Why the Stepford Wives' Creator Secretly Hates Women; How Divorces and a Domineering Mother Inspired Ira Levin's Fantasies about Abused and Submissive Women

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), July 25, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Why the Stepford Wives' Creator Secretly Hates Women; How Divorces and a Domineering Mother Inspired Ira Levin's Fantasies about Abused and Submissive Women


Byline: SHARON CHURCHER

The [pounds sterling]50million remake of the film The Stepford Wives, with Nicole Kidman in the central role, is released in Britain on Friday. Kidman plays a Manhattan woman who moves to Stepford, a small town with a big secret: the men have their wives turned into beautiful but compliant robots.

The dark plot is the brainchild of Ira Levin, and since the book was first published and made into a movie in the Seventies it has become synonymous with a twisted male fantasy in which the world is full of sexually desirable but totally submissive women.

Levin, now 73, has published many other novels, including The Boys From Brazil, Rosemary's Baby and A Kiss Before Dying, which have made him the world's most successful living thriller writer. But what all those books have in common is a disturbing attitude towards women. Why is the targeting, manipulation and sometimes brutal abuse of them such a central theme in his work?

The answer might lie in his complicated feelings about his domineering mother, which still cast a long, dark shadow over his relationships with women.

Both his marriages ended in divorce and he describes himself as a loner whose fiction is now his 'wife'. It is a telling comment: in a stream of books that became Hollywood blockbusters, he makes women the victims of sickening assaults. In Rosemary's Baby a young New Yorker, played by Mia Farrow in the film version of his 1967 novel, is impregnated by the Devil; a sadistic Nazi doctor (played on screen by Gregory Peck) forces women to carry Hitler's clones in The Boys From Brazil; in the Hollywood adaptation of Sliver, Sharon Stone is targeted by a psychotic voyeur.

And in The Stepford Wives, the protagonist is an opinionated feminist strikingly reminiscent of his mother, Beatrice Levin. Depicted by Nicole Kidman in the new film, she is turned into a compliant drudge; the apple-pie antithesis of strong womanhood.

Ira's older sister, Eleanor, told me: 'Our mother was very dynamic; a very sophisticated woman who was a free spirit before her time. She loved to take Ira and me to the movies, for instance, and, of course, we saw the movies she liked - tearjerkers, musicals, Agatha Christie mysteries - rather than the sort of thing a little boy would usually go to see, like Westerns.

'Ira had a very privileged childhood but it was dominated by our mother.

Our father, Charles, was in the export business and he travelled a great deal while Mother ran the household. She was very ambitious for both of us and was delighted when Ira showed a talent for writing' Julius Medwin, Ira's best friend since childhood, adds: 'Ira loved his mother, but in his relationships with women he wanted someone who was quite the opposite. The Stepford Wives came out of his fantasy about the ideal woman; someone submissive with big boobs. He felt that was secretly what every man would like.' In the Bronx of 1929, when Ira was born, most children were being groomed to become shopkeepers, accountants, lawyers or doctors; nice, safe careers, but Ira would sit in his room thumbing through his mother's collection of Agatha Christie novels.

Soon after Ira's bar mitzvah the family moved to Manhattan, and Ira was sent to a private school. His father had hoped Ira would join the family business and frequently clashed with his son before finally giving in and agreeing to subsidise his writing career.

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