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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: Rosemary’s Baby

 

PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

ROSEMARY’S BABY (Two Discs) (Four Stars)

U.S.: Roman Polanski, 1968 (Criterion Collection)

Rosemary’s Baby introduced Roman Polanski to Hollywood, and vice versa, and they proved to be a tighter  match than we could have imagined beforehand. This nerve-fraying version of writer  Ira Levin’s demonic best-seller about the troubled pregnancy of a nice young woman betrayed by her husband and raped by the devil — directed by a young Polish master  of psychological suspense (Knife in the Water, Repulsion) —  worked like a slick dream, or rather like a slick nightmare.

It became an almost instant classic of movie horror — besides spawning a whole raft of Satanic thrillers, from The Exorcist on.  And it was in many ways a typical tale of that bad dream decade the ‘60s:  a hellish spine-tingler of a story, which sounds at first gasp like utter lunacy,  told from the point of view of a dreamy baby-faced blonde, Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow, fresh from TV‘s prime time soap opera, “Peyton Place”) and for much of the movie, we may wonder if Rosemary isn’t in fact, going crazy herself.

Is her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) —  an opportunistic young stage and TV actor looking for his first big break — really selling his wife to a band of Satanists so she can mother the Devil‘s child? Are the Woodhouses’   gabby, chatty, nosey next-door neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet (played with kvetching blabbermouth perfection by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer)  really a conduit to the fires of Hell?  Did the Castevets’ pretty young house guest Terry (Angela Dorian a.k.a. Victoria Vetri) fall, from their apartment window, or did she jump, or was she pushed? Is Rosemary’s high end obstetrician, Minnie and Roman’s fatherly friend Dr. Abe Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) really preparing her for the birth of a baby with horns?   Is the child she’s carrying really the spawn of Satan?  Or is she just nuts? Or is she…

Since Rosemary’s Baby is a horror  movie, adapted from the best-selling horror novel by Levin, we may not wonder very long about any of this. But Levin and Polanski make the characters and the yarn so real-seeming (if also darkly baroque and wittily exaggerated) that the idea of Rosemary‘s possible dementia lingers almost to the end of her hair-raising movie pregnancy. Finally, when Rosemary tries to escape her friendly seeming persecutors, including the irrepressible Patsy Kelly as bossy Laura-Louise — Rosemary dashing off to a phone booth (with the movie’s genially menacing-looking producer William Castle, just outside), and with Rosemary calling and running to her first obstetrician, ironical  Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin) and nervously blurting out the whole story —  we call tell how he’s reacting (smiling. politely but clearly unbelievingly in a very Grodinesque way). As she tells her fantastic story with childlike open-hearted trust, we can see how every spooky detail is another nail in her madwoman’s coffin — even though by then, we know that Rosemary is trustworthy and almost everyone around her is not.

Rosemary’s Baby is shot with claustrophobic intensity and voluptuous eeriness by Polanski and his gifted cinematographer William Fraker (who also photographed Bullitt), is a great-looking, beautifully-acted, very scary show that probably affects you even if you don’t believe in the devil (as I don’t). The movie came out in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, and the student protests and the waves of political assassinations and violence that came also in its wake. And even , though Polanski, a fairly recent émigré to the west from Communist Eastern Europe,  doesn’t touch on anything political, and though Levin is careful to make Rosemary a conventional liberal and Guy basically an apolitical egotist, we can sense the conflagration outside, the youth revolution so at odds with the community of aging menace we see in the Castevets’ weird community. Minnie may fuss with her Lipton tea and goodies, and gab non-stop while gingerly wiping the dust from the tables, but we know that elsewhere, away from the Woodhouses’ spooky old apartment at the Bramford —  a haunted hotel according to Rosemary and Guy‘s friend, boys‘ book author Hutch (played by Maurice Evans, who was a famous TV Macbeth) — all Hell is breaking loose. The building manager of the Bramford is that film noir mainstay, Elisha Cook, Jr. and the Bramford itslef is played, in eterior shots, by John Lennon’s last  home, The Dakota.

Rosemary‘s Baby is essentially a movie about the possible triumph of Satan and evil over God and good. (At one point, we see the infamous ’60s Time Magazine cover asking Is God Dead?). And it’s about Armageddon, which was much on people’s minds those days, as the young were plagued by Vietnam, and the old were plagued by what they saw as a collapse of values in the young (because, at least partly, of Vietnam). It’s both nerve-rackingly suspenseful and sardonically funny, as it describes something that we could interpret as one sort of end of the world.  It’s also one of the best films of that era about New York City itself, as drenched in a funny way with the city’s special air and atmosphere (despite limited exteriors) as anything by Sidney Lumet, or later, by Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee. Or, for that matter, Cassavetes’ own New York movies, Shadows and Gloria (also a later Lumet movie.)

Polanski, who is a great director of actors, famously didn’t get along on Rosemary’s Baby with Cassavetes (a greater director of actors and actresses). Cassavetes was Polanski‘s hand-picked choice for the role of Guy and the two began as buddies, then descended into friction and some rancor. Perhaps the reason for that schism lay in their contrasting views of humanity: Cassavetes’ more earthy and humane, Polanski’s more absurdist and ironic.

At the center of the movie though, is an actor with whom the director did get along, and who owes to Polanski one of the incontestable highlights of her career: Mia Farrow. One can imagine other actors, including  Robert Redford playing Cassavetes’ Guy, but no one else could have made Rosemary so completely her own. She is a sweet young thing, who often seems barely more than a child herself — though the real Mia was married at the time to Frank Sinatra. (The movie, which Sinatra didn’t want her to do, split up the marriage.) And that makes Ms. Farrow perfect for this demonic tale of the evil within, as well as an ideal denizen of the dark, fear-drenched world of Polanski, which is full of baby-faced, childlike, waiflike  blondes (Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Dorleac, Sharon Tate, Nastassia Kinski).

None quite as childlike as Rosemary however, who is accompanied in the film by a lullaby, who is surrounded by wicked grandparents, who wanders though the Bramford in a nightgown, who is visualized in a green sky above a baby carriage in the film‘s unforgettable poster. Pray for Rosemary’s Baby, the poster asks. Ah, yes. Pray for her mother too. And pray for…

SPECIAL FEATURES: Documentary including interviews with Roman Polanski, Mia Farrow and Paramount production bossRobert Evans; Radio interview with Ira Levin; documentary Komeda, Komeda (Three Stars), about Polanski’s jazz composer collaborator/friend Krzysztof Komeda, who wrote the score for Rosemary’s Baby; Booklet with essay by Ed Park, Levin’s 2003 afterword to the novel, plus his character sketches of Rosemary and Guy and his floor plan of the Woodhouse apartment.

 

One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs: Rosemary’s Baby”

  1. cj says:

    A masterpiece for all the reasons mentioned and the whole cast almost sang their parts, especially Ruth Gordon. It was the type of movie, seldom made today, that treated the audience like royalty.

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“The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you.”
~ Wes Craven, 1996, promoting Scream

MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

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