Supermarkets have never been so scary. With The Stepford Wives, director Bryan Forbes crafted a thriller in bright suburban sunlight, where modern-minded 1975 women are replaced by soulless androids who will just die if they don’t get this recipe. Four decades later, the film stands as a creepy gender study that cleverly explored women’s role in the home and turned “Stepford wife” into a household phrase. “It has passed into the language,” says Nanette Newman, who starred as the eerily cheery Carol Van Sant and was married to Forbes until his death in 2013. “A Stepford wife epitomizes somebody who is perfectly made up, looks perfect, and presents a very perfect facade.”
Based on the 1972 novel by Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby), The Stepford Wives follows Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross), a New York City photographer whose husband, Walter (Peter Masterson), persuades her to move to Connecticut. There, they and their two children settle in the idyllic town of Stepford, which has an unnatural number of bland, smiling women in long skirts. (Masterson’s real-life daughter, Mary Stuart Masterson, made her film debut as Joanna and Walter’s 7-year-old.) Joanna and best friend Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss) grow suspicious as they watch new friends like Charmaine Wimpiris (Tina Louise) change personalities overnight, transforming into obedient male fantasies.
“It’s the first of the women’s-lib kind of movies,” Prentiss says. “It isn’t pounding you on the head. It’s doing it through horror and comedy, and that’s a good genre.”
Welcome to Stepford
Producer Edgar J. Scherick (The Heartbreak Kid) recruited Forbes to direct the screenplay by Oscar winner William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), and they soon set about finding their Joanna. It wasn’t easy: Jean Seberg (Breathless) was in the running but ultimately said no. Diane Keaton met with Forbes, but he later said she turned down the script because her analyst didn’t like it. And Tuesday Weld (Play It as It Lays) was actually cast but decided to drop out at the last minute. In the end, the role of the doomed heroine went to Katharine Ross, then best known for The Graduate and Goldman’s Butch Cassidy.
The film was shot on location in Connecticut, with towns like Darien and Fairfield standing in for the utopian Stepford. “A lot of horror movies are dark and gloomy and sinister, but this was a horror that was in sunlight with beautiful surroundings and beautiful people,” Newman says. “It made it so it lulled you along until it finally terrified you.”
Forbes came up with the signature Stepford style: Think Marilyn Monroe meets June Cleaver. “When Bill Goldman wrote the script, he said he intended for it to be a bunch of Playboy Bunnies,” Peter Masterson says. Instead, Forbes dressed Bobbie and Joanna in modern crop tops and short shorts, while the Stepford wives all wore pastels, long skirts, and lots of ruffles.
As seemingly the only two wives in Stepford without a spotless kitchen, Joanna and the wisecracking Bobbie strike up a fast friendship, and after observing their neighbors’ bizarre behavior and passion for cleaning supplies, the pair start investigating. “Little did I know that I was in for it,” Prentiss says with a laugh.
Coffe, tea, or me?
Before long, Bobbie herself falls victim, transforming overnight into a cheerful housewife who curls her hair, paints on the makeup, and meticulously scrubs her kitchen. Horrified by her friend’s metamorphosis, Joanna plans to leave her husband and Stepford, but before she can, she realizes her children are missing. Desperate to find them, she goes back to Bobbie’s, where she learns the terrifying truth: The members of the local men’s association have been killing their wives and supplanting them with high-tech, subservient robots. In the final-act scene where Joanna drives a knife into Bobbie’s stomach to see whether she bleeds, Ross couldn’t bring herself to deliver the lethal blow — Forbes had to do it for her.
“I remember that it was very hard for me, even though they had made this sort of Styrofoam midsection [for Prentiss],” Ross recalls. “It was very hard for me to stab, even something that wasn’t real. So that’s his hand on the knife that you see going in.”
Desperate and alone, Joanna realizes she must be next, so she goes to the men’s association to try to find her missing children and escape Stepford. After getting lost in the mazelike building, she comes face-to-face with her android doppelgänger — virtually identical to the real Joanna, except for her fuller breasts and vacant black eyes. Forbes and Ross discussed the best way to portray the almost finished robot, deciding that the last element to be added would be the most human: the eyes. Ross was fitted with custom black contact lenses that made her eyes water but gave her that dark, inhuman look.
“What they really wanted was for them to not look shiny, to look like these black holes,” Ross says. “With my eyes tearing, I don’t think it was possible for them to not look shiny. But it was still kind of spooky, wasn’t it?”
In the end, Joanna’s smiling double advances and strangles the real Joanna with a stocking. The actual murder takes place off screen, but there can be no doubt about what happened: When we next see Ross, she’s in the Stepford supermarket with all the other wives, walking about the store in fully automated mode. “Bryan chose to shoot it in an unreal way, so they were almost like a ballet moving in and out, up and down the aisle,” Newman says.
It’s a melancholy ending that finds almost every female character dead and replaced by a machine — and it proved deeply divisive. “If I had a chance to do it again, I would do the ending differently on my part,” Ross says. “I sort of end up giving up. I don’t fight at the very end, and I think I would fight harder.”
Backlash and legacy
The Stepford Wives did not find great critical or box office success, and initially, many second-wave feminists derided it as exploitative trash. A 1975 New York Times article described how Columbia Pictures invited feminist activists to a Stepford screening, only for them to meet the film with “hisses, groans, and guffaws.” Betty Friedan called it a “rip-off of the women’s movement” and then “stomped out of the screening room.”
“She was very upset about our movie,” Tina Louise says. “Very upset. She thought Ira Levin was saying that’s the way things should be, but he didn’t feel that way at all.” Neither did Forbes or the rest of the cast. “Bryan always used to say, ‘If anything, it’s anti-men!'” Newman recalls. “If the men are really stupid enough to want wives like that, then it’s sad for them. I thought the men were ridiculous to want to make women into servile creatures.”
The controversy reached such a fever pitch that one night after a screening of the film, Forbes was accosted by a woman wielding an umbrella. “I wasn’t there, but I remember him telling me, ‘My God, some madwoman attacked me with an umbrella and told me that I’m anti-women!'” Newman says.
The film clearly struck a nerve, one that fueled several made-for-TV sequels as well as a 2004 remake starring Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, and Glenn Close. The remake jettisoned the original film’s creepy atmosphere for a campier, more comedic tone — and was met with dismal reviews. But the original has endured as a cult classic, inspiring a new generation of horror directors. Jordan Peele cites Stepford Wives as a key influence on his breakout horror hit Get Out, which examines racial exploitation in an outwardly welcoming white neighborhood.
The film’s feminist message has also survived. “‘Stepford wife’ has become code for some robot following a script and meeting some male misogynistic ideal of femininity,” Mary Stuart Masterson says. “[It’s about] negating your agency as a woman.” And the film’s legacy persists in every story where things may seem perfect but there’s something not quite right lurking under the surface. “It was interesting to lull people into this sense of security,” Newman says. “And then the normality becomes very weird, and then the weird becomes scary.”