It's just too good to be true

The Stepford Wives has been remade as a comedy. But, says Bob Guccione Jnr, it still savages the American dream
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The Independent Culture

Last year, Angelina Jolie announced that she hadn't had sex for two years. Recently, Halle Berry revealed on the massively popular Oprah Winfrey Show that she needed a sperm donor. After two failed marriages, she has given up hope of meeting her Prince Charming, and if she isn't in a significant relationship within the next couple of years, she'll take anyone willing to impregnate her. For all her fame, money and desirability, she wants us to know she can't find a man.

Last year, Angelina Jolie announced that she hadn't had sex for two years. Recently, Halle Berry revealed on the massively popular Oprah Winfrey Show that she needed a sperm donor. After two failed marriages, she has given up hope of meeting her Prince Charming, and if she isn't in a significant relationship within the next couple of years, she'll take anyone willing to impregnate her. For all her fame, money and desirability, she wants us to know she can't find a man.

In America, the ludicrous protestations of some of the world's most beautiful women that they practically have to beg someone to sleep with them are accepted at face value. In Italy, if Monica Bellucci said to herself, in the privacy of her home, that she found it difficult to meet men, within hours the countryside would darken with the approaching swarm of them, from adolescents to grandfathers, drawn by the magnet of the possibility of sex with her. But the US embraces the myth of the perfect, unreachable woman, the princess trapped in a tower of her beauty and ambition. Such turrets dot the hills of the American imagination, their sad prisoners an exotic species of Angelinas, Halles, Nicole Kidmans and Uma Thurmans, presumed to be too beautiful, smart, strong and successful ever to find true love.

In America, we quixotically prize romantic failure as a virtue, particularly in our unattainable women, whom we collectively fetishise, draining their beings of real humanity and filling their emptied vessels with a fluid of what we, by consensus, want them to be.

Which is not entirely unlike what happens in The Stepford Wives. The movie, starring Nicole Kidman, is a remake of a 1975 horror film. The original was not a box-office hit, but time has kindly softened it into a camp, cult film and established its title as synonymous with docile, unchallenging women. In this new version, the problem faced by Kidman's character, Joanna Eberhard, is not finding a man, but finding one who won't turn her into a robot. Fired from her uber-job as head of a TV network, she and her wimpy, afterthought husband, Walter, leave New York and move to Stepford, Connecticut, a seemingly idyllic, gated, suburban community. Besides getting away from the scene of their mutual career-shame - Walter worked at the same network and resigned in protest - the couple's intention is to decelerate their lives and recalibrate their marriage.

Almost as soon as their sensible luxury car comes to rest in the driveway of their new home, a small mansion, they begin to sense that the town may be a bit too idyllic. They go to sleep in an empty house and the next morning find it fully furnished and stocked, as if they had woken up in a Martha Stewart wet dream. At the local fair, the women of the town are dressed and act extraordinarily femininely, as if they had all stepped out of the same 1950s summer-clothing catalogue, and cheerily dote on their smug, unremarkable husbands. Later, in a spontaneous but eerily synchronised square dance, one of the wives spins wildly out of control, whirling around like a propeller that has come unhinged, crashing to the floor and banging her head, causing sparks to emanate from her neck. Sparks coming out of a person's neck are always a clue something's not quite right.

Subsequent scenes include a morning exercise class in which the same women are again dressed in bright, breezy print dresses and heels, with their hair and make-up perfect. When Joanna, suddenly seized by a sense of neighbourliness, suggests to two new friends that they visit the woman who banged her head at the square dance, they let themselves into her home when she doesn't answer the bell and hear her, obviously recovered, having incredible sex and shrieking in orgasm. In the middle of the day. With her husband.

Personally, I would have sensed something was wrong when the furniture arrived on time, but I'm like Sherlock Holmes compared with most people. By mid-movie, Joanna has seen enough to get her antennae tingling. Something's very wrong in Stepford, especially to Joanna's empire-running, uber-female sensibilities: the women are too perfect - in a retro, kitsch, long-forgotten-if-it-ever-really-existed male-ideal way. What Joanna has yet to realise is that the men of the town have, in collusion, murdered their wives and replaced them with exact replica robots, excising all the unpleasant traits and physical imperfections, custom-redesigning the bodies and reprogramming the transplanted brains to be obedient, mindless and sex- and housework-loving. Joanna has also missed the fact that her husband's easy assimilation into the ominous Men's Association, the male social hub of the town, their no-girls-allowed tree house, has been for the nefarious agenda of convincing him to go along with the group and put missy under the knife, so to speak. The spineless Walter, played convincingly by Matthew Broderick, and that's not a compliment, needs approximately two brandies and a cigar, and one and a half marital spats with his, in this case, categorically better half, to consider it seriously.

The remake has been reconstituted as something more agreeable to its master, the audience; it has become a comedy, and is a lot more fun and smart than most reviewers have given it credit for. It has also reawoken a debate that quickly gets ugly: does The Stepford Wives mirror the secret fantasy of the average American male, to have a robot for a wife, and is that fantasy really a nightmare? I suspect the answer to both is yes, but the movie has an overlay of political correctness to ensure that all the wretched males who actually might want that scenario can't miss the horror.

This is a uniquely American film. Wonderfully though the French and Italians make adult relationship movies, they couldn't have made this one. It comes from a sexual-moral conflict that no one except perhaps the Taliban shares: the desire for better, more exciting sex and a more comfortable attitude to sexual relationships, and the ingrained guilt that such pleasure must be a sin.

The original Stepford Wives, produced and released in the mid-Seventies, at the foothills of feminism, had a chilling air of menace about it. Ghoulish enough as fiction - women murdered and replaced so meticulously that no one noticed - it was truly insidious as social commentary, hinting at a not-so-good-natured reaction to the women's movement building up what were, in the context of those times, unnerving amounts of steam. Disguised as a whimsical longing for a gentler, simpler, more hierarchical time, when men worked and women ran the home, The Stepford Wives was also a dark warning of what just might happen if the ladies got too carried away with this so-called women's liberation movement.

In the first movie, Joanna wants to become a photographer when she and Walter flee New York. In 1975, a woman wanting to be a photographer was threatening enough to panic men to murder. By 2004, it takes a woman running an entire TV network to be intimidating. That's social inflation. In the early Seventies, women's business suits didn't exist: the designer Peter Nygaard made a fortune inventing the category.

In the nearly three decades between the two versions of The Stepford Wives, the world did change exactly as the chauvinists feared, but progress required bloody battles. Women pioneers in the executive ranks of business were regarded with the same scorn, hostility and distrust as the brave women of the Suffragette movement nearly a century earlier. Women striving for equality in the last quarter of the 20th century were abused, humiliated, thwarted, violated and cheated, but they eventually prevailed and have now achieved an end to institutional discrimination and near-parity economically. In fact, the most improbable aspect of the current Stepford Wives is that there could exist, anywhere in America in 2004, a men-only club that women were forbidden to enter.

It's ironic that Kidman's Stepford Wives was released on the day America's last great mythic man, Ronald Reagan, was interred. That, presumably, was not planned. Because America has no deep-rooted mythology, it constantly manufactures it. TV bathes living-rooms across the nation in the cathode light of instant myth. TV itself is a force as omnipotent and worshipped as any Greek god, revered because it facilitates America's narcissistic obsession with defining itself as it wants to be seen. When Reagan died, there was no public discourse about his obvious, and in some cases great, flaws - which would actually have truly honoured the man, by recognising him as a whole one. Instead, there was just a synthetic reconstitution of his image. Reagan led a complex and historic life, but we buried an illusion: the macho cowboy, reared on - and proud standard-bearer of - Midwestern values; charismatic actor; principled politician; unflagging man of God; virtuous husband and father; slayer of the dragon of Communism. For the pageantry of the funeral and self-glorification of the country, we murdered a real, imperfect legacy and replaced it with a perfect but artificial myth. We buried a Stepford man.

Ultimately, The Stepford Wives is a movie about myths, stillborn in the womb of our national insecurity. The myth of suburbia as sanctuary is one; the myth that any sober man's fantasy woman is the vamped-up, mindless sex doll is another. But the biggest myth is that this sort of dynamic exists only in the movies. The real nightmare is a waking one, and the horrific truth is that the Stepford Wife is not a man's ideal, but a woman's. When Ira Levin's novel from which both movies were made stepped out of its time machine in 2004, the bra-burnings and consciousness-raising groups of the dawn of the women's movement were long gone. Today's American women covet bras from Victoria's Secret, have Frankensteinian cosmetic surgery to enhance their sex appeal and strive to be more domestic, logging countless hours watching the Food Network and home-improvement shows, and consuming millions of copies of Martha Stewart publications and Budget Living magazine.

And currently one of America's most successful TV programmes, the final episode of which was watched by nearly 30 million people, is the disturbing The Swan, in which 16 plain-looking women were willingly surgically reconstructed into more conventionally beautiful, desirable women. Hauntingly, they all came out looking more or less the same. Exactly like real-life Stepford Wives.

As is often the case when America gets self-righteous and indignant about something, it can be comically oblivious at the same time. While a reflexive feminist rancour tore briefly across editorial pages of America's newspapers, railing against resurrecting a half-century-old notion of women, it was completely missed that Paramount, the film's producers, had created a website where women could e-mail photographs of themselves and see their images transformed into presumably improved Stepford Wives, a stroke of promotional genius that digitally leapfrogged the usual incubation period it takes for a movie to become a theme-park attraction.

The ultimate myth in The Stepford Wives is a classic: the eternal search for the fountain of youth. In the morality play of the movie, everyone comes to realise, some at the expense of their lives, the painful truth - that it doesn't exist. A lot of real people are still looking.

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