Taking the time to watch The Stepford Wives (1975) tells me fire sure that it’s far superior to the 2004 comedy remake really pales in comparison, the feminist bite that I found here is watered down substantially. The original even just on the surface is darker and sinister. I’m not going to compare the too, I just don’t see the need really when the original’s packed full of ideas, which I’m going to explore. I will however start by comparing this sci-fi paranoia with Westworld (1973), the amusement park populated with android hosts who are at the beck and call of the human guests whim, be them violent, sexual or anything in between. The idea of the android being used for human pleasure was only scratching the surface of how far it could be explored. Of course in the theme park a malfunction saw the robots take over and that was that until the poorly made sequels (that no-ones ever seen). In the theme park we acknowledge early on that these are not humans, in on the illusion, waiting for it to go horribly wrong. For new visitor Peter (Richard Benjamin) he is all too aware of the possible consequences of his actions, using and abusing these hosts who at least look human. He wont kill any of them, even when the safety features are in place. The illusion is all too real for him.
It’s the illusion that photographer, wife and mother Joanna (Katharine Ross) who moves with her lawyer husband from New York for a new life in the suburban town of Stepford. On the surface you have the idyllic American dream, the big house, the kids and if your lucky the perfect wife. Well most of the other residents do. All with perfect bodies and spotless houses, funny how they all live within a few miles of each other. This gated community living the dream. Joanna however starts to see cracks in the dream, with all the spare time on her hands she finds herself starting to go mad. For me I think part of that illusion and mystery is lost due to the knowledge of the remake which gives away the plot. It was about rediscovering how Joanna came to that which made the revisit worthwhile.
Leading up to that discovery she befriends recently moved in Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss) who shares the same concerns start to look at little closer at the wives of Stepford who would rather live the life of the ideal wife, keeping the house spotless, makes cakes and talk as if they were selling a household product. They are living adverts for the ideal married life… for the male anyway. Perfect in every-way for the husband to enjoy, having less to worry about at home, coming back from work to a clean house and a woman who worships him. Honestly every man does want that but ultimately that’s just a childhood fantasy. The generation depicted in the film, grew up in the 1940/50’s with stay at home mothers who only ventured out to get groceries and pick up the children. An image and ideal woman who according to Freud all men look for, their mothers, someone to compare to what is basically an impossible goal to reach. These boys who become men desire that in the women they meet. Who in-turn want the father in their husband – that’s if we are looking at a heterosexual relationship. In Stepford that ideal becomes a reality for the men who are rarely at home, either at work or the men’s club.
If in Westworld the desires of the guests; male or female are met, then in Stepford only the desires of the men are being catered for. Its a male dominated environment, that reflects reality of the time. The Women’s liberation/feminism was in full swing. Women fighting for an equal voice, to be taken seriously in a male dominated society. Looking back, how much has really changed since that time. I don’t think I am really qualified to give a definitive answer. I can say in short that there is still a way to go. The workplace has made progress, the depiction of women in film and TV has improved if only slightly. Print and digital media is also slowly catching up. Its about keeping the ideas alive and fighting for what is basically equal rights, respect and representation in society as new generations grow up.
Stepford Wives is full of fear, the fear of unknown if women were allowed to be free thinking, independent people, free to act, work and dress as they please without fear of being objectified, ignore and treated less than their male counterparts in life. The ideal, yet softened feminist for the screen. Both Bobbie and Joanna represent women who can think for themselves, have a laugh and see the town for what it is. They become fixated with the wives who they can’t really hold an intelligent conversation with. We see one wife Carol (Nanette Newman) whose clearly a recovering alcoholic malfunction, or so we are lead to believe, her reaction is more robotic, there’s nothing human about her beyond her form. Her presence is rather sinister, perfect hair and body, she has achieved the ideal that adverts and the media promote, and so have all the other wives. Joanna and Bobbie then encounter Charmaine (Tina Louise) who comes with her own marital problems. Then a few weeks later a trip away and she’s transformed into a new woman, blossoming almost, yet under the facade is another shallow obedient wife.
I’m reminded of The Simpsons episode Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy the fictional Barbie doll complete with pull-string that allows her to talk. Playing archaic female stereotypes that are being fed to young impressionable girls. Lisa takes it upon herself to design and sell her own doll with her own independent thinking and sayings. The little girl playing the giant toy company at their own game. Only to come back with the same doll, this time wearing a hat. Showing how easy it is to sell to children and how little they really care about the impact they have in their development. The men of Stepford are the same really, taking the women they met, and improving in their desire image, having overall control over their wive. The men are once again in charge. Leaving all the women subservient, quiet and of little hassle to them.
It’s in this fictional American town there’s the illusion of hope for the men, restoring order to things so they can go about their lives not needing to progress socially, science has caught up enough to allow them to turn the clock back on the women who’ve been fighting them since the 1960’s. Feminism has no place here, its fought and won with male ingenuity and science – and because they can. It’s that easy in science fiction to solve a social problem with technology, now just wait until it malfunctions.
On reflections Stepford Wives is a very dark film, drip feeding to you the suggestion that something is wrong, socially critiquing a small town in suburban New York state. We see independent women being stripped of all they have fought for, rewinding the clock to the 1950’s. There’s no hope for any of them here in the cinematic world, filmed like a cheap TV movie the ideas are even sharper because you don’t expect to find them. Even passing the Bechdel test too with flying colours which is even rarer for it’s time. A film that looks dated on the surface with razor sharp contemporary ideas, now when is it being rereleased?
When I first heard about The Homesman (2014) I was actually excited about it, then the more I heard I became more cautious towards this western (or not if you ask Tommy Lee Jones) as I read the reviews hoping that it could be better. Rare as it is to find a solid Western that’s not a quasi something-or-other instead. We are getting a few this year but it’s not like the 1950’s when you couldn’t move for them. With this latest outing into 19th century America we have a feminist focus to the film, which is quite rare, which I can see where the Unforgiven (1992) comparisons made and finished. The DVD tries to sell it to me this is the best film since Eastwood’s last Western masterpiece and he made a few of them. This is not a masterpiece. I can find a number of flaws with this film which does have good intentions.
As Western lore would have it the male takes the lead out on the frontier, it’s just how the dime-novels and cinema have written it. There have been strong women out there, one being Mrs Jorgensen (Olive Carey from The Searchers (1956), however they are hard to come by and usually there as a thorn in the side of the men. We also have Meek’s Cutoff (2010) where the women have to take charge as they survive out on the trail. Progress is being made but very slowly after 120 years of male dominance we now have Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) living the life alone on the frontier. Youth is not on her side, society is looking down upon her. A spinster is the life she has assumed as we find out early on as she tries to get married. You feel sorry for her, after all the effort she goes to, in the hopes of getting her a man. She just doesn’t know how to, which lets her down. Played with great strength by Swank who bring a lot to the role. Assuming the male duties in life, she has to be a strong Christian character.
Which leads into the tone of the film which is quite strong for the most part, similar to that of True Grit (2010) using a richer language of the time. You are more immersed in the world for it. It’s a shame the set-design lets it down, all the buildings a well crafted and made, however they look just that well made, there’s no sense of time or ageing to them. As if they opening up a flat-pack box, assembled them before the finishing touches (or lack of) which for me is distracting against the landscape that really shimmers. You really are out there in the mid-west.
I mentioned earlier about the feminist leanings of the film which are refreshing, taking on both mental illness and the social position that a woman must or chooses to take in society. It doesn’t even have to be just about America, more the western world. The idea of knowing your place in the worlds being blurred and questioned. Should a woman be a stay at home mum, or out there in the workplace being a success among the men. Should they be judged for that, all encompassed in Bee Cuddy living alone on her homestead and farm, She is more than a match for most women and is respected by men alike, not feared. Maybe part of that is down to the source material by Glendon Swarthout who allegories these ideas. Whilst mental illness is not treated as burden but as an illness that needs proper treatment, radical thinking for the 19th century. Seen in three women who are plagued with various disorders. Although these women Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) are secondary characters they do have ample screen time. We get to understand their suffering whilst the main relationship is going on.
I’ve not even mentioned Tommy Lee Jones yet the director, screenwriter, produces and stars as George Briggs a man who we find being run out of his home and left for dead, seems pretty standard out in the Wild West. Saved by Bee Cuddy who takes pity on him, asking in return he helps on her journey across the Missouri River with 3 women who have “lost their minds” in hopes that they can be properly looked after. So this is a wagon trip, a lone trip with a man and 4 women. This is his way of saying thank you for being saved (or pushed into it). Briggs is a curmudgeonly guy who reluctantly takes up the job, faced with a tattered reputation. He is the brain of the outfit in terms of survival, he knows the wilderness better than Bee Cuddy who is more focused on the caring, her Christian duty to the suffering women.
It’s a real learning curve for Bee Cuddy who becomes more worldly, there’s a scene where we hear screaming from the wagon, she stops to go around to the back to shout at one of the women to stop screaming. One of the symptoms of certain conditions that she or no-one else fully understands. Her limits are being pushed, her faiths questioned on this journey. And then we hit a bump in the road, when we go back to her loneliness, asking for Briggs to marry her, which you don’t really see coming (well kind of). We see she wants a man in her life, even going further yo be with him. It’s handled sensitively until out of nowhere she’s written out. Leaving me with frustration, asking why did you do that. Why can’t we see her reach the end of the journey that she took up, it as her choice. Now its left up to Briggs (reluctantly again) to complete the journey. Not before a pointless stop at a hotel where we find owner Aloysius Duffy (James Spader) unwelcoming. It’s a real tangent that serves little purpose, unless its to say that not all of society is welcoming/understanding to mental illness. I would accept this if there were more random scenes, more offbeat like The Missouri Breaks (1976). It’s not though, and after the death of Bee Cuddy which I’m still trying to understand.
We do return on course (just about) to see the ladies into the care of Altha Carter (Meryl Streep) who is turning up in everything at the moment. Theres time for reflection now as Briggs comes to terms with what has just happened. It feels a bit wishy-washy for me, as he tries to mythologise Bee Cuddy to a girl who cares less. He does become more caring after the journey, so he has grown, yet remains the same as we leave him on a river barge. Left wondering why, why, why did that final act happen as it did. Is this a western, yes and no, it has the language, but not the real form to be a solid western? It does take place in that era, there is moment but not enough as we Jones is using the genre more as a period in history to explore two ideas both from the female perspective, which is rare today.