Film Studies: The real reason for remaking 'The Stepford Wives'

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The opening of the new version of The Stepford Wives is not just promising, it's brilliant. Alas, 15 minutes into the picture, you are slumped in the realisation that it will never regain its first mischievous energy. Indeed, it only employed that opening in order to get Nicole Kidman to Stepford. Still, let's revel in the dark glee that has Kidman (as Joanna Eberhardt) in a man's haircut and a chic-shabby dress, as the head of programming at the most successful television network in the last five years. Moreover, the affiliates' meeting she is addressing knows that their success comes from the "reality" programming outrages she has dreamed up for them.

The opening of the new version of The Stepford Wives is not just promising, it's brilliant. Alas, 15 minutes into the picture, you are slumped in the realisation that it will never regain its first mischievous energy. Indeed, it only employed that opening in order to get Nicole Kidman to Stepford. Still, let's revel in the dark glee that has Kidman (as Joanna Eberhardt) in a man's haircut and a chic-shabby dress, as the head of programming at the most successful television network in the last five years. Moreover, the affiliates' meeting she is addressing knows that their success comes from the "reality" programming outrages she has dreamed up for them.

Part of the zing here is simply that someone has called Kidman in from cold mountain hardship and told her to be naughty. Whatever you think of this modern star, her aptitude for laughter is as exciting as it is overlooked. The film that really launched her as a movie star (rather than a consort) was To Die For, where, ironically (or not) she was a small-town provincial slut murderous in the resolve to get on television and be a personality. It was in that film that the greedy-eyed kid beauty was first told to look into the camera and let wickedness come to the top like cream. It worked, and it works here, for 10 minutes or so.

The affiliates' meeting is a barnstormer with extracts from some of Joanna's hit shows. One of these, I Can Do Better, puts real-life married couples on a desert island in the pliant company of many prostitutes. In the extract we see the nerdy guy has simply shared a hot tub with a Gauguin beauty, but his dowdy wife has got her rocks off and she has no doubt about staying on the island with her studs. Whereupon, discarded hubby breaks into the affiliates meeting with a new game plan, "Kill all the women!". It turns out he's run amok, shot up his family and landed the network with huge damages. And so it is, we are asked to believe, that Joanna is fired.

Of course, in this merry, cruel world, this is hogwash: the ratings for the court trial would be humungous, and in a real corporation Joanna would be promoted, not given the boot.

But the fun is over, and as if to prove it we now discover that Joanna is married to Matthew Broderick. Mr Broderick is a likeable kid (of 42), towered over by Kidman not just in inches, but in comic speed and a sense of satire. Of course, as Joanna goes into her breakdown (and Kidman is stunning in the moment of being fired), he decides that they and the two kids (who are present yet entirely absent in terms of any interest) will go to live in Stepford, Connecticut.

It was in 1972 that Ira Levin published his short but scary novel, The Stepford Wives, and there's no doubt that it has placed the town and its sexual engineering in popular culture. In Stepford, you see, wives are turned into machines of domestic service, uncritical adoration, and endless sexual comfort. They are the popular stereotype of the Fifties in appearance, but in their warning they were a battle-cry in the age of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.

The best-seller produced a very strange movie in 1975 (directed by Britain's Bryan Forbes and co-written by William Goldman) in which Katharine Ross (the doe-eyed Barbie from The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) played the lead, though without the benefit of Joanna's TV glory as summoned up for this film by the new screenwriter, Paul Rudnick. The first Stepford Wives wasn't a good film, but it has a reputation just because the novel had become a classic talking point, and I think because Ms Ross seemed oddly ambivalent (she was dutiful as a resistant heroine, yet already on screen Ross had earned her place as being just a cool, "modern" version of the dream girl, subservient to every male wish). And in 1975, I'd say, the majority of men in the western world were still very uncomfortable with the thrust of feminism. In other words, The Stepford Wives played well enough then because you felt the picture pulling married couples in opposite directions.

Like the novel, the first movie ended in a sinister mode, with Joanna having her body snatched and re-cast to suit the male ideal. (By the way, I discover in research that the first picture was delayed three years in opening in Britain. Was that because the plot was reckoned to be so subversive?) In the new movie, as in most movies nowadays, we have to endure the problem being solved. It makes one very nostalgic for pictures that knew there were insoluble problems, but which carried on regardless.

Thus the best comparison between this modern re-make travesty and the Seventies is not with the first Stepford Wives, but with Network, that stupendous and pungent satire from 1976, directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky, a writer who knew - and relished - the way we were the source of all our problems. That's the movie where Faye Dunaway won an Oscar as the rapacious and very knowing television executive who comes up with the idea of outrageous "reality" programmes. (It really is a film to see again.)

The new Stepford Wives should have stayed with television production, I think. And not just because that would have allowed Kidman to run with the idea of a programme executive who has sex with her ratings not her husband, but because on television today you can see most clearly the terrible hostility between the sexes that still burns and which is the only reason for remaking the film. As a business (more than movies), TV does promote women to the highest levels, in part because it acts on the statistical given - that women are the determining force in the audience. And in today's reality shows women are amazons, tri-athletes, survivors and champions - yet at the same time they are bikini meat spread out for male inspection, and that strange mixture of desire and loathing that exists post-feminism.

Suppose Kidman's Joanna came up with the idea for a new series, Let's Kill All The Women, a premise that might really dig into repressed male malevolence. Surely we could count on Joanna to do it with taste and flavour, and then surely it's within the wit of screenwriters to find a format that dovetails sweetly with all those rich, profitable genres in which women are terrorised, stalked and slashed. Suppose Joanna could fashion a show - all in fun, of course - in which hubbies had the fantasy thrill of murdering their own wives! I think you can see Kidman's feline grin presiding over it, and imagine the terrible domestic arguments once the show is over. In 1977, Network let us gaze with fresh horror at our TV and ourselves. That's what fierce sexual/marital comedy still needs.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'The Stepford Wives' is released on 30 July

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