Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Stepford Wives

I first read Ira Levin's legendary The Stepford Wives when staying with friends - it was on the bookshelf in my bedroom and I devoured it one night before going to sleep (it's a pretty short book). I loved the story, the essence of which is so well known as not to need repeating here at length, save to say that a youngish couple relocate to apparently tranquil Stepford and find that the local  womenfolk are mysteriously subservient to the men. The story was a distant influence on one of the first short stories I ever published in the early 90s. Yet oddly enough I'd never watched the 1975 film all the way through until very recently. (The various sequels to the movie, and the 2004 remake are, according to reviews, best left unbroached.)

Levin was a gifted writer,with a flair for both plot and the evocation of atmosphere, but The Stepford Wives can also be seen as a satire. Not easy to write a book like that, but he managed it with aplomb. The film, with a script by William Goldman, lacks some of the subtlety of the source, but is still very watchable. I've read that Goldman was frustrated that the director, Bryan Forbes, wanted to cast his wife Nanette Newman as one of the wives. Goldman felt that, although Newman is a perfectly good actor, she didn't really fit the Stepford template, and I have to agree. But Forbes prevailed.

The lead role is taken by Katharine Ross, who is perhaps best known as Etta from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which Goldman also scripted.) Ross, a charismatic and beautiful woman, was ideal for the role, and I find it strange that, after those two fine movies, her career did not progress quite as one would have expected.

The men in the film are uniformly unpleasant (inevitable, given the subject matter of the story) and I can't remember Peter Masterson, who plays Ross's husband - a selfish lawyer (oh dear, yet another one!) - from any other film. He does a competent job, but the film belongs to Ross, and the scene where she comes face to face with her nemesis is genuinely chilling. By today's standards, the film is somewhat lacking in pace, but it remains very entertaining, and a fitting realisation of a brilliant idea from a brilliant writer.

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