about her husband?
‘Well, I think I probably would try to get him get him out of his watch and pen mania. But watches, cars, pens, that’s what men like. They like those kinds of toys,’ says Bette.
‘I like shiny things, too, but I like them to sparkle. I like to wear them on my ears.’
Although there were stories about strife on the set during the filming of The Stepford Wives, the stars insist they had a good time.
‘It was fun being the Queen of Stepford,’ says Glenn Close. ‘And it was fun being the energy behind all the activities and being worshipped and married to Chris Walken.’
Glenn was particularly pleased at working with Walken: ‘Years ago we did a TV series called Sarah, Plain And Tall out in the prairies of Kansas, so this is wonderful coming back together with him.’
As the leading light of the Stepford community, Glenn’s character teaches the other women aerobics class and is the life and soul of the local square dance. The slim, elegant star says she had to work hard to achieve the right look for her character.
‘I worked out for two months in order to prepare for this part, because I knew I’d have a very, very, very tight corset,’ she says.
‘They wanted me to have a very, very small waist and it was also to look a little inhuman, so you have to be in good shape.’
Four-time Grammy Award winner Faith Hill also took to the gym, running five miles a day before filming started.
But although The Stepford Wives is her first movie, Faith says this wasn’t the scariest thing that she has ever done in her career.
‘It was fun, like being on a holiday,’ says Faith. ‘To play this character was great because I didn’t have to think about anything else. I just had to be her.
‘I didn’t have to worry about being up on the aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor when I sang the national anthem for the world premiere. That was scary.’
Connecticut is the setting for The Stepford Wives, so how does local girl Glenn think the state’s residents will react?
‘I grew up there, so I hope they have a sense of humour,’ she says, ‘but it might be a little close to the bone. Some will like it and some won’t.’
# The Stepford Wives is out on July 30.