"If you are bosomy, well-groomed, agreeable, subservient ... you, too, can be a star," reads the text below the headline on our November 1974 article. Sexist? Certainly, but that's the point — "Stepford's Mechanical Wives" is Stuart James' behind-the-scenes report on the making of (of course) The Stepford Wives, the 1975 sci-fi–horror film about a quaint Connecticut suburb where what we would now call gender conformity is taken to a whole new level by the town's women.
This article is being posted to the web in April 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
Stepford's Mechanical Wives
If you are bosomy, well-groomed, agreeable, subservient...you, too, can be a star.
By Stuart James
IT WAS HOT, a sweltering 92 degrees outside, but inside the Redding Ridge Market, sealed against the heat, it was cool. A crouching boy, restocking the shelves, looked up as a meat cutter stared the length of the store, slowly wiping his fingers across his aproned belly.
Eileen La Point stood by a cash register, a middle-aged woman, her expression reserved, yet willing to be friendly.
“Hot out there."
"Humidity Is terrible," she said.
"I'm looking for the Whitehead house."
"Half-mile down the road. On your left."
"They’re making a movie there."
"I heard that," she said.
"The Stepford Wives. From Ira Levin's book."
"Hope the movie Is better than the book," she said.
"You didn't like the book?"
"Awful," she said.
The Whitehead house Is an unpretentious white frame building set back from the road. It looks as if a family reunion might be in progress. The front yard has been turned Into a parking lot for two-dozen cars. But there are also motor homes and vans, and close to the house a huge mobile electrical unit.
A man comes running across the lawn, gesturing wildly and apparently shouting... but no sound comes from his mouth. He reaches the car, annoyed that he hasn't been obeyed. He pokes his face In the window and snarls, "Shut It off, for crlssake. They're shooting inside. Din'ja hear?"
"You didn’t say anything."
"Shut it off, shut it off. Jesus, ya want me shoutin' when they’re shootin’?" He shook his head. "Ya see the red light by the door? When that goes off you can park it.” He turned and went away, mumbling.
A large mobile kitchen emblazoned Roberto's Hillside, N.J. "Caterers to the Film Industry," is parked in the shade of an elm tree at the rear of the house. Preparations for lunch are underway. Tables set up for a buffet serving line are also In the shade, but the six long dining tables fringed with folding chairs are on the lawn, directly In the sun.
"Why do you have everyone eat in the sun?”
"Makes for a short lunch. Them actors, they don't eat regular.”
There was no air-conditioning in the William Whitehead house, which was leased to Palomar Pictures for the summer, the terms being that the producers could do anything they pleased to the house providing It was completely refurbished at the conclusion of the shooting.
The living room was a forest of spindle-legged arc lights and heavy wires hanging like Tarzan vines. The huge camera dominated the room as Owen Rolzman rode its dolly, his face pressed to the eye piece.
"That looks pretty good,” he said. Rolzman is a celebrity for his photography of The French Connection, The Exorcist, and The Taking of Pelham, One, Two, Three. "Want to take a look at this, Bryan?"
Bryan Forbes came forward and leaned Into the camera's eyepiece. “It all seems a bit jammed together," he said. As the director, Forbes has the final say. The camera was moved back, lights were readjusted. Rolzman looked, assistant director Pete Scoppa looked, Forbes looked.
While this was going on, the actors stood and waited. The heat was unbearable. Katherine Ross, a star of The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, stood in the heat radiating from the lights. She didn't move, but her eyes registered every movement In the room. A makeup man stood by to dab the perspiration from her face.
"Let's see what we get," Forbes said.
"Okay, let's quiet it down," Scoppa said. "Mike, get It quiet outside."
"Quiet everybody, they're doing a take."
"Ready Peter? Katherine?"
The actors nodded, wet their lips. Makeup people darted in and dabbed.
“Action," Forbes said.
The slate labeling the scene and take was brought forward, announced for the tape, clacked loudly for sound synch editing, then taken away.
Peter Masterson, a Broadway actor in his first major film role, stepped Into the scene to look at a portrait sketch being held by Katherine Ross. "Do you like it?" she asked. Masterson nodded and said, "It's very good." Ross looked off camera and said, "I can't tell you how flattered I am. I love it.“
"Cut,” Forbes said. ‘Thank you, darlings. That looked nice. How was it Owen?"
"Uh!" Katharine Ross said, relaxing her pose. I think I'm going to die."
Kids. There seem to be children everywhere, at least a dozen giving a good imitation of two dozen. They're the children of actors, director, producer, all having a summer holiday In Westport while their parents work.
When Katherine Ross emerges from the house the children drop their games. She is like a honey tree to children, they flock to her, hang on her hands, dance before her, squeal for attention, jump high for her. Striding barefoot over sharp gravel, willow-thin and sun-brown in cut-off blue jeans and halter top, a flop-brim hat shadowing her eyes, she Is the essence of woman-child. She sits cross-legged on the grass in a sunshine circle of small girls.
Mary Stuart Masterson, a precocious eight-year-old, sits facing her. Mary Is the daughter of Peter Masterson, and she is making her film debut, the only child in the film. Her expression Is thoughtfully intense.
“Do you like boys?" Mary asks.
"Some," Katherine says.
“I think they're yuckey.“
“Some are,” Kathorine says.
“There's a boy in my class. UGHI” She makes a spinach face. "I just hate him! He's always doing dumb things. I can't stand him."
"It sounds as though you like him," Katherine says, her voice soft.
Katherine leans forward, a smile of delight animating her face as her hands rise to gently touch Mary's face.
There was no one In sight at Redding Ridge Farms, a vegetable stand across the road from the Whitehead house, but a bell on the counter summoned Ed Miro from a cold storage room. He weighed some tomatoes and green beans, then bagged them.
“See they're making a movie across the way.”
“Yep," he said.
“You been over to watch them?"
"Too busy right here," Ed said.
"Lot of movie stars over there "
"One came In for some apples. She was very pretty. That'll be $1.67."
The fictional Stepford is a composite of the “bedroom” communities of southwestern Connecticut, those within commuting distance of New York City—Westport, Fairfield, Reddlng, Darien, Norwalk. The wives of Stepford are a male chauvinist's dream—bosomy, well- groomed, agreeable, devoted to cooking, cleaning, child rearing...and totally subservient to their husbands. Into the midst of this come Joanna and Walter Eberhart, a liberated New York couple In search of a nice community for raising children. Joanna, a sometime photographer, Is shocked by the docile, contented housewives. She suspects the husbands of brainwashing their wives; worse, she begins to suspect them of turning the wives into robots; and worse still, she thinks her husband is [in] on the plot to turn her Into a happy housewife. Is she crazy? Is she right about her husband? In the book by Ira Levin, an author famed for the macabre Rosemary's Baby, you never find out. As a matter of fact, by the end of the book you don't even care. The movie, they say, is very different.
Paula Prentiss and Tina Louise have joined the company, and the day's shooting will take place at the Westport home of Tom and Marilyn Hickey. It's a big day for press agent Chuck Jones. There are a number of photographers and reporters out from New York, plus a young reporter, Debbie Zipf, from the Bridgeport Post. Chuck Is setting everyone up for photos and interviews.
"A circus," Bryan Forbes calls It. "A bleeding circus."
The Hickey's tennis court is the star of a scene in which Katherine Ross and Tina Louise are supposed to be playing. While the crew Is setting up for the shot, Katherine Ross and Tom Hickey are whacking a ball back and forth. She's relaxed, plays a pretty good game.
Tina Louise arrives. No pictures, please. At last, a real, genuine, live movie star. She descends the stone steps, a parasol held over her head to protect her from the sun. She walks gingerly, as though fearful a fall might injure the perfect body. Her hair is in large curlers and covered with a silk scarf. Her tennis outfit is perfect.
Bryan Forbes confers with her, explaining the shot. They're ready for a rehearsal. A makeup man removes the curlers and Tina's auburn hair Is combed. An electrician says what everyone is thinking: “That, my esteemed friends, is some good- looking broad."
A problem develops. It seems Tina does not know how to play tennis. There is a fast session on how to hold the racquet, but Tina Is no athlete and she serves like someone trying to swat a fly. Forbes, an avid tennis player, solves the problem: Katherlne will hit the ball gently to Tina, who will simply have to hit it back and then Katherlne will take a convincing dive, giving the match point to Tina.
After several tries It works, even looks good. There's a scene with Paula Prentlss, which comes off quickly, then time for interviews with Tina Louise.
The press learns that Tina loves Bryan Forbes' work. She is delighted to be In Connecticut again. She thinks it's wonderful to be working with Paula Prentiss, who is just a darling. And Katherine Ross is such a sweet person and a truly talented actress. Has she read the book? “What book is that?" she asks sweetly.
Tom Hickey is having a great time. An executive at IBM, he has taken the day off to watch the shooting. He is recording everything with his Kodak Instamatic. "May I?" he says, pointing his camera at Tina Louise, who smiles for him. He clicks and she moves off. “I feel like a horse's ass doing this," he says, “but a few months from now I'll be glad I have the pictures."
A follow-up scene in the movie will show the Hickey tennis court being torn up by a bulldozer. When the scene is completed, Tom will get a new $15,000 tennis court, courtesy of Palomar Pictures.
“Suppose they don't replace the tennls court?"
“What?" Tom doesn’t quite understand the question.
“After they tear it up. What happens if they don’t build a new one?"
"Oh, I'm not worried about that." He thinks a moment, then asks, "Why would they do that?"
"Movie companies have been known to leave town without paying their bills. Gets very complicated. Movie Is finished, people all off on other jobs. You know."
“These people wouldn't do that. No. they are nice. I'm not worried.”
