I LOVE YOU, NOW CHANGE! A journey through the town of Stepford
The term “Stepford Wife” has become a huge part of the pop culture vernacular. It brings to mind images of perfectly happy suburban wives with no interests outside of their husbands, children, and spotless homes. But we forget that the original story isn’t just about the perfection. We also tend to forget there were a whole series of movies to come after the original book and adaptation. Stepford, to me, is about betrayal. Betrayal of loved ones, and as the series progressed, betrayal of a damn good story.
Director Bryan Forbes was the first person to adapt Ira Levin’s story back in 1975, and in my mind, the best. Katherine Ross plays a woman who, while taking care of her family, is also an aspiring photographer. Although her interests oftentimes distract her, she loves her children and loves her husband. That husband decides (without her input) to move the family from Manhattan to suburban Stepford, Connecticut. The adjustment comes hard for her because it seems all the other women are totally self-sacrificing domestic goddesses with no interests of their own outside making their husbands happier. And the more her husband gets involved with the “Men’s Association”, the more he pressures her to become like the “other Stepford ladies”. It gets worse when the two flawed-yet-independent friends she has seem to conform overnight. The men are thrilled with the single-minded devotion of their spouses, and Ross’ husband is getting more and more dissatisfied with her human failings. He himself is torn, between the woman he fell in love with, flaws and all, and the thought of a less-than-human wife who will attend to every need he has.
This version of Stepford is the most menacing: once the women have borne children, there is no need for their human aspects. The “Men’s Association” designs robots in the wives’ likeness (with some added ‘enhancements’ according to the men’s desires) and, once the robot is complete, the woman is murdered and replaced with the electronic servant. By the end of Forbes’ movie, every woman we sympathized with and related to is replaced by something that only looks like her. It’s a scathing statement that every man was willing to sacrifice the woman they married to create a perfect, doting servant. And, as a woman, I found that absolutely terrifying. What could be a worse betrayal than having the person who committed to love you forever actively seek to replace you—permanently?
Five years later they made Revenge of the Stepford Wives for television. A female reporter travels to Stepford to do a piece on the safest town in America. There is virtually no crime rate, and nobody ever moves out. Within minutes of her arrival, an alarm goes off and every woman stops what she’s doing to take their “thyroid medication”. It’s basically the same story, except this time they don’t go for the permanent fix of murder and instead drug them women into submission. Yet when the medication doesn’t work properly the women behave like malfunctioning robots. How can simple psychotropic drugs have this kind of reaction? It’s never addressed, let alone the question of how the drugs can alter their personalities beyond what is inborn in their psyches. In the end, she tweaks the alarms so the women overdose on the medication, wake up to what has happened to them and murder the man behind their changes.
The lack of irreversible change by murder really lessens the horror of their situation. Combine that with poor writing (the reporter doesn’t immediately become alarmed when every woman in Stepford is said to have a thyroid condition and must take the medication at city-required times), and it’s so bad it’s not even laughable.
Seven years later comes another made-for-television travesty called The Stepford Children. The men, stepping things up a notch, replace not only their wives but their kids as well. They’ve gone back to the old murder/robot combination. At least, supposedly they have. During the climax, the new wife in town breaks into the Men’s Association to figure out why her daughter was switched with a robot, and finds her tied up in the basement. There is no reason for them to keep here there after her replacement, other than to provide fodder for a happy ending. Yes, the new wife is able to escape unreplaced with her kids, while the town’s men continue to replace their family with animatronics.
The climax isn’t the only part with plot holes. A big deal is made about how the schools are world-class with the best teachers brought in from across the nation. None of them are alarmed with an entire city of non-rebellious teenagers? None wonder why a single student doesn’t have a learning disability? Or why none of them grow or age from year to year? Or do they, in which case, I have to ask how the hell they can pull that off with robots? The kids who’ve graduated and gone on to college, doesn’t anyone at Yale or Harvard notice something weird? As in Revenge, none of these plot holes are addressed in Stepford Children. It’s like they weren’t even trying, and if they can’t try to write a decent story, I sure as Hell don’t want to try and sit through it (except when I have to for this column. I do this so you don’t have to. You can thank me later).
