`Opening Shots: The unusual, unexpected, potentially career-threatening first
roles that launched the careers of 70 Hollywood stars`
Written by Damien Bona
`Mary Stuart Masterson: The Stepford Wives (1974)`
Born in 1966, Mary Stuart Masterson is the daughter of actor-writer-stage director Peter Masterson and actress Carlyn Glynn. Not until 1978, when her father co-wrote and co-directed, and her mother starred in and won a Tony for, the Broadway musical `The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,` did Masterson's family get on firm ground in terms of both bankability and money in the bank. Therefore, back in 1974 when Peter Masterson got a co-starring role in the film version of Ira Levin's best-seller `The Stepford Wives,` it was a gala occasion. Since his character had two young daughters, why waste time trying to find a little girl who looked as if she might have inherited some of her screen father's genes when you could have the real thing? Hiring Peter Masterson's true-life daughter made perfect sense, and seven-year-old Mary Stuart headed to Westport for filming.
Directed by Bryan Forbes, a veteran of British kitchen-sink movies, `The Stepford Wives` is science fiction about a suburb where the women all behave like devoted followers of Marabel Morgan's `The Total Woman,` blissfully doing housework, cooking gourmet meals and living to please their men. Leading lady Katharine Ross and her friend Paula Prentiss, both newcomers to town, discover that the village's wives have been replaced by robots, and Ross finds out that her husband, Peter Masterson, wants in on the action. Mildly satiric, both about the women's movement and what used to be referred to as male chauvinist pigs, `The Stepford Wives` might have made a diverting episode of `The Twilight Zone,` but stretched to two hours it wears pretty thin. There's not much more to the movie than its premise, and since the town's secret was common knowledge in 1975, actually sitting through the movie became superfluous. "Something strange is happening in the Town of Stepford," said the ads, but what Frank Rich, writing in the leftie magazine `New Times,` saw was "a classic example of how Hollywood tries to exploit a `topical` issue without ever bothering to find out its substance."
`Introducing Mary Stuart Masterson`
Mary Stuart Masterson's first screen line (other than a perfunctory "Thank you" to a doorman): "Daddy, I just saw a man carrying a naked lady."
Mary Stuart Masterson, who received 22nd billing, has very little to do as Kim Eberhart: going to the supermarket with her parents, riding on the school bus, hanging out around the Fairfield County house and playing in the yard -- standard little-girl things. She is basically indistinguishable from Ronny Sullivan, who plays her sister, Amy (Mary Stuart's hair is slightly longer). In fact, the two girls are so peripheral to `The Stepford Wives` that we never hear their names until more than 90 minutes into the movie; up till then they're simply referred to as "the kids," "the girls," "Sweetie" or "you guys." Mary Stuart does have two dramatic moments. One is when she can't sleep after the family has just moved to Stepford, and she says to Katherine Ross of her stuffed animal, "I think Teddy's gonna cry all night." The other is when she and her sister live every child's nightmare: walking in on an argument between the parents. "Are you two fighting?" she inquires.
She's a cute towheaded child, but there is nothing in her performance to indicate the extraordinary actress she would grow up to be, with her seemingly thaumaturgic mixture of fragility and free-spirited toughness. But even back then the wheels were turning. During one scene, set late at night, director Forbes asked her to pep up her entrance into a room. "Why?" she inquired. "It will be better," the director explained. "We want to see your lovely face." "But it's supposed to be late at night and I'm supposed to have just woken up," protested the little actress. "I should be tired!"
After this one stint in the movies, Masterson's parents decided she would have a more grounded childhood outside the limelight, for which she was grateful. "They helped me stay on track as a person with my first priority being experience," she said. "They told me, `You can't play a person unless you are one.`" She did perform in productions at New York's Dalton School and on Broadway at age 15 in Eva Le Gallienne's version of `Alice in Wonderland,` enacting two roles, the Four of Hearts and the Small White Rabbit. Masterson was 17 when she returned to films as Danni, the vulnerable working girl in `Heaven Help Us.` Except for an eight-month dry spell after completing the film -- during which she entered New York University to study anthropology -- she hasn't slowed down. She graced a number of films of varying quality (`At Close Range,` `Some Kind of Wonderful,` `Funny About Love`) that had one thing in common: Hardly anybody came to see them. As Masterson put it, "I'm lucky not to be considered box-office poison." After playing Idgie in 1991's `Fried Green Tomatoes` she was anything but.