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The Art of Darkness

On 'Stepford Wives' anniversary, Ira Levin is surprised by his effect on popular culture

September 22, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's three decades now since the Welcome Wagon lady showed up at Joanna Eberhart's door with her packets of powdered breakfast drink and unrelenting smile. "It's a nice town with nice people!" she told Joanna, who still had boxes in the living room. "And I want to wish you a sincere and hearty welcome to Stepford."

Well, we all know what happened next, don't we? How Joanna began noticing that all the women in the suburban town were perfectly coiffed and groomed and could not be pried from their housewifely duties with a crowbar. How there were only two other women in town who felt as she did--that the fenced-in Men's Assn. was a bastion of chauvinism, that a dirty kitchen was the sign of a creative mind, that the women in Stepford, with their slim waists and big breasts, were just too perfect and really kind of weird.

Then those two women changed overnight, finding sudden profound happiness in a well-waxed floor and supportive undergarments and Joanna was left all alone, with her husband and his creepy friends, one of whom had worked--aha!--in the animatronics division at Disneyland.

Night-night, Joanna.

Ira Levin says that when he published "The Stepford Wives" 30 years ago on Oct. 13, he was not attempting any sort of social commentary, he was just trying to write a good thriller. A reference in "Future Shock" to domestic robots had piqued his interest, and then he happened across an article about the presidential animatrons at Disneyland. Of course, he was going through a divorce while he wrote the book, and that, he admitted at the time, might have colored his view of domestic living a tiny bit. Then again, he had already conjured up one of the worst literary marriages in the world five years previously in the form of Guy and Rosemary, those well-matched newlyweds of "Rosemary's Baby."

Still, he says now, he was taken by surprise if not by how many people read "The Stepford Wives" then by the way they read it: as a critique of marriage, of suburban living, of feminism, of anti-feminism, of housework, of men, of women, of American culture.

"All that happened after publication," Levin says by phone from his home in New York. "Really, it just started out of the technology."

Yes, he says, he and his family lived in a small town in suburban Connecticut for a while, "but none of the women there were Stepford wives, and my wife at the time was certainly not a Stepford wife," he adds with the sort of laugh often accompanied by a rueful stroke of the chin. "A plot just makes its own demands."

Stepford Everything

For those who missed the book, there was the 1975 movie starring the lovely Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss. By the mid-'80s, "Stepford wife" had become a part of the vernacular, a shorthand for a woman who seemed enslaved to her oh-so-perfect home and children. By the '90s "Stepford" was a free-standing antecedent, connoting robotic or lock-step behavior. A Stepford executive, a Stepford student, a Stepford salesclerk.

"Every time I hear someone use the term, I get a kick out of it," says Levin, 73. "I feel like I've contributed to the language."

One could argue that he had already done that with "Rosemary's Baby," a term occasionally applied to less-than-docile infants. (And, certainly, no one who has ever read the book, or seen the movie, can ever look at a chocolate mousse with the same level of carefree anticipation.) But with that book, as with "The Stepford Wives" and then "The Boys From Brazil," Levin did more than coin a few phrases that look good in magazine headlines; he helped establish, and legitimize, the horror thriller.

And he sometimes wonders if that was such a good thing. "Rosemary's Baby" also grew more from the creation of a plot device--what better way to extend the delicious period of suspense before the monster shows itself than by having it literally growing inside someone--than any desire to explore the possibility of literal evil in the world.

"I feel guilty that 'Rosemary's Baby' led to 'The Exorcist,' 'The Omen' " he says. "A whole generation has been exposed, has more belief in Satan. I don't believe in Satan. And I feel that the strong fundamentalism we have would not be as strong if there hadn't been so many of these books. Of course," he adds, with that laugh again, "I didn't send back any of the royalty checks."

His books are successful, he says, because his interests seem to reflect the larger interests of society. "The Boys From Brazil" (in which the infamous Dr. Mengele has cloned Adolf Hitler and farmed the babies out to parents all over the world) sprung from a newspaper article on cloning that used a photo of Hitler to illustrate the obvious worst-case scenario.

The books are also successful because Levin, who wrote "Deathtrap" and many other plays, has that rare talent of creating a world so real in its mundane details that when the extraordinary occurs, the fabric of the story remains whole and believable, and, in most cases, resistant to the passage of time.

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