They’ve Stepford-ized the wives, the children…you know what comes next. Yep, nine years later came the TV movie of The Stepford Husbands. You know it had to happen. It’s as if the three movies before never happened, and Stepford was always made up of overbearing women who turn their husbands into obedient zombies using a combination of “uppers, downers and steroids”. Right there you have science fail (if that worked, half of all college football players would be Stepford Frat Boys). The new wife in town (played by Donna Mills) is married to a bull-headed, mean-spirited failed writer. Her friends in town pity her so Cindy Williams (yes, that Shirley Feeney Cindy Williams) puts Angel Dust in his drink at a party. He freaks out, gets sent to the Stepford Mental Hospital, where they hook him onto this drug cocktail to make him a doting-obsessed mindless husband. Can Ms. Mills figure out what happened to her husband before he overdoses on the drug cocktail and flips out on her?
The medication fail is not the biggest fail of this movie. You don’t get that menacing betrayal of the first three movies when the person doesn’t even know that their spouse has been changed. Instead, you get a cast of women who are overbearing and single-minded and a cast of men who are bull-headed jerks. There really isn’t a side to root for, and no one to get worried for if they get changed. I was bored during this one. So bored, in fact, I was fighting to stay awake for the last third.
They took care of the wives, the children, the husbands. One would think that, outside the Stepford Pets, they’ve taken care of it all. They did…and they still made one more. Eight years after Husbands, Frank Oz remade Stepford Wives, this time as a comedy/horror spoof…ish. Yes, there are moments it tried to be scary, times it tried to be hilarious. And it failed at both.
I wanted to like this movie. I really did. It’s Frank Oz, after all! He was Bert, Yoda and Miss Piggy! This man was a wonderfully integral part of my growing up, and I’m guessing that’s why he was able to convince so many great actors to be a part of this film. Christopher Walken is the man in charge of “changing” the women, his wife is Glenn Close. Bette Midler is the crazy friend. Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick are the new couple in town, her just being released from a mental hospital for shock therapy after being fired from her job as a network president. She makes friends with the token Jew (Midler) and token gay couple, watching in horror at the other wives who are so beyond domesticated.
With this version, it’s difficult to tell just what happens to the women. Walken states the women have microchips implanted in their brains so they can be commanded by remote control. And they are quickly back to their pre-change selves with the push of a button. But they also could be robots, as seem with one man who not only had his wife changed, but also made her an ATM, dispensing cash through her mouth. At the climax, when the Kidman character is about to be sent to have the microchips implanted, she meets her mannequin replacement. Wait…what? It’s like Oz couldn’t decide which change method would be more effective so he didn’t make a concrete choice.
The writing was horrible as well. The most well-drawn out characters are two-dimensional stereotypes. They are either obnoxiously flawed beyond recognition or pristinely perfect to the point of cartoonish. And what makes it worse is that it could have been great. There was a fantastic cast assembled for this travesty. I had to pause the movie after Walken told the Kidman character, “While you were trying to become men, we were becoming gods.” That is one fantastic line, and it it’s a thought that could have been wonderfully developed into a movie whether they wanted it to be humor or horror. Instead, this line is wasted and the movie continues along as its poorly thought out self.
After watching all these movies, they struck me as the perfect example of what is wrong with most sequels and remakes. All too often, the following flicks are not nearly as well thought out as the original, and remakes seem to lose sight of what it was that made the original work. The Stepford series starts out as a moody, terrifying flick about the ultimate betrayal, and by the end of the series it has become a sloppy mess that is neither successful satire nor effective frights, but simply a lazy flick looking to cash in on the famous name. That, to me, is a travesty. In fact, anyone who makes a lesser product to simply cash in on the name of the original should be forced to do highway trash pickup for three hours. Just my thought.
WHERE TO FIND THE MOVIES: Both the original and remake of The Stepford Wives are readily available on DVD and can be found on the used market for less than five bucks.
Revenge of the Stepford Wives and Stepford Husbands are both on VHS only, and will run you between ten and fifteen bucks on the secondary market.
The Stepford Children is supposedly on VHS, but I have been unable to confirm its existence. But some kind person (or sadist, I haven’t yet decided) uploaded the entire thing onto YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEhiVogSANE