Archive for May, 2013

Bryan, William, and Nanette

11 May 2013

Bryan Forbes, the film director, has died – a British director who managed to have a fairly successful career on both sides of the Atlantic. He directed interesting British films such as Whistle Down The Wind, but for me The Stepford Wives is the one that has stuck in the fabric of the culture.

If you haven’t seen it (I’m pretty sure that this isn’t a spoiler) it is set in a small town in Connecticut in which the men become disatisfied with their wives and set out to turn them into clones of what the “good wife” should be. It was made in 1975 and you don’t exactly need critical theory to locate it as a story sparked by the feminist wave of the ’60s and early ’70s.

Anyway, the screenplay was written by William Goldman, from the book by Ira Levin, and it’s one of the films Goldman writes about in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade.

In fact he opens the chapter with an epigraph, a couple of lines of dialogue between him and Forbes:

FORBES: I think Nanette might be rather good for the part of Carol, don’t you?

GOLDMAN: She’s a wonderful actress; I think she’d be fine.

“Nanette” was Nanette Newman, Forbes’ wife, then in her early ’40s. A good actress, as Goldman describes her, “but not a sex-bomb”. And casting her has a big consequence for the film. In Levin’s story, as well as being willing and supportive providers, the women are male sex fantasies as well, all shorts, thighs and cleavage. That wasn’t Nanette Newman, however:

“By having Nanette Newman in the part, the whole look of the film had to alter. Forget the tennis costumes. Forget the parade of Bunnies walking through the A&P in shorts on their perfect tanned legs. She can’t wear the clothes.”

And so the Stepford Wives in the film end up in long pastel dresses. Goldman, looking back at the film, clearly thinks this is a problem.

But you never know how things will turn out. That other version of Stepford Wives, without Nanette Newman, would be unwatchable now, the sexism right there “on the nose” rather than embedded in the psyche, a period piece that screamed the mid-70s at us. As it is, long dresses and big broad-brimmed hats and all, it still stands up as a story – and one worth re-making 30 years later – about men who’re so threatened by intelligent, independent women that they’ll …. Now, that would be a spoiler.

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