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KimT: The Stepford Wives (1975) vs. The Stepford Wives (2004)

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The Stepford Wives (1975) vs. The Stepford Wives (2004)
By Mike Bunge
Published: June 26, 2016, 8:07 am

nicole-kidman-and-bette-midler-in-the-stepford-wives-(2004)

The battle of the sexes has been going on since there have been sexes, but only in real life.  In movies, the battle was over a long, long, long time ago and men won.  Big time.  Both in front of the camera, where male movie stars make far more than their female counterparts or marginal male stars get role after role while more famous women struggle to get cast as their girlfriends, and behind the camera, where men make most of the films and most of the decisions about what films get made, Hollywood is one of the most testosterone-drenched environments in the world.  And that many of those men talk about how they care so much about climate change or gay marriage doesn’t change the fact that the silver screen is a man’s world, baby.

But every so often, motion pictures are made about women and their view of things.  Usually men are still making them, but they do get made and the men making them want to wring as much money as they can out of the audience who wants to see estrogen-oriented cinema, so you have to think they’d want to make them as good as they can be.  So when you see a movie about women that was made by men, you’re seeing inside the minds of those men.  You’re seeing their view of women, their understanding of what women think and want and their best guess at how to connect with both.

Spoiler Alert:  They really, really, really, really aren’t.So, as this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown pits “The Stepford Wives” (1975) vs. “The Stepford Wives” (2004), we’ll examine whether men are seeing women any more clearly or are any more intuitive about the stories women want to see.

Based on a novel by Ira Levin, “The Stepford Wives” (1975) is a chilling and unnerving tale about female dignity and male domination.  Well…the last half hour of the film is a chilling and unnerving tale about female dignity and male domination.  The first hour and a half is a pretty gosh darn boring safari into the sexual politics of 1975 America, a place where people still used the phrase “women’s lib” but only in a non-ironic manner.  Joanna Eberhart (Katherine Ross) is a woman regretfully leaving her life in New York City because her husband (Peter Masterson) wants to move them and their two kids to the quiet country life of a little hamlet in Connecticut called Stepford.  Soon after they arrive, her husband starts hanging out at the Stepford Men’s Association while the jobless Joanna becomes fast friends with another recent arrival, the free-spirited Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss).

They’ve replaced their wives, you see, with robots.  Beautiful, subservient robots whose only concerns are cleaning the house and servicing their husbands.  Robots who have no opinions, no desires, no thoughts except whatever their husbands…their masters…give them.Joanna and Bobbie begin to notice that all the other women in Stepford, except another who just moved to town (Tina Louise), are more than a little weird.  They seem passive, like they’re in a trance.  They have no interests outside their homes and their families.  And when the women talk, it’s as if they’re starring in a commercial about household cleaners or other domestic products.  Then Joanna and Bobbie’s only normal friend starts to act that way.  And then Bobbie starts to act that way.  A terrified Joanna tries to escape with her children before it happens to her, but finds it’s not easy to avoid the fate planned for her by the men of Stepford.

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As I mentioned, the last half hour of “The Stepford Wives” (1975) is genuinely scary and disturbing, largely held together by the performances of Katherine Ross and Patrick O’Neal as the delightfully creepy head of the Stepford Men’s Association.  This is a suspense flick where everything is building up to the shocking climax and it pays off amazingly well.  The viewer is confronted with pure, unadulterated misogyny and imagery that is unforgettable.  It’s great filmmaking, but the reason why “The Stepford Wives” (1975) has long been regarded as a cult classic instead of just a classic is because that incredible conclusion is preceded by a narrative that is both dated and dull.  This film has so very little going on for so very long that it would be almost unwatchable today, except for the on screen charisma of Ross and Paula Prentiss.  They make you care about Joanna and Bobbie and wondering about what’s going to happen to them is the only thing that will keep you engaged through 90some minutes of mysteries so banal they’d put a meth addict to sleep and plot twists so lethargic they make a sloth look like an Olympic sprinter.  Now, it all works exquisitely to set up and provide the ending with its thematic and emotional punch, so I can’t castigate the filmmakers.  They knew what they were doing and did it well.  What they’re doing has simply been left far behind by evermore complex and energetic storytelling.  It’s like comparing the special effects of a 1940s sci-fi serial to the 3D CGI wizardry of the 21stcentury.  No matter how good it was back then, it no longer meets even our lowest expectations.

“The Stepford Wives” (1975) is also dated in the way a lot of zeitgeist movies are.  Sexism exists now as it existed then but this film was made by and for people having a 1975 discussion about sexism.  All of its subtext, allusions and references are to controversies and arguments specific to that time and people of later eras, whether it’s 1985 or 1995 or 2015, won’t  quite get it because they’re used to different controversies and different arguments.  When people say “you had to be there,” this is the sort of thing they mean.

For all that, the last half hour of the movie is so powerful that it burned its way into the public consciousness.  “Stepford wife” became one of those phrases that everyone knew even if they never saw the film.  Which means the only surprising thing about “The Stepford Wives” (2005) is that it took them so very long to do a remake.  And boy, they should have waited a lot longer.

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters
Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters


“The Stepford Wives” (2005) is by no means the worst film I have ever seen.  I have viewed motion pictures so horrendous, I would not show them to my worst enemy.  But it is one of the awfulest remakes ever because it is not only an example of stunningly incompetent filmmaking but it is a complete and utter bastardization of the original concept.  The 1975 original is about men who hate and fear women so much they can’t abide their existence as human beings.  The 2005 remake is a comedy.  And not even an attempt at satire or sophisticated dark humor.  It’s a broad, slapsticky effort that’s only a half-step above fart and poop jokes.

Can you imagine the reaction if the remake of “Roots” had been a comedy?  How would people respond to a laugh-a-minute reimagining of “Schindler’s List?”  What if James Cameron had used a laugh track for “Titanic?”  But someone in Hollywood thought a film about a conspiracy where men murder their wives and replace them with living sex dolls could be improved by making it funny.  As I wrote, the silver screen is a man’s world, baby.

In the 2004 version, Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is a high-powered TV executive who gets fired when her latest reality show so thoroughly destroys the life of a contestant that he goes on a shooting spree.  This unfeeling, narcissistic monster of a woman is packed off to Stepford Connecticut by her long-suffering shlub of a husband (Matthew Broderick).  They’re welcomed by their relentlessly enthusiastic real estate agent, Claire Wellington (Glenn Close), and things basically play out the same from there except instead of being subversive of suspenseful, it’s all a joke.  The only major differences are the remake spending a lot more time on Joanna’s husband and his induction into the wife-replacing scheme and a happy ending stapled onto to all, because Heaven forbid anyone leave a movie theater with something besides a mindless smile on their puss.
It can’t decide if the wives are being replaced by robots or the women are having mind-control implants put in their brains. I’m not kidding.  They couldn’t be bothered to keep that consistent.There are almost no words to describe the disaster that is “The Stepford Wives” (2005).  Imagine if the Hindenburg had crashed into an orphanage on the same day the orphans were all being given three-legged puppies.  But here’s my best effort at telling you what’s wrong with this remake.

  1. It’s version of Joanna is an unlikeable ass.
  2. It’s version of Bobbie (Bette Midler) is an unlikeable ass.
  3. There’s a gay couple in the remake and one of the guys is supposed to be funny because he’s a sassy homosexual.
  4. There’s a Stepford dog.
  5. In the original, Joanna’s husband moves them to Stepford because he knows about the conspiracy and wants to be part of it. In the remake, he moves them to Stepford at random without knowing anything about it.
  6. 29 years later and the remake is even whiter than the original.
  7. When one of the gay guys has his husband Stepfordized, it isn’t to make him a submissive servant. It turns him into a straight laced conservative who, far from submissive, becomes a candidate for state senate.  But if that’s the kind of guy he wanted to be married to, WHY DIDN’T HE JUST MARRY THAT KIND OF GUY?  And why is his Stepford spouse running for political office?  Wouldn’t the gay Republican want a Stepford spouse to support him as he ran for state senate?
  8. Jon Lovitz is in it.
    .
  9. The remake expects the viewer to believe that when Joanna was Stepfordized, that no one other than her husband observed the process.
  10. Joanna’s husband foils the Stepford conspiracy by randomly pressing buttons on a computer screen until the women revert back to normal. You could get away with that kind of technical ignorance in 1975 but who in 2004 was supposed to accept reversing a computer program by mashing buttons?
  11. Joanna’s husband turns out to be the hero of the story. Yes, they took a parable about misogyny and made a dude the hero.  It’s a man’s world, baby.
  12. It has a fashion sense that’s worse than the original, which is saying a lot if you’ve seen what people wore back in the 70s. The women in 2004 are all wearing hats like they’re at the Kentucky Derby.
  13. The men in the remake are simultaneously supposed to be losers who couldn’t handle being married to super successful women and super successful businessmen themselves who had the brains and resources to pull off this Stepford scam. It’s like no one involved in the production actually read the entire screenplay.
  14. The two most dramatic scenes in the remake are burdened with more talking than a 36 hour U.S. Senate filibuster. If you showed those scenes to Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, they would both say “Man, you really should have cut some of that dialog.”
  15. Director Frank Oz included a scene of Bette Midler running toward the camera. No one should ever have to watch Bette Midler run.
  16. The remake openly endorses the fears of every man who’s worried that women and homosexuals are taking over the culture and undercutting their masculinity. It doesn’t just endorse it.  It celebrates it.

I could go on but if you haven’t gotten the point by now, I’m wasting your time and mine.

“The Stepford Wives” (1975) is a cult classic in the truest sense.  It’s not that good but what is good about it is very striking and memorable.  That’s more than enough to take this Throwdown over a remake that is an embarrassment to everyone who made it, everyone who watches it and everyone who lives in the same space/time continuum as it.  How can a movie made in 2004 have a less enlightened and more retrograde understanding of sexism than one made in 1974?  Damned if I know.

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