A ‘Stepford wife’ of a remake

Frank Oz's new version of the 70s feminist-thriller flick is a lobotomised clone.

Neil Davenport

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Even before Frank Oz’s remake of The Stepford Wives hit the big screen, reports circulating from Hollywood suggested the imminent arrival of an overcooked turkey.

Last-minute scenes were hastily being shot to prevent disaster. The film went through countless re-edits to salvage the mess. The behind-the-scenes shenanigans didn’t bode well either. Nicole Kidman was apparently non-plussed at starring alongside goofy Matthew Broderick, instead of the promised John Cusack, and merely phoned in her performance. Either that or the divine Ms Kidman sensed that this sloppy remake only deserves a look of stunned disbelief.

Leaving aside the sheer pointlessness in remaking established films, why did Frank Oz backfire so spectacularly when updating The Stepford Wives? And is it really the case, as many film critics mutter, that Bryan Forbes’ 1975 original was a bad film anyway?

The acres of interest generated by Oz’s remake actually suggests the opposite. While arguably a low-key film, the fact that ‘a Stepford wife’ has passed into our vernacular shows how the original seeped into public consciousness. Based on Ira Levin’s novel, a smart liberal family from New York decides to move to ‘nice’ suburban Stepford. Very soon feisty Joanna Eberhard (played emphatically by Katherine Ross in the original) sees that something is horribly wrong – nearly all the women talk and act like domestic automatons. Newly arrived Stepford females eventually succumb to the joys of baking cupcakes. Is it something in the water?

The narrative was a feminist satire on Western societies’ demeaning expectations of women. Turning them into subservient robots, Levin seems to say, is surely the next logical step. While the pretext is about as subtle as a tabloid sex scandal, it also proved genuinely creepy and unsettling. The men of Stepford apparently love their wives, but they also conspire to have them killed and replaced with mechanised Barbie dolls. The closing shot of cloned Joanna walking zombie-like towards the lens, with her breasts enlarged and her humanity deflated, is unforgettably chilling. And never have the innocuous words ‘Hi Bobbie, how are you?’ sounded so malign.

There’s no such nerve-jangling tension with Oz’s remake. Instead he plays it for laughs, as perky one-liners replace probing dialogue. There isn’t even a line here as memorable as ‘I always like to see women doing little domestic chores’. Even worse, Oz’s idea of comedy has all the range of a French and Saunders sketch. Some critics argue that Kidman can’t ‘do’ comedy (though her performances in To Die For and even Birthday Girl suggest otherwise), but it’s Oz who is found wanting.

Nevertheless, overhauling aspects of the original was definitely required. With conservative family values no longer carrying any social weight, it would be difficult to satirise something that’s now seen as ludicrous. The trouble is, Oz also sneers at the original’s seriousness and sense of purpose. The remake is caked in the contemporary mores of camp, kitsch and irony.

Elsewhere, there are revisions on the original characters (and a new lamentable ending) too. Kidman’s Joanna Eberhard becomes a high-flying TV executive who has a nervous breakdown after a reality TV show goes wrong (though how a move to Stepford should prove therapeutic is never properly explained). There’s a gay Republican couple newly moved to Stepford just to prove that the suburb is, hey, socially inclusive. Such changes, although needed, only prove what a doomed project this remake would be in any director’s hands.

America’s landscape has changed so much in the past 30 years that the original’s capacity to shock and surprise couldn’t be replicated. For example, in Bryan Forbes’ film, Joanna sets up a coffee morning with the Stepford wives in the hope of discussing politics, but they only become animated when somebody brings up shopping and personal grooming. Today, such a scenario is the norm rather than the exception. Stepford’s obsession with looks over books doesn’t appear quite so strange now.

It was always notable that the Eberhard family had moved from Manhattan. Back in the 1970s, the distance in outlook and attitude between New York and the suburbs had never been greater. Go back and watch Midnight Cowboy or Klute – New York clearly wasn’t a place for the fainthearted and narrow-minded. In the original, Joanna can’t believe that her husband enjoys the company of fusty conservatives. As she puts it: ‘In New York you’d have never given those bores a second glance.’ The Stepford Wives original was as much a rebuttal of suburban banality and conformity as it was a feminist rallying cry.

This also creates problems for a contemporary remake. In Stepford nobody gets drunk or smokes in public – but neither do they in today’s Manhattan, either. In Stepford there is a social etiquette governing what can and cannot be said; it’s doubtful whether Manhattan social circles are much different. In the penultimate episode of Sex and the City, a brash veteran from New York’s Studio 54 nightclub days is told to keep the caustic quips and the fag ash at bay. ‘Jesus Christ, what kind of party is this anyway?’, hollers the disgruntled reveller. It seems that you don’t have to move down Stepford way for a quieter life after all.

Frank Oz’s remake should act as a cautionary tale on updating a much-loved classic. It lacks the guts, the intelligence and the sinister edge that makes the original so compelling. What we’re left with is a lobotomised clone that’s certainly glossier, eager-to-please but very, very dim. It’s a ‘Stepford wife’ of The Stepford Wives.

Neil Davenport is a contributor to Uncut magazine and a sociology lecturer.

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