Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Remake Rematch: The Stepford Wives (1975 vs. 2004)

In Ira Levin’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, a husband offers up his wife as the devil’s consort. In DEATHTRAP, a husband conspires with his male lover to kill his spouse. And in STEPFORD, an entire Connecticut town full of husbands replaces their better halves with sexually compliant robots. To paraphrase a cartoon seen in KINSEY: is there a Mrs. Levin?

Welcome to another occasional feature, in which a remake squares off against the original in a battle to the death. Or to the point of boredom. Whichever.

The 1975 film is no classic, but it’s often treated as one because it introduced the title phrase to a wide audience. Bryan Forbes’ movie isn’t particularly suspenseful, and not simply because the payoff is common knowledge. Time has blunted its satirical edge, but at least its intent is clear. Levin set out to mock male fears of feminism, and the film makes a genuine if muddled attempt to engage the issue.

Katherine Ross may be the lead, but Paula Prentiss is the real star as her best friend. Funny, sexy, vibrant. I’ve developed a retroactive crush on her. When she goes Stepford, the loss is palpable. And the movie never recovers.

All I knew about this version before watching it was what I’d read in William Goldman’s ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE. Goldman wrote the movie but considered it “doomed” because Forbes cast his wife Nanette Newman as one of the robots. She’s a fine actress, but no sex goddess. As Goldman says, “You don’t commit murder and make a new creation to have it look like Nanette Newman.” As a result of her casting, the entire look of the movie changed. No miniskirts, no sexy tennis outfits. Just floor-length sundresses and floppy hats. For what it’s worth, I think Goldman was right.

Aside: The new making-of doc on the DVD is one of the best I’ve seen, in part because it addresses Goldman’s comments. He’s not in the piece, but his friend (and STEPFORD co-star) Peter Masterson ably makes his case, while Forbes gets to defend his wife’s honor. Names are named: the original director, actors fired from the cast. And Prentiss remains as feisty as ever.

Paul Rudnick wrote this year’s remake, which is the start of its problems. Rudnick can always be counted for a few good bitchy lines, but he has never shown any interest in creating a plausible movie world. (Consider his script for 1997’s IN & OUT. Funny? You bet. But he’s got the Oscars, a wedding, and a high school graduation all occurring in the same week.) Not the best choice for a story that, as Goldman observes, is “only precariously real to begin with.”

Rudnick and director Frank Oz push the film toward comedy. Levin’s story gives them plenty to work with: the flight to the suburbs, the battle of the sexes as it’s being fought today. Instead, Rudnick and Oz settle for sending up the look of the first movie. Which, as we now know, was an accident of casting. Their ending is a flat-out disgrace that manages to be both toothless and nonsensical. In that sense, it’s a real achievement.

Of course, part of the problem is that it’s difficult to make a silly, feel-good comedy about a town full of cowardly men who murder their wives.

Winner, by default: the 1975 version.

One other thought: it’s a sign of the overall paucity of the culture that we don’t seem to have popular novelists like Ira Levin any more, who explore the key issues of the day in a lively, entertaining fashion.

Newspaper: The New York Times

Somebody needs to check the water in the Arts & Leisure section. We may have a case of seasonal distemper circulating. First, Manohla Dargis compares Santa’s sack full of toys in THE POLAR EXPRESS to “an airborne scrotum.” Now, the usually bland Stephen Holden weighs in with this bon mot on CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS:

“(Jamie Lee) Curtis, wearing one of the ugliest haircuts I’ve ever seen, her upper lip weirdly curled-in, resembles a transvestite chimpanzee.”

You’re a class act, Steve. Somebody deserves a lump of coal in his stocking.

Miscellaneous: Link

I’m taking the holiday weekend off, so here’s something to keep you occupied. The latest issue of Allan Guthrie’s Noir Originals features interviews with Ken Bruen and Terrill Lee Lankford, authors of two of my favorite novels of the year, as well as Max Allan Collins, whose TWO FOR THE MONEY I’ll be reading shortly.

Happy Thanksgiving. See you next week. Bring leftovers.