A film studies professor once told me that everything you need to know about a movie is revealed in the first five minutes. This is particularly true of The Stepford Wives.
In the opening scene of Bryan Forbes's 1975 original, Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) takes a long, scrutinizing look at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her reaction is one of mild surprise, then subtle resignation, as if she's thinking, That's me?…Oh, well. She appears wistful and introspective as she walks around the silent Manhattan apartment that has been emptied for her family's move to the suburbs. Compare this to the start of Frank Oz's 2004 version: Joanna (Nicole Kidman), a powerhouse network executive, struts like a supermodel up to a podium, delivers a self-congratulatory speech, and previews the coming season's reality shows to a huge industry crowd. The mood is loud, flashy, and in-your-face. The difference between the two scenes is night and day, and therein, as my professor foretold, is everything we need to know.
In the early '70s, people actually used the term “women's lib” freely and earnestly. These days, we're told there's no need for it—we've been liberated, right?—and the phrase seems as quaint as a belted maxipad. Times have changed, and to watch the Stepford Wives remake is to be repeatedly hit over the head with this fact. From good-natured pokes at rampant antidepressant use, omni-corporations, overindulged children, and obsession with physical appearance, we're made painfully aware that this movie wants to be now, hot, and self-aware.
In both films, Joanna moves to the town of Stepford reluctantly, at her husband's behest. And in getting to know the new community, she senses that something's not right with its cheerful, perfect citizens—particularly the women, most of whom are obsessed with cleaning, shopping, and pleasing their men. Joanna and her sidekick, Bobbie, begin to suspect that the shadowy Stepford Men's Association—into which Joanna's husband is promptly inducted—is behind the alien perfection of the town's women.
Stepford's horrible secret has changed slightly between 1975 and 2004: In the original, the men of Stepford are killing off their imperfect wives and replacing them with sunny, pliable automatons. In the remake, they're digitally lobotomizing their spouses into sunny, pliable automatons. And in the remake, Joanna learns (through an internet search, natch) that all the perky, apron-sporting wives were once successful execs, just like her. The suggestion is that they all got a little too successful, so their husbands were compelled to take them down about a thousand pegs. Off to Stepford they went—to live life, as Joanna's cigar-smoking husband, Walter (Matthew Broderick), says, “the way it was meant to be.” (These men presumably supported their wives on the way up, so why they changed their tune is never made clear.)
The biggest difference between the original and the remake is that the latter is a comedy (written by veteran filmic funnyman Paul Rudnick) and the former a thriller. The original played on the still-present fears of what feminism means for both women and men; the remake almost demands that we don't think too deeply about its significance. The thing is, feminism—unlike other “trends” of the '60s and '70s—never disappeared only to return as camp, like, say, the fondue pot did. The fear of women's economic and social power also never went away, and the remake's attempt to distance itself from something that's neither vintage nor remote raises the question of what, exactly, we were meant to find relevant about it. A quick tour of Stepford, then and now, may provide a few answers.