With Bryan Forbes passing, I was reminded of what a good director he was.
He taught me the importance of listening. Oh, I had taken acting classes with Wyn Handman, who directed the American Place Theatre with classmates the likes of Richard Gere and Brad Davis, and filmed many commercials as a spokesperson, but "Stepford Wives" was my first major motion picture. It was the 1975 Ira Levin thriller in which women are turned into docile electronic incarnations of themselves.
The scene I recall his talented direction was the following: All we wives were seated in a group therapy session when the topic turned to how our husbands were forcing us to do intense housework and we were rebelling. But instead of objecting to the masculine brow beating, eager to please any male when the topic was cleaning, I said, “It took me so long to get my upstairs floor to shine, I didn’t have any time to bake.”
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"Have you ever tried Easy Off?" my girlfriend asked.
"Is it really that good?" I replied. Bryan wanted me to think about a life and death situation and the gravity this would imply.
"Listen to Toni, Carole. You’re not listening to her," Bryan yelled.
And he was right. The music became chime-like and eerie and the audience was given a clue that I was dead. That all the wives were dead. We were servants to our husbands. Slaves. Zombies in house dresses. Not wives. Loving wives.
This was a pivotal scene and Bryan made it work because he watched our performances like a myopic hawk and was forceful in his direction. We all listened to him, especially when he yelled, which wasn’t often.
"Stepford Wives" drew mixed reviews and endures as a cult film and a quasi-feminist document. It helped make the phrase Stepford wife, describing any woman who seems vapid and compliant, an enduring part of the lexicon.
In 2004 Bryan Forbes was named a Commander of the British Empire. But for all his accomplishments, Bryan remained remembered almost exclusively for “The Stepford Wives,” and sometimes found himself having to defend the film against misinterpretation.
In an interview in 2004, he recounted having been accosted by an umbrella-wielding woman at a press screening. “I remember saying to this particular savagely disturbed woman, 'You’ve missed the whole point,'" he recalled. "A, it’s a fantasy; B, if anybody looks stupid, it’s the men. It’s not an attack on women. It’s an attack on women being exploited by men."