Flickchart Road Trip: Connecticut
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
Connecticut has a bit of a split personality, which has entirely to do with whether you live closer to New York or to Boston. Once again I am seeing the world in terms of sports. If you live in the northern part of Connecticut, you tend to support the Boston sports teams, but if you’re just outside New York City, it only makes sense that you would follow the New York teams. Since I’m a Boston guy, and since Connecticut is a New England state, I feel like all Connecticut residents should support the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins. Geographic proximity? P’shaw. (Connecticut did have its own professional team at one point, hockey’s Hartford Whalers, but they moved to North Carolina and became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1999.)
Even though I’ve lived in all three of the states that border Connecticut (Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island), my experience with the state itself is somewhat limited. One thing I did love to do when I was a reporter at a weekly newspaper in Rhode Island was travel down to Foxwoods Resort Casino in Ledyard, Connecticut, on the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation. Friends and I would make pilgrimages down there almost monthly, feverishly discussing our blackjack philosophies on the way down … and usually licking our wounds on the way back up. At least one time, I actually put to bed that week’s newspaper on a Monday night, drove the hour down to Foxwoods and spent all night at a blackjack table, since I didn’t have to work on Tuesdays. Ah, youth. (Note: Only by breaking even most of the night was I actually able to do this. I don’t want you to think I lost a month’s salary in some kind of state of exhausted semi-consciousness.)
So I figured, might as well give a shout-out to my old stomping grounds … and because there are no strict demands on my time on this trip, I decided to recreate that all-nighter, some 15 years after it probably happened. To make it closer to a direct repeat of the previous experience, I didn’t roll up to the table until almost midnight. I knew I was in trouble when I had to have the waitress get me a coffee as my first drink … and when I lost my first four hands. However, I kept at it and pulled back even and eventually went up by about $50. I played close enough to even to keep going for awhile, but at 3 a.m. I just hit a wall. I was down $10 and could definitely afford to keep playing, but my eyes just wouldn’t stay open. I tried to take a break and walk around the casino for a bit, but this only made me more tired. I finally had to admit that I’m not 24 anymore, and to paraphrase Danny Glover, “I’m too old for this … stuff.” I got a cheap room (it was a Tuesday night) and wrote it off as “a good try.”
It was my Foxwoods hotel room where I ended up watching my Connecticut movie, The Stepford Wives, the next morning. All it takes is a passing familiarity with pop culture to know what a Stepford Wife is, because people still use the phrase today. What I didn’t know until recently is that Stepford is the name of a fictitious Connecticut town, and since I’d never actually seen Bryan Forbes‘ 1975 film (nor Frank Oz‘ 2004 remake), I decided now was the perfect time to acquaint myself beyond the movie’s role in the zeitgeist. It’s globally ranked #2238 among Flickcharters.
What it’s about
In order to escape the hustle, the bustle, and especially the noise of New York City, the Eberhart family picks up and moves to quiet and idyllic Stepford, Connecticut. Shortly after arriving, the father/husband, Walter (Peter Masterson), is invited to join the Stepford Men’s Association, a secretive group that causes a peculiar change in his aspect. Meanwhile, his wife Joanna (Katharine Ross) and her new friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) begin to notice strange behavior among the women who are married to the men in this group: They always wear makeup and dress beautifully, they seem to love nothing more than doing household chores, and they are always eager to gratify their husbands sexually. However, the most disturbing element of their behavior is a cheery submissiveness that makes them seem a bit like programmed robots — robots who “short circuit” from time to time when traumatized. As Joanna and Bobbie try to get to the bottom of what’s happening in Stepford, they worry the same fate may befall them.
How it uses the state
Interestingly, the word “Connecticut” is never once spoken in the film, though a Connecticut license plate is visible on a Stepford police car. However, viewers with a passing familiarity with the highways leading out of New York will know that the family is headed for Connecticut. There’s something very stereotypically Connecticut about the whole setup, when you consider that the southern part of the state is home to numerous powerful New York executives who come home to their quaint “country” homes and their idealized WASPish wives, complete with aprons around their waists and roasts in the oven.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Connecticut movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films The Stepford Wives will battle:
1) All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz). My Flickchart: #65/3527. Global: #123. There’s a reason All About Eve held the record for the most Oscar nominations of all time (14) until Titanic came along and scored 14 of its own. This movie is a tour-de-force of writing and acting; it simply crackles as it dramatizes the manipulations, jealousies and vulgar ambitions of two stage actresses as they try to rise to prominence, or to hold on to a prominence they’ve already attained. (Hollywood’s appreciation of movies about its favorite subject matter — itself — was firmly established even back then.) Bette Davis and Anne Baxter are sensational as they jockey for power, and the rest of the cast (including a young Marilyn Monroe) supports them brilliantly. The central conflict surrounds a play debuting in New Haven, where Davis’ Margo is the lead and Baxter’s Eve is the understudy trying to become more.
