Rather than try to recreate a classic psychological thriller/satire, Hollywood decided to slap some clown makeup on and lighten it up. It wasn’t a bad idea. Especially with a couple of great veteran actors (Christopher Walken and Glenn Close), an Oscar winner (Nicole Kidman), a lovable star we haven’t seen in awhile (Matthew Broderick, who will always be Ferris Bueller to me), and a show-stealing newcomer (Roger Bart, who makes an outstanding motion picture debut) in the mix.
In both versions of the film, the basic premise is the same. A couple in a rocky marriage leave their fast-paced life in New York City and move into a quiet, Leave-It-To-Beaver-like community called Stepford, somewhere in rural Connecticut. The modern, independent wife is appalled at the backward behavior she observes in all the wives of the community, who vacuum in high heels, live to please their husbands, and—strangely—are all celebrity gorgeous. The husband joins the highly secretive Stepford Men’s Club, and strange things begin to happen.
After that, the old and new films diverge. One is creepy, one is hilarious.
In the original version, Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) is a wife trying to get her photography career off the ground. Her neglected husband (Peter Masterson) is an attorney with the personality of a wet noodle who, early in the film, is noticeably shaken by the things he learns at the Men’s Club. The evidence of something being not-quite-right with the women shows itself when one of them gets into a fender bender and keeps clutching her head and repeating the same phrase over and over as they take her away. Joanna befriends two other new wives in the community—ones who actually don’t like to clean, and who don’t seem to have the robotic personalities of the others. Together they embark on a series of schemes to figure out what’s up with the zombie wives. After both of Joanna’s friends mysteriously become like them, it’s not funny anymore and Joanna knows she will be next if she doesn’t get the hell out of Stepford. In the original version, there is more evidence of how the men plan and devise the “transformation” of their wives, and more of a sense of sedition and doom. The 1970s humor in certain scenes falls flat if you weren’t an adult (or even alive) then, and much of the acting seems a little contrived. But for its time, the dialogue was daringly sexual and the content disturbing.
In the 2004 version of the film, Joanna (Kidman) is a television producer who loses her job when her pilot reality show goes sour, and her husband Walter (Broderick) is a much more sensitive and adorable mate. Bobbie (Bette Midler) is a famous author, and Charmaine’s character is replaced (appropriately for the times) by a brazen, hilarious and fun-loving gay man, Roger. As in the old version, Roger is the first to be Stepfordized (his partner wants him more masculine and less flaming) followed by Bobbie. Afterward, Joanna is more fiery and less of a victim as she takes on the head of the men’s group (Walken). The 2004 version better explains why the husbands, who are corporate computer geeks, do what they do. Besides being nerds who want hot sex slaves, they were also threatened by their successful wives’ careers, so re-wiring their brains into submission was their solution. The supermodel bodies didn’t hurt, either.
Certain scenes in the 2004 version were similar and even improved upon, such as a wife short-circuiting and another dispensing cash like an ATM. My favorite was when Joanna and friends hear one of the wives having a shrieking, unbelievably-good nooner with her husband. There were many more chuckles, thanks to the quirky antics of Close and Walken. There were also a few slams against corporations like AOL that the audience appreciated. The film’s ending is surprisingly different, with a few secrets up its sleeve, but it also makes a warm and fuzzy statement about the reality of love and commitment.