Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Roman's Baby

I was an avid reader from an early age, always raiding my parents’ bookshelf for material that was usually a bit above my head. My favorites, though, were my dad’s horror and suspense titles—Harvest Home by Tom Tryon, The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty and, best of all, the amazing Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, a novel that was so cleverly and cinematically written that it played like a film in my head as I read it.

When, several years later, I got the chance to see the movie, I was amazed and delighted that the film followed the book faithfully, scene by scene, beat by beat, practically even line by line of dialogue. Director Roman Polanski had wisely followed Levin’s tightly written book to the letter; Rosemary’s Baby (1968) remains the most faithful film adaptation of a popular novel.

It’s also one of my all-time favorite movies, one that I can watch over and over and find new things to admire about it. (The beautiful Criterion Collection blu-ray edition I own allows me to do just that.) Best of all, Rosemary turned me on to the talents of one of the cinema’s most groundbreaking and controversial directors.

The best-selling novel by Ira Levin was not the author’s first to be adapted into a film--A Kiss Before Dying was first. (The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil, Deathtrap and Sliver were to follow, with varying degrees of success, but none approached the cache of the Polanski film.) Levin’s themes, delving into urban paranoia, conspiracy and the nature of evil in contemporary society, were perfect in a post-JFK-assassination America. (The Time magazine  asking “Is God Dead?” that Rosemary reads in the doctor’s office says it all.)

When wunderkind producer Robert Evans, newly minted head of Paramount Pictures (a former actor far handsomer than many of his stars) green-lighted the project, the novel had been optioned by horror schlockmeister William Castle (The Tingler, Strait-Jacket, I Saw What You Did), but Evans was determined not to allow Castle to direct. (Castle would receive a producer credit and a cameo appearance as the menacing man outside the phone booth in Rosemary’s claustrophobic telephone scene.) Instead, Evans chose an exciting new talent to helm the project.

Star Farrow confers with producer Evans and director Polanski
Rosemary is the perfect introduction to the artistry of director Roman Polanski—it may in fact be the auteur’s masterwork. It was Polanski’s first American production, after wowing European audiences with his innovative thrillers Knife in the Water (produced in his native Poland and Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film of 1964) and Repulsion (made in France in 1965). Polanski was fast garnering a reputation for bold, raw realism, taking the “New Wave” cinema of the 1960s to the next level.

Together, Evans and Polanski assembled a talented creative team to tell this absorbing story of a young woman expecting her first child, and the strange circumstances surrounding her pregnancy. 

This may be the ultimate “victim movie;” the character of Rosemary is duped, drugged, raped, lied to and controlled by a sinister devil-worshiping cabal that includes her own husband. (Ambitious actor Guy Woodhouse treats his young wife like chattel, a bargaining chip to put on the table, selling his soul—and his wife’s—to achieve stardom.) It’s also the ultimate conspiracy film as well, because not until the final scene do we know for sure that Rosemary’s worries and concerns are not mere paranoid delusions. Oh, yes, and evil seems to triumph in the end.

The character of Rosemary offers a conflicted view of womanhood. On one hand, she embodies weakness, pain and suffering. On the other, she listens to her own intuition and  relentlessly pursues the truth about her situation. Ultimately, although she is confronted with the ultimate evil, her maternal instincts kick in and she finds herself adapting to a “new normal.”

Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse

Polanski seriously considered his wife Sharon Tate for the role of Rosemary; indeed, she did have a quality very similar to Catherine Deneuve, the beleaguered heroine of his previous psychological thriller Repulsion; but Paramount wanted at least one bankable name in the cast. Mia Farrow starred on the wildly popular nighttime soap opera Peyton Place, and won the role after Tuesday Weld reportedly turned it down.

As Rosemary Woodhouse, Mia Farrow is delicate, waif-like and reed-thin, and the famous Vidal Sassoon pixie cut makes her appear even more vulnerable, a sharp contrast from her Sydney Guilaroff wigs (favored by Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day and Kim Novak) in the early sequences. Mia Farrow iconically embodies the title character, imbuing her with warmth and humanity. Farrow deserved a Best Actress Oscar for creating one of the most iconic damsels in distress in cinema history, but incredibly, she was not even nominated. She did win Italy’s David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Actress and was nominated for Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards for her luminous and fragile—yet determined—Rosemary.

Farrow sacrificed her marriage to Frank Sinatra to finish filming Rosemary. Sinatra had signed his young wife to costar opposite him in The Detective, but by the film’s appointed start date, the Polanski film was far from finished. Polanski’s painstaking attention to detail and elaborate setups slowed the creative process and put the picture weeks behind schedule, which infuriated Sinatra. He served his wife of nine months divorce papers right on the Rosemary set.

John Cassavetes as Guy Woodhouse
Polanski was inspired in his against-type casting of John Cassavetes in the role of Guy Woodhouse; an auteur himself, Cassavetes epitomizes the hungry ambition of the New York “actor type.” Originally the role was planned for Robert Redford...but if he had gone through with it, Polanski would have run the risk of turning his suspense thriller into Barefoot at the Bramford…with Mia in her sunny Doris Day-like outfits with golden boy Redford by her side. (Later Redford would star opposite Farrow in the unfortunate 1974 version of The Great Gatsby.) Instead, the dark, inscrutable Cassavetes (sexy without being handsome) with his curious Method delivery and his shifty eyes, adds a menacing air right from the start.

Making the villanous Satan-worshiping cabal a seemingly kindly group of senior citizens was an Ira Levin stroke of genius, and those supporting roles were cast just as brilliantly by Polanski, with old-time character actors like Patsy Kelly (Pigskin Parade), Ralph Bellamy (His Girl Friday) and Elisha Cook (The Maltese Falcon). Sidney Blackmer (who played Grace Kelly’s dad in High Society) is eccentric and bombastic as Roman Castevet, martyr to his father’s old religion.

Sidney Blackmer as Roman Castevet
As Roman’s dotty wife Minnie, showbiz veteran Ruth Gordon all but steals the show, earning her a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress at the age of 71. A multitalented actress and writer, Gordon was the wife of Garson Kanin, with whom she coauthored such classic films as A Double Life, Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike.

Gordon’s quirky character role as Natalie Wood’s demented mother in Inside Daisy Clover had reignited her acting career, and thanks to Rosemary’s Baby, she went on to enjoy the most successful third act in all of show business (save perhaps for Betty White), working steadily through the 1970s in classics including Harold and Maude, Where’s Poppa? and My Bodyguard. Her last film was Maxie with Glenn Close in 1985, the year she died. In 1977, Gordon briefly reprised her role as Minnie Castevet in the poor TV movie sequel Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby. Perhaps it would have been more palatable had Minnie’s role been bigger!

Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet
Director Polanski begins his storytelling at a leisurely pace, letting the tension build slowly but surely with a heightened form of naturalism, as newlyweds Guy and Rosemary rent a four-room apartment in a grand and charming old apartment house with a sinister history, as they are warned by their elderly friend Hutch. The film is punctuated with a strain of black humor throughout, mostly in the character of Minnie Castevet but also through Guy (“I think I hear the Trench Sisters chewing”) and Maurice Evans’s Hutch (“I see you had another suicide over there at Happy House”), among others.

The Woodhouses tour the Bramford apartment with Mr. Miklas (Elisha Cook, Jr.)
An important character in the film is the gothic apartment house itself, the “Black Bramford.” The filming location, of course, is the infamous Dakota on Central Park West, scene of tragedy a dozen years later when John Lennon was shot and killed in front of the building where he lived.

Production designer Paul Sylbert, aided by his talented daughter costume designer (and later producer) Anthea Sylbert, creates a palette of bright Technicolor to contrast with the darkness of the tale—lemon yellows, rose reds and wild prints. Rosemary’s penchant for yellow-and-white wallpaper described in the book is brought to life here and used as a backdrop for the weird dreams and goings-on in the bedroom scenes. Anthea Sylbert captures the late 1960s zeitgeist in Rosemary’s breezy dresses (including some very chic maternity ensembles), the avant garde outfits of the young friends at Rosemary’s party.  and even the colorfully zany pinks-and-reds of the Castevets, oldies trying to seem hip and vibrant and “with it.”

A scuffed-up Rosemary in her lemon yellow bedroom
Polanski seemed galvanized by every aspect of the story, both grandiose and mundane, and his obsessively detailed and choreographed camera compositions make this a cinema experience like no other. Some of my favorite Polanski moments here include seeing a distorted Rosemary’s bloody lips and fingers reflected in the toaster as she gnaws on raw chicken livers (her kid will not grow up a vegan); and Rosemary using her butcher knife to stop the baby’s bassinet from rocking and give her away as she readies herself for a climactic confrontation with evil.

"Oh, no, don't change the program on my account..."
The director excels in conceptualizing the novel’s unusual dream sequences, which when reading seem impossible to convey on film. These include Minnie Castevet’s voiceover on a scene with nuns in a Catholic school, and the drug-induced yacht sequence replete with weird cameo appearances by lookalikes for Pope Paul, Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy, which segues into the nude ritual in which Rosemary is impregnated by “someone inhuman.” “This is no dream, this is really happening!”

Polanski’s choice of composer is another feather in his cap as a master of suspense. Christopher Komeda’s innovative use of music conveys the underlying tension and anxiety, from the repetitive piano tinklings of “Fur Elise” to the atonal cacophony of jazz as Rosemary flees from Guy and Sapirstein upstairs to her apartment. Komeda even composed a memorable theme for Rosemary’s mysterious pregnancy pain, described by Levin in the book as “a wire around me getting tighter and tighter.”

Mrs. Gilmore (Hope Summers) and Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy)
 Is this a horror film? In some ways, yes, but far from a conventional one. Though the supernatural element is downplayed in favor of gnawing tension and paranoia—is Rosemary imagining it all?—we must remember that the Castevets’ satanic magic actually works. Guy wins the star-making stage role he had previously lost to Donald Baumgart after his enlightening after-dinner conversation with Roman—Baumgart suddenly goes blind. (The tense telephone scene between Rosemary and an unseen Baumgurt later in the film is chilling—thanks partially to the inimitable voiceover performance of Tony Curtis, who just happened to be a visitor to the set that day!)  And Hutch goes into a coma before he has time to warn Rosemary about all of those witches, directly after meeting Castevet. And of course, in the iconic final scene when Rosemary sees her baby open its eyes for the first time, she knows that Guy Woodhouse is definitely not the father.

Dark humor alert: Rosemary, Roman and Laura-Louise (Patsy Kelly)
Rosemary’s Baby made Roman Polanski an international filmmaking superstar. Though not nominated for Best Director by the Academy that year (he should have been!), Polanski did earn a well-deserved Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay of the Levin novel. 

The controversial Polanski has manifested even more drama in his life than in his work. Less than a year after Rosemary’s success, he endured a horrific real-life tragedy when wife Sharon Tate, pregnant with their child, was brutally murdered in their L.A. home, becoming the most famous victim of the gruesome “Manson family” murders.

Roman Polanski
Several years later, Polanski was convicted of raping a teenage girl at the home of Jack Nicholson. The director fled the U.S. to avoid a prison sentence, and has not been permitted to set foot in the United States since. He has been married to French actress Emmanuelle Seigneur since 1989.

The prolific Polanski has enjoyed many career high points since Rosemary’s Baby, most notably 1974’s Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway and 2002’s The Pianist, which finally earned him the Best Director Academy Award. My personal favorite Polanski films include Frantic with Harrison Ford and soon-to-be-wife Seigneur, The Ghost Writer with Ewan McGregor, and the auteur’s return to the occult devil-worship oeuvre with 1999’s The Ninth Gate starring Johnny Depp, with Seigneur as a seductive female Satan.

My all-time-favorite blogpost about this all-time-favorite film can be found over at the divine Le Cinema Dreams movie-lover's mecca.

Thanks so much to my friend Quiggy at the Midnite Drive-In and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies for hosting the Favorite Director Blogathon!