An elegant poolside barbeque was being filmed at the home of the Lawrence Langners in Weston. Barricaded within the old stone house, Mrs. Langner peered nervously from behind her curtains at the mob scene on her lawn. Seventy extras and bit players bused out from New York, all in party dress and waiting. Half a dozen makeup people and hairdressers. A technical crew of 70. A forest of lights and wires and sound equipment. A mechanical cherry picker to lift the camera high into the air. There was even a lively contingent of children in the care of a governess. "They tell me to keep these beasts quiet. With a club I'll keep them quiet," she muttered.
Two local models with membership in the Screen Actors Guild were hired as extras. Gay Hvolbeck of Greenwich, and Janet Carroll of New Canaan. Both are tall, model-thin, with strikingly pretty faces. They sat with a cluster of extras.
"I need a blue dress," the casting girl said. Janet was wearing a blue dress, so she was sent down to join the group at poolside.
Why would a model work for a movie extra's $45 a day, which is less than she would earn per hour on a commercial job? "It's fun," Gay said. "It's really exciting. I Just love it."
Producer Edgar Scherick sat on a high stool at the rear of the house, where the makeup people had set up shop under a grove of oak trees. Draped with a sheet, he was taking advantage of a lull In the action to have his hair cut by one of the hairdressers. His head bowed to give the barber better access to the nape of his neck, he looked over the top of his glasses at the actors and technicians who were costing him $20,000 a day. "This has to be the world's most expensive haircut," he said.
It was taking along time to set everything up for an overall long shot. Owen Rolzman was high above the trees in the bucket of the cherry- picker. Bryan Forbes was using a bullhorn to give instructions. Grips were moving tables back and forth. There was difficulty framing the shot.
The children were spraying one another with root beer, and the governess was walling, "Oh, my god, they're running amok."
Everything was finally ready to go. "Quiet everyone," Pete Scoppa shouted through the bullhorn. "Everybody quiet. We're ready to shoot. Everybody in their places. Hold it, wait a minute, hold it."
One of the men from the catering service had wandered into the middle of the scene. He skirted the pool and walked up to the dumbfounded director.
"How many lines for lunch?"
Peter Houch is doubling as a stand-in and a stuntman on the picture. He’s soft-spoken, cerebral, but rugged, and addicted to backgammon. He drove in the famous chase scene in 0 French Connection.
"What would a stuntman do in this picture?"
"I crash a car," he says. "Nothing to it, a piece of cake."
"But there isn't any auto crash in the book.”
"There is in the picture," he says.
"Did you read the book?"
"No, but I hear it's a dog. I read the screenplay. It's good. Bill Goldman wrote the screenplay, and he's good. It’s gonna be a terrific flick."
As a young actor, Bryan Forbes was always the boyish World War II R.A.F. bomber waist gunner who gets killed at some point In the third reel.
"I die at least once a week on the late show," he says. "And there are no residuals. It's all for free."
A serious and hard-working director with an enviable list of credits including The L-Shaped Room, Seance on a Wet Afternoon and The Madwoman ot Chaillot, Forbes is also a brilliant writer of screenplays and has had published a book of his short stories. His screenplay for The League of Gentlemen is a classic of the genre—the meticulously planned and brilliantly executed robbery of the unbreakable bank.
Will The Stepford Wives be a good movie?
"You never know." he says. "I've seen the rushes, so I know we have some nice pictures. But you never know until it's all put together. Even then, sometimes, you don’t know. When l finished Seance on a Wet Afternoon I thought it was dreadful, that it just had to fail. So it won all sorts of awards. You never know. I'm afraid you'll just have to wait and make up your own mind."
Goodwives Shopping Center in Darien Is the setting for one of the final scenes in the movie. The crew is working on a Sunday, but even so a sizable audience of curious onlookers is on hand.
"Paul Newman in this movie?" asks a woman in her autumn years.
“Who’s in it?"
"Patrick O'Neal, Peter Masterson, Katherine Ross."
"Never heard of them," she says, turning on her heel. “They should've got Paul Newman."
Stories about Connecticut and the movies from the Connecticut Magazine archives:
Utopia Studios promised bring a piece of Hollywood to Preston, but it turned out to be a paper moon. ("A Giant Plan," September 2006)
Go to Redding for a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of The Stepford Wives. ("Stepford's Mechanical Wives," November 1974)
Meet some independent filmmakers who preferred working in Connecticut over New York or California ("Connecticut Filmmakers," June 1983), like Friday the 13th producer and Westport resident Sean Cunningham. ("Fade to Black," March 1981)
A professor of cinema takes a critical look at the (not always flattering) ways Hollywood sees us ("Connecticut in the Movies") and a quick overview of Connecticut's history as a filmmaking location. ("Everything But the Sahara," May 1987)
Take a stroll through a timeline of notable movies either filmed or set in Connecticut. ("Lights, Camera, Connecticut!," February 2017)