Friday, September 30, 2011

ROSEMARY'S BABY 1968

“Cinematically speaking, if stressful social times trigger in our culture the need for escapism as a coping mechanism, then such conditions must equally inspire the necessity of what can be best described as a shrouded emotional outlet: an avenue, concealed to the psyche, through which the fears and uncertainties of the times can be safely vented. In this manner the horror film has always been socially revealing.”  

Rosemary's Baby: Child of the 60s:
Rosemary’s Baby was released in June of 1968. And as social climates go, one couldn't find a year more defined by stress, fear, and uncertainty than America in 1968. This was the year that saw Richard Nixon elected into office of President; the assassination of two American symbols of hope (Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy); U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam escalate; and big cities and college campuses across the nation wracked by violent civil rights protests and heated anti-war demonstrations. Observed Los Angeles Times journalist Bettuane Levine: “It was a very bad year. Strikes, sit - ins and bloody riots dotted the land, as various groups sought their share of the pie. The result was a country in crisis, our cities in tatters, our dislocated lives punctuated by assassination, Cold War threats, nuclear terrors, and a general feeling that nothing would ever be the same again.”
Real-life Time Magazine cover, dated April 1, 1966, poses the unasked question that Rosemary's Baby's powerfully ambiguous ending  inspires.
For anyone endeavoring to make a horror film in the 60s, a seemingly insurmountable hurdle lie in determining what could possibly frighten an audience who had beamed into their homes, on a nightly basis via television, the real-life terrors of war; and who, through photo magazines like Life and Look, regularly confronted graphic evidence of a nation growing increasingly chaotic. What fictional monster could compete with the real-life horror that was modern America?   

Enter, Rosemary's Baby. Ira Levin's cannily plotted modern horror story about present-day witchcraft took classic gothic conventions and re-imagined them through the prism of an emerging new world view. A world in which castles, bats, cobwebs, and creaky doorways were no longer considered viable mechanisms of fear. A world that had moved beyond superstition and myth to worship at the altar of science and logic. Rosemary's Baby proposed that even in a world in which God and religion are deemed obsolete, there remain things that never die and primitive evils that no amount of civilization and modernization can eradicate.
Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse
John Cassavetes as Guy Woodhouse
Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet
Sidney Blackmer as Roman Castevet
Roman Polanski's uncommonly faithful film adaptation took Levin's narrative one step further. He  threaded the tale of a young bride's mounting certainty that a coven of witches has evil designs on her unborn child with both cultural subtext (is the dawning of the year "One" [1966] and the birth of the Antichrist on earth the true explanation for the world's escalating terrors?), and ambiguity (Polanski initially filmed, and later deleted, several scenes that distinctly confirmed Guy's involvement with the coven. An avowed atheist, Polanski wanted to make a film about witchcraft and Satanism that would play just as well as a psychological thriller about a pregnant woman suffering a paranoid breakdown). No matter how it's viewed, in Polanski's deft hands, Rosemary’s Baby proves to be an overwhelmingly persuasive allegory of social apprehension and the durability of evil.

What a diabolically clever plot: The living Devil born in a Manhattan apartment building (The notorious Bramford, portrayed externally in the film by the notorious Dakota, site of the tragic 1980 shooting death of John Lennon) to a lapsed Catholic, a woman of wavering faith, used merely as a vessel. This act signaling the end of God's hegemony and the beginning of a new, Satanic world order. Historically, this would place the birth of Satan on earth as occuring in 1966, the very year when things began to go violently "wrong" with society on a global scale. No wonder sixties audiences responded to the imaginary "order" this fantasy imposed on the chaos surrounding them.
Under the piercing scrutiny of Roman Castevet, Rosemary's friend, Hutch (Maurice Evans) grows suspicious when shown Rosemary's Tannis Root charm. 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Rosemary's Baby truly excels in its dramatization of the banality of evil. Though played for darkly comic effect, it's really rather jarring that the monsters in this contemporary horror film are harmless-looking little old ladies and men. Just the kind of colorless, ordinary people we as a society are so quick to dismiss. Imagine this film playing out in the "Don't trust anyone over 30" climate of the 60s, and you get a taste of just how subversively eerie Rosemary's Baby seemed when it hit the screens. Audiences accustomed to horror films as B-movie double-feature fare were disquieted when this major motion picture (which was intentionally shot to look as if it were a Doris Day comedy) with an art-house director and an A-list cast dared to make a horror film that took itself seriously enough to be truly frightening. 
 First Betrayal: Polanski has Cassavetes shield his face from the audience the first time Guy lies to Rosemary

In Rosemary's Baby Polanski depicts a world morally turned on its axis, and in keeping so much of its horrors unseen or unsubstantiated, orchestrates a slow, nightmarish transformation of all that is perceived as safe and familiar in our culture into that which is dangerous and sinister. As a cleverly constructed parable of 60s unease, Rosemary's Baby captured the imagination of the country (It was one of the top money-makers of the year) by providing some much-needed cathartic release.
The security and sanctity of marriage as an illusion.
Expectant mothers, in their vulnerability, make for deeply unsettling targets of danger.
Can patriarchal figures of authority (Ralph Bellamy as Dr.Sapirstein) betray us?

PERFORMANCES:
When trying to come up with words to adequately express my admiration for Mia Farrow's performance as Rosemary, my vocabulary proves grossly inadequate. From the moment she appears onscreen she exhibits a vulnerable credibility that anchors the film in an emotional reality necessary to make the horror fantasy work. She's no genre heroine moved about like a chess piece for the sake of furthering the plot. At every instant the actions of Farrow's Rosemary are rooted in something psychologically authentic. It ranks with Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde and Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? as one of the best performances by an American actress in the 60s.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
As he proved with his psychosexual thriller, Repulsion (1965) Roman Polanski is expert at conveying, in cinematic terms, the fluid, distorted quality of dreams and the reality-altering effects of paranoia. He handles Rosemary's Baby's pivotal "nightmare" sequence with virtuoso skill.
They didn't refer to this as the "nightmare sequence" for nothing. At age 11, this scene nearly traumatized me.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Rosemary's Baby wasn't the first film I ever saw, it just feels that way. At 11 years old, it was the first film to ever make an indelible impression upon me. I never forgot it. Part of this was due to the fact that it was absolutely THE most frightening film I had ever seen and was responsible for innumerable bad dreams and a reluctance to enter dark rooms for months thereafter;  but mostly it was because Rosemary's Baby was, and is, a small masterpiece.
The scene that made me jump the first time I saw the film (and still makes my blood run cold!)
A horror film that plays fast and loose with the conventions of the genre, blending elements of the psychological thriller and paranoid social drama. Beautifully shot, well-written, superbly acted, and above all, smart as a whip. At no time during Rosemary's Baby do you ever lose the feeling that you are in the hands of a man who knows exactly what he's doing and eliciting from you precisely the response he wants you to have.
It is a film of solid assurance in every aspect.
Rosemary's Baby is the Citizen Kane of horror films. To this day, some 40-plus years after its release, I find it one of the most remarkable and consistently satisfying films I've ever seen.

AUTOGRAPH FILES:
My sister (my family are the only ones to call me Kenny) got John Cassavetes to autograph this receipt when she saw him at a restaurant on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles in 1979. She knew I would get a kick out of it and I did, indeed.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

10 comments:

  1. i have avoided this movie for quite some time - so of course, when i saw your post, i thought i would give it a try.... but i chickened out and watched 'kiss of the spider woman' for the millionth time again. i get nightmares easily (and i'm 32!!) so it may take me a while to watch this. polanski is a master of frightful, anxiety-ridden tales, so after 'chinatown', 'repulsion' and 'cul-de-sac', i'm not brave enough!!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I empathize. Movies are such a powerful medium that I find it difficult to subject myself to films that might offer imagery and themes I can't "unsee." A friend once remarked about not wanting to see the film "Beloved" because of some of the painful imagery it contained, stating that she didn't want those images in her head. I have a short list of films that I've never seen, not because I think they'll give me nightmares, but because I don't think I want the images (usually involving some kind of cruelty or brutality) stuck in my head. (By the way, you've brought up yet another film I've never seen: "Kiss of the Spider Woman").

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was 11 as well!
    My mother made me turn around when Rosemary was lying on the mattress.
    I had read her copy of the book and knew that it faithful...but, she KNEW I loved horror films, so, when it was playing at a theater, two years later, she bought my ticket and told the manager that I had her permission to view it.
    I enjoyed the movie even more and a year later it was playing again and we both went to see it.
    She was even MORE impressed and KNEW I was.
    It IS sad that I must reveal that the rape scene was the first sex scene in a movie I ever saw!
    Did it warp me?
    No, I was a mature kid and even though I was still a virgin, I
    knew that it was, in fact, a RAPE scene that SEEMED like sex.
    Rosemary kind-of enjoyed it, thinking it was Guy, who COULD have been the human vessel for the Spirit of Evil.
    We DO see him transforming...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for sharing your pre-adolescent exposure to "Rosemary's Baby." Kids are sort of naturally drawn to horror movies and "Rosemary's Baby" was just one of the earliest explicit examples to treat its subject seriously. It doesn't sound like it warped you. :-)

      I don't know if I was too young or not, but I'm always grateful that I saw it at such an early age because it was perhaps the last year I could have seen such a film with such innocent, believing eyes. To see "Rosemary's Baby" at an age when one still young enough to believe in the concept of the devil is an AMAZING experience I would never trade. Scary as hell.

      Delete
  4. Hi Ken,

    Just discovered your blog a few hours ago and haven't stopped reading it since then. Started out with Joan Crawford's "Queen Bee," visited "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Show Girls," and somehow ended up at "Rosemary's Baby," and enjoyed all throughout.

    I watched "Rosemary's" for the first time about ten years ago. I remember being both thrilled and scared out of my wits by the way the story was told, but I seem to remember being bummed out by the ending. It seemed anti-climactic to me. But your review has prompted me to watch it again. In addition to the main cast, I'll enjoy seeing Maurice Evans and Ralph Bellamy in supporting roles. (And thanks for posting the pic of John C's. John Henry on the restaurant slip. What a sweet and touching bit of memorabila to have.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Tay,
      Ha! What a nice way to start a comment! I'm very flattered and happy that you found one of my posts interesting enough to lead you to another.
      It intrigues me to know you watched "Rosemary's Baby" for the first time so recently. I often wonder how I would respond the the film today.

      The ending was controversial even in the year it came out (when the vernacular of the time led many a critic to call it a cop-out). Every time my mind goes to a different ending for the film in my imagination, i always think that that is the gift Polanski's vague ending affords: it allows you to imagine all manner of outcomes (even the outcome that there is really nothing wrong with Rosemary's baby, and that it has all been a psychotic incident on Rosemary's part.
      I hope you enjoy seeing it again. As you note, the supporting cast is wonderful, and who knows, that anti-climatic ending may even seem a tad more provocative the second time around. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the very kind words!

      Delete
  5. Ken, what a brilliant article on one of my all-time-favorite movies. I love the way you put the film in a historical context...this is absolutely a film that could only have been made in the tumultuous post-JFK assassination era of the late 1960s...and in the same year as the twin horrors of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy's murders. The world, and in particularly the USA, had lost its innocence and begun to look deeply at the dark underside of life.

    I love how you liken the film's opening atmosphere as akin to a Doris Day movie, with Mia sporting Sydney Guilaroff hairdos and Rudi Gernreich high fashion wardrobe, and the sunny views of beautiful New York City...very Marlo Thomas in That Girl, too, when you come to think of it!

    Roman Polanski is simply a genius, both at creating suspense and directing his actors into the best performances of their careers. He is a master storyteller, having the savvy to adapt Ira Levin's novel so faithfully, beat by beat--most director/writers do not have that sixth sense when it comes to bringing novels to the big screen. I love all of Polanski's films, but this one is my favorite.

    I find it ironic that this dark, suspenseful and startling film fared so poorly at the 1968 Oscars (thank God they recognized Ruth Gordon's brilliance as Minnie Castevet, though)--the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was severely behind the times when they voted Oliver! as Best Picture of the year. And I still marvel that Mia Farrow was not nominated as Best Actress that year. She may not have won the gold against Barbra and Kate, but then again, maybe she would have. Farrow's Rosemary is definitely an Oscar-worthy performance.

    The movie still makes me uneasy, every time I watch it. But watch it I do, at least once or twice a year, because it is filmmaking at its very best. You said it best - the Citizen Kane of horror films.

    I love your work, Ken, and your thought-provoking insights!! I love the feeling that you are sitting right beside me when I watch films that we both admire.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's an awfully nice thing to say, Chris. I so much appreciate it.
      I'm glad this film is a favorite of yours as well (the That Girl reference is so apt). It is amazing how well it holds up! Horror trends come and go, but this film remains a solid piece of work that new generations keep discovering.

      In speaking of this film being so overlooked at the Oscars, time often reveals the Academy Awards to be a better reflection of the age, fears, and mentality of its voting members than any reflection on the quality of a particular film.
      The very OLD Academy voters of 1968 were still all those industry dinosaurs wanting to reward old-fashioned entertainments, I think.

      Time always has the final word on these things, and it makes me happy to know that Rosemary's Baby is proving to stand the test of time. I watch this film at least once a year, too!
      Once again, thanks for sharing your thoughts on another film we both enjoy, and I'm flattered if any of my words pass through your head as you watch a film you know we both have found to be of value. That's the best compliment I can think of!

      Delete
  6. A remake of "Rosemary's Baby"...as a mini-series? What in the world are they thinking?

    I can see this going over like a lead balloon. Wow, they're moving the story to Paris. That'll work--just like it did when they made a sequel to "An American Werewolf in London"!

    I read your comments at Moviepilot, Ken. I absolutely agree with you--instead of rehashing a classic story, why don't these numbskulls who work for the networks realise that the reason WHY the original was and is so great is because someone broke new ground, took chances and dared