While the film was a moderate success at the time of release, it has grown in stature as a cult film over the years. Building upon the reputation of Levin's novel, the term "Stepford" or "Stepford Wife" has become a popular science fiction concept and several sequels were shot, as well as a 2004 remake using the same title, but rewritten as a comedy instead of a serious horror/thriller film.
Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) is a young wife who moves with her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) and two children from New York City to the idyllic Connecticut suburb of Stepford. Loneliness quickly sets in as Joanna, a mildly rebellious aspiring photographer, finds the women in town all look great and are obsessed with housework, but have few intellectual interests. The men all belong to the exclusionary local Men's Association, which Walter joins, to Joanna's dismay. Neighbor Carol Van Sant's sexually submissive behavior to her husband Ted, and her odd, repetitive behavior after a car accident also strike Joanna as strange.
Things start to look up when she befriends another newcomer to town, sloppy, irrepressible Bobbie Markowe. Along with the glamorously beautiful tennis playing trophy wife Charmaine Wimperis, they organize a Women's Lib consciousness raising session, but the meeting is a failure when the other wives hijack the meeting with cleaning concerns. Joanna is also unimpressed by the boorish Men's Association members, including intimidating president Dale "Diz" Coba. Stealthily, the Men's Association collects information on Joanna including her picture, her voice, and other personal details. When Charmaine returns from a weekend trip with her husband as an industrious, devoted wife who has fired her maid and destroyed her tennis court, Joanna and Bobbie start investigating, with ever-increasing concern, the reason behind the submissive and bland behavior of the other wives.
Bobbie and Joanna start house hunting in other towns. Later, Joanna wins a prestigious contract with a photo gallery with some photographs of their respective children. When she tells Bobbie her good news, Joanna is shocked to find her freewheeling friend has abruptly changed into another clean, conformist housewife, with no intention of moving. Joanna panics, and visits a psychiatrist, to whom she voices her belief that the men in the town are in a conspiracy of somehow changing the women. The psychiatrist recommends she leave town until she feels safe, but when Joanna returns home, the children are missing. Joanna and Walter argue and get into a physical scuffle. In an attempt to find her children, she thinks Bobbie may be caring for them.
Joanna, still mystified by Bobbie's behavior, becomes increasingly desperate and stabs Bobbie with a kitchen knife. Bobbie doesn't bleed but goes into a loop like a malfunctioning computer, thus revealing the real Bobbie has been replaced by a fembot. Despite sensing she may be the next victim, Joanna sneaks into the mansion which houses the Men's Association to find her children. There, she finds the mastermind of the whole operation, Diz Coba, and eventually her own robot-duplicate. Joanna is shocked into paralysis when she witnesses its soulless, empty eyes. The Joanna-duplicate brandishes a stocking and smilingly approaches Joanna.
At the film's end, "Joanna" is seen placidly purchasing groceries at the local supermarket, along with the other "wives", all inappropriately glamorously dressed, politely saying little more than hello to each other. In the background, a black couple (new residents of Stepford) argue, and it is likely the wife is poised to become the conspiracy's next victim. Still images show a cheerful Walter along with his children in the back of the station wagon, picking up his wife from the supermarket.
The film was shot in a variety of towns in Western Connecticut, primarily in Darien (Goodwives Shopping Center), Westport, and Fairfield. The climax of the story was filmed at Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, a tourist attraction in Norwalk. Director Bryan Forbes purposefully chose white and bright colors for the setting of the film, attempting to make a "thriller in sunlight". With the exception of the stormy night finale, the film is almost over-saturated with bright light and cheery settings. All the locations were actual places; no sets were built for the film.
Tension developed between Forbes and screenwriter Goldman over the casting of Nanette Newman (Forbes's wife) as one of the wives. Goldman had wanted the wives to be depicted as model-like women who dressed provocatively. But after casting Newman this was not to be, as Goldman stated he felt that Newman's physical appearance did not match the type of woman he imagined, and as a result this caused a change in appearance in costuming for all of the other wives. Goldman has said that he found Newman to be a perfectly good actress, however. Goldman was also unhappy with some rewrites that Forbes contributed. In particular, Forbes toned down Goldman's "horrific" ending. Actor Peter Masterson, who was friends with Goldman, would secretly call Goldman for his input on scenes, creating additional stresses.
Goldman later claimed the film "could have been very strong, but it was rewritten and altered, and I don't think happily."
Bryan Forbes met with Diane Keaton about playing the lead role, but she turned it down. When he asked why, she said her analyst did not like the script.
Initially, Joanna Cassidy was cast as Bobbie. When she left after a few weeks of production, her scenes were re-shot. Tuesday Weld initially accepted the role of Joanna, but cancelled before filming began.
"Brat Pack" actress Mary Stuart Masterson made her film debut here as one of Joanna's children. Masterson is the daughter of Peter Masterson. Dee Wallace, later known for her role in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, appears as Charmaine's maid. Franklin Cover, of the television situation comedy The Jeffersons, also appears in a supporting role. Tina Louise originated the role of Ginger Grant on the TV situation comedy Gilligan's Island. When the actress declined to appear in later incarnations, she was replaced by actress Judith Baldwin, who had a role as one of the minor wives. Baldwin also appeared in a small role in the television sequel The Stepford Children. Kenneth McMillan, who later featured as the evil Baron Harkonnen in David Lynch's 1984 film version of Dune, has a small speaking role in the early part of the film, as the supermarket manager.
The Stepford Wives has a rating of 69% on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes based on 29 reviews, with an average rating of 6.2/10. Some critics deride its leisurely pace. Most applaud the "quiet, domestic" thrills the film delivers in the final third and earlier sections as "clever, witty, and delightfully offbeat". As for the satire in the film, Roger Ebert wrote, "[The actresses] have absorbed enough TV, or have such an instinctive feeling for those phony, perfect women in the ads, that they manage all by themselves to bring a certain comic edge to their cooking, their cleaning, their gossiping and their living deaths."
Initial reaction to the film by feminist groups was not favorable, arguing that it was "anti-woman." Cast and crew vehemently disagree, as the men in the film are characterized as "swinish and grotesque", and the heroine is dispatched in the finale. They maintain that critics misunderstand the premise, that Stepford is a sort of chauvinistic dystopia, and that the depiction of subservient, robotic women is intended as a satirical statement against traditional gender roles. There was a television ad campaign that further fueled the controversy, ending with the words: "See 'The Stepford Wives'...before your husband does."
Awards and nominationsAcademy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror filmsBest Actress 1975 — Katherine Ross-WonBest Science Fiction film 1975 — nominatedAmerican Film Institute FilmsAFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills - NominatedAFI's 10 Top 10 - Nominated Science Fiction Film
Many sequels have been produced over the years including:Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980) - starring Don Johnson, Sharon Gless, and Julie Kavner.The Stepford Children (1987) - starring Barbara Eden and Don Murray.The Stepford Husbands (1996) - starring Donna Mills and Michael Ontkean.The remake The Stepford Wives (2004) - starring Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick.
Parodies and popular cultureMarried... with Children, season 11, episode 10, "The Stepford Peg": Peg (Katey Sagal) bumps her head on the coffee table after slipping on a candy wrapper, and becomes a stereotypical housewife thanks to Al (Ed O'Neill) implanting suggestions that she does do housework.The Chronicle, season 1, episode 18: "The Stepford Cheerleaders"Homeboys in Outer Space, season 1, episode 10: "A Man's Place is in the Homey, or The Stepford Guys"Desperate Housewives: In Season 1, Bree Van de Kamp is said to be running for the "mayor of Stepford" because of her perfection.Newhart, season 2, episode 4: "The Stratford Wives"Note: The BBC movie soundalike The Stretford Wives (2002) is not related.In one episode of Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide there were three "perfect" girls in the class, and Moze thinks they are robots.In an episode of My Hero, Pierce is asked if it is possible to make the Stepford wives a reality.The 1998 horror film, Disturbing Behavior shares the same premise involving brainwashed teenagers.S'Express sampled the line "yes, yes, this, it's wonderful" in their 1989 hit "Hey Music Lover".Jordan Peele was influenced by The Stepford Wives for his 2017 directorial debut, Get Out, citing its combination of humor and horror.