Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) is moving home today. She and her family are leaving the hustle and bustle of New York City and heading off for a new life in the upmarket smalltown of Stepford. But before they drive off, the budding photographer spots a man carrying a shop dummy along the street and snaps a few pictures of him. Once the family are in their station wagon, one of Joanna's two daughters points out, "Daddy, I just saw a man carrying a naked lady!" and Walter Eberhart (Peter Masterson) replies, "Well, that's why we're moving to Stepford." But could there be another reason? A method of improvement...?
But not improvement for Walter, who evidently is beyond help. Ira Levin's novel The Stepford Wives is a small gem of subtle menace which never stated outright what you, and the lead character Joanna, begins to suspect. It's been said that the film is more like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, but while Levin managed to be slyly satircal about men's attitude to the then-recent women's liberation movement, here Bryan Forbes and his screenwriter William Goldman apparently decided to take a sledgehammer to crack a walnut and if you didn't work out the message from the first five minutes then there was no hope for your powers of deduction.
Maybe this is what happens when you allow men to take up the mantle of feminism, but according to Goldman, the overstatement inherent in the production was a lesser crime than what really "doomed" the movie, and that was the casting of Forbes' wife Nanette Newman as one of the wives. I don't know why he was so surprised, the director had a habit of casting his wife in his projects, but she was supposedly the reason that nobody was sold on the whole idea of Stepford wives representing the ultimate in male fantasies. Well, ultra-conservative male fantasies anyway.
As Joanna twigs early on, the women of this town are rather too keen on serving their husbands, to the point that they sound liike the actresses in television commercials (ironically, Newman's British fame in the eighties centred around her washing up liquid ads). Luckily, although Walter, whose idea it was to move there in the first place, is deaf to her complaints Joanna has an ally in new neighbour Bobbie Markowe, played by the great Paula Prentiss and walking away with the acting honours. These two opt to counter the local Men's Association by creating a Women's Association, but things don't quite go to plan.
At the every least, Joanna and Bobbie were expecting a gossip session, but all they get is cleaning tips from this bunch. One dissenting voice comes from Charmaine (Tina Louise), but soon she is just as vapid as the others, even allowing her husband to dig up her beloved tennis court because he has no interest in the sport. As Joanna tries to assert her independence, with her photography career beginning to take off, it seems that Stepford is determined to keep the sisters down. Yet precisely how determined Joanna is not entirely prepared for, and when she realises she finds there is no one to turn to. If you don't know what's going on I won't spoil it for you, but the film is so heavy handed there are few surprises, and only a few wry laughs at the lengths the pathetic but powerful men will go to to retain the upper hand survive. But for all that, it's a masterpiece compared to the witless and compromised remake of three decades later. Music by Michael Small.