Queer Eye For The Cult Movie

Mostly Martha: Nicole Kidman in 'The Stepford Wives'
Paramount Pictures

It's about time someone paid tribute to The Stepford Wives, the iconic mid-'70s women's-lib thriller, which has languished too long in the Kult Klassics section of the video store. It's an interesting, even important film, and seems more so today, if only as a document of its time--that crucible when gender roles went up in flames, along with many marriages. Still, I wondered how anyone could update such a consummately '70s movie. I couldn't imagine contemporary female audiences buying a plot wherein conniving men turn their wives into homemaking robots. It just seemed so...well, so 1975. Somehow, though, they've done it. This new Stepford Wives is so 2004--for better and worse. (I dug it, but if John Waters were dead, he'd totally be turning in his grave.)

The big difference from the original is that, in both story line and spirit, the new version is super gay--but Will and Grace/Queer Eye gay. It wears its queerness like a flashy Dolce and Gabbana blouse, with style and humor and camp--but an intentional lack of tragedy. And this is sort of a tangent, but while we're on the topic: Any theories of why Will and Grace is so toothless and relentlessly upbeat? Some say it's the nature of assimilation. Then again, it could be a post-AIDS thing. Maybe people--gay people included--are just tired of tragedy.

In any case, the gay twist works--I mean, if you're going to remake a camp classic, why not blow it out? Why not hire an icon like Bette Midler to play the sassy outsider and get Glenn Close to do her best psychotic meltdown? Heck, why not get Nicole Kidman, ex-wife of a rumored closet case and Scientology cultist--to play the heroine?

There's a reason the original film, despite its lofty intentions, turned out to be a cult favorite. It's a crazy movie with a crazy premise: A city slicker named Joanna (Katharine Ross) moves with her husband and kids to the small town of Stepford in search of sanity. Instead, she discovers that the local menfolk--toadlike engineers and computer types--are turning their wives into busty fembots who clean house all day and scream during sex, "You're the king!" It's a sinister setup--and Joanna's husband is in on it.

As ridiculous as the film sounds, it's genuinely spooky. (I watched it again recently, and later dreamed of the towering, Stepford-ized Paula Prentiss walking into my bedroom chanting, "I thought we were friends"--and wielding a kitchen knife. I kid you not, I actually slept with the light on.) It's just a creepy-ass movie, beginning as a straight drama and gradually building to a noirish thriller with a threat of horror. Of course, it doesn't have a happy ending, which may partly explain why some women found it offensive. There's a subtle but implicit message that a strong woman is no match for a society of male techno-gods. The film delivers this message in the wrong spirit, but the theme still hits home in an era of ever more invasive technology and body-transplant shows like The Swan.

The techno-Brave New World vibe remains in the remake, though the new version strives to reflect how times have changed, too. Our new Joanna (Kidman) is the tightly wound head of a TV network--a victim of the Superwoman complex you hear so much about. (The movie could have played this bit smarter, as I have yet to meet a woman oppressed by women's liberation--or a man. Let's face it: Some women are just insane--and so are some men.) We first see Joanna delivering a presentation on the new season of battle-of-the-sexes reality shows, all of which feature women kicking their husbands' asses. Despite her success, Joanna loses her job, then her mind. Trying not to lose her marriage as well, she moves with her husband (Matthew Broderick) and children to Stepford, now a gated community.

For most of the film, the story runs roughly the same as the original--except that Joanna's best friends are a neurotic Jewish writer (Midler) and a flamboyant gay guy (Roger Bart) whose lover is turning into a Republican. (Indeed, we have a gay Stepford "wife" on our hands--and it's only too realistic.) But rather than portray Stepford as Nightmaresville, director Frank Oz revels joyfully in its soft-focus '50s fantasy--the flowered dresses, the pastel hats, the opulent decor. Perhaps because we're so far from the days when women had time to do housework, there's aesthetic nostalgia and real affection here--not for any actual "simpler time," but for the ability to believe in one. In one scene, the town's über-wifey (Close) presents the ladies' reading group with a book on pinecones in Christmas decorations, and the girls shudder with pleasure. I laughed--in recognition. I mean, who among us has never heeded the siren call of Martha Stewart Living, with its clever advice on edible flowers and handmade stationery? Seduced, Joanna tries to fit in with the Stepford wives on her own. And as the film builds toward a comic (and technically confusing) climax, the ghost of Martha Stewart hovers, providing a sort of secret antiheroine. I can't give away the surprise ending, but let's just say it takes a huge, goofy risk--seemingly for the fun of it.

Some people may be disappointed that the new Stepford Wives refuses all the darkness, danger, and bitter social critique of the original. But to me, it's a sign of respect. Let the first movie stand on its own, it seems to say. Let that movie be the heavy hitter. You can't be bitter forever. (Like I said, it's so Will and Grace. So 2004.) But it also suggests that female liberation and subjugation are much more complicated than people once thought. Freedom is an inside job as much as an outside one.

And you know, pinecones really do have a remarkable range of uses.

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