Running time: 115 min.
Release date: February 12, 1975
The opening scene of The Stepford Wives depicts a woman, an obvious free-spirit, forlornly look around her city block as she and her family prepare to move to a new town. Her name is Joanna (Katharine Ross), and she is a professional photographer. Before they leave, she snaps a few photos of a man walking across a busy street with a female mannequin in tow, something Joanna knows she won't find in the suburbs. The move was her husband's (Peter Masterson) idea, and later on, we find out that he made that decision without her input. This is one of the central themes of the film: the idea of man being in control and shaping his life into something ideal for himself.
Not long after moving into Stepford, Joanna notices some odd behavior from the neighborhood wives. They all like to talk about cooking and cleaning and are devoted to their husbands; so devoted that they are ready to submit themselves to the sexual will of their husbands at any time. Another newcomer to town is Bobbie (Paula Prentiss). Joanna and Bobbie hit if off, of course; they bring a third woman, Charmaine (Tina Louise) into their circle and the three of them decide that what the ladies of Stepford need is a good, old-fashioned women's consciousness-raising session. The thing is, though, that these ladies are much more interested in the best cleanser for that dirty laundry.
One night, Joanna's husband, Walter, has some of the neighborhood men over to their house. Joanna serves them tea and coffee, and meets the man they call "Diz", Dale Coba (Patrick O'Neal). He's called "Diz" because he claims that he used to work for Disney, more specifically, for their theme park. Joanna notices that she is being observed and sketched; later on, she is also disturbed by the fact that her voice has been recorded. Yes, something is definitely amiss in Stepford.
One day, Joanna and Bobbie discover that Charmaine has ripped up the tennis court in her backyard, and is behaving much like the other wives in town, after a weekend trip. This prompts Joanna and Bobbie to start investigating the strange collective behaviors; this includes testing the water. Eventually, much to Joanna's dismay, even Bobbie has succumbed to the powers of laundry detergent and baking casseroles. Joanna feels that she is next, and is determined to prevent it, while at the same time, figure out the cause. Meanwhile, her husband Walter and his secret men's association seem to be in on the matter.
William Goldman based his screenplay on the 1972 novel by Ira Levin. The material in the screenplay is thoughtful, intelligent and satirical but Bryan Forbes' direction somehow does not do the screenplay justice. The pace of the film is dull and plodding for much of the first two-thirds of it's running time. The bright colors and sunlit cinematography by Enrique Bravo and Owen Roizman provide an interesting contrast to the ultimately chilling finale, which is bathed in lightning and darkness. There is an uneven tone throughout the film, as we have satire almost bordering on comedy in some scenes and then switching gears at the attempt at gothic horror at the end.
One thing to enjoy was the performance of Paula Prentiss as Bobbie; to go from free-spirited and irrepressible to, shall I say, robotic showed a good range on her part. Katharine Ross was not a charismatic lead and her performance didn't help the film's pacing. Patrick O'Neal's Dale Coba was a performance that, while creepy, was probably meant for a different film. This film wanted to be a chilling tale of a male-driven eutopia but comes off as a dull, sometimes intelligent, film of a liberated woman suffocated by conformity.