2) The Ice Storm (1997, Ang Lee). My Flickchart: #372/3527. Global: #1004. If you thought the 1970s were swingin’, better watch The Ice Storm to realize just how miserable most of these supposedly liberated people really were. One of the earliest of Ang Lee’s numerous successful attempts at proving himself the master of any genre, this thought-provoking drama provides a fascinating portrait of two generations of suburban Connecticuters (that’s a real word, I looked it up): the parents who threw their keys in bowls at parties, which helped determine which other parents they went home with, and the children who were the casualties of this moral lassitude. Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood and Katie Homles all do powerful work in one of Lee’s best films.
3) The Haunting in Connecticut (2009, Peter Cornwell). My Flickchart: #1697/3527. Global: #12541. Try to forget for a moment that there was a sequel released this year with the absurd title The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia (um, what?), and instead remember that the original Haunting in Connecticut was actually pretty good. My lingering impression of its quality may have something to do with watching it the same weekend as the dreadful My Bloody Valentine 3D (Halloween weekend 2010), but I remember this fairly standard haunted house movie as both convincingly acted and chillingly executed. Kyle Gallner does good work in the lead role. It’s one of those movies that benefits from being so much less terrible than you expected it would be.
4) Reservation Road (2007, Terry George). My Flickchart: #2203/3527. Global: #12919. Given my love of John Cameron Mitchell‘s Rabbit Hole, I was seeking similar catharsis from an earlier film on the same topic: parents grieving the loss of a young boy struck by a car. Reservation Road reminded me how uncommonly good Rabbit Hole really is … and it’s more like the movie I thought Rabbit Hole would be. After a moment’s distraction causes a fatal accident alongside the Connecticut road of the title, Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly struggle with the aftermath in ways that should play to their strengths as actors — though that outcome is not ultimately achieved. (Mark Ruffalo and Mira Sorvino do the same, for different reasons.) The strangest thing about this movie is how it piggybacks a subplot about the Boston Red Sox’ improbable 2004 World Series run on an otherwise unrelated story.
5) Stoker (2013, Chan-wook Park). My Flickchart: #2864/3527. Global: #7784. Anticipation was through the roof for the English-language debut of the South Korean director responsible for the so-called “Vengeance Trilogy” (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance). The results, unfortunately, were in the basement. The auteur and confident visual stylist comes across like a recent film school graduate trying out a bunch of showy camera tricks, as the film is both shot and art-directed to within an inch of its life. What’s more, save for one memorable speech by Nicole Kidman, Park gets wooden performances from his actors. Their interactions proceed at a pace that makes Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Drive seem like a gabfest. This story of a rich, icy Connecticut family full of potentially incestuous psychopaths is a tough slog indeed.
First duel: The Stepford Wives vs. The Haunting in Connecticut. Robotic housewives are far scarier than anything you might find in a haunted house. The Stepford Wives wins.
Second duel: The Stepford Wives vs. The Ice Storm. At least in this case, recreated 1970s Connecticut beats real 1970s Connecticut. The Ice Storm wins.
The Stepford Wives finishes third out of the six movies.
The way they did opening titles in the 1970s — including not only the title, but also some other fine print and the release year in Roman numerals — is something modern filmmakers have been emulating for a few years now, when they’ve wanted to pay homage to the gritty 1970s aesthetic or just straight-up borrow it to increase their movie’s cool factor. So there was something about seeing that technique used legitimately in The Stepford Wives that really put my in a frame of mind to enjoy the movie, and enjoy it I did.
However, there was one obstacle I had to overcome first, which is that Wikipedia describes Ira Levin’s original novel as a “satirical thriller.” My first reaction to that characterization was “If it’s a satire, how chilling could it really be?” (I was apparently equating “thrilling” and “chilling” here, for no reason I can think of.) Well, the answer is: plenty. William Goldman’s adaptation of Levin’s novel is a slow burn, as you would expect something like this to be, but you get tastes of both the satire and the thrills/chills from the start. Sure, these women are a bit fixated on acting as the pre-feminist ideal of a married housewife (there’s the satire), but you don’t really know there’s anything “wrong” per se until one of them “blows a gasket” after a low-speed car accident and begins repeating a snippet of husband-submissive dialogue that seems to have been programmed into her. Forbes’ shrewdly errs on the side of subtlety in directing his actresses, which makes it all the more effective when they do lose their composure. A bit like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives leaves the audience on the edge of its seat, wondering who may have become a pod person since last we saw them.
Let’s not forget the satire portion, though. This is no simple science fiction/conspiracy theory movie, but rather, a look at how all married women/mothers undergo a change when they inevitably sacrifice their dreams to raise a family and support a husband. Much is made in this film about how Ross’ Joanna Eberhart doesn’t want to give up her aspirations of becoming a photographer. That outcome isn’t only the implied threat of the Stepford Men’s Association, however. It’s what happens to all people, disproportionately women, when they trade their “city life” (both actual and metaphorical) for the stability and creature comforts of the affluent suburbs. The Stepford Wives is great satire (and great science fiction) because it takes the legitimate fears of the era in which it was made and finds a way to disguise them within a ripping yarn and a juicy premise.
Rhode Island? Such a lie. It’s got a coast, but it ain’t no island. However, it does have some pretty fancy areas. One of them is Newport, which I’ll be exploring when I watch Charles Walters‘ 1956 film High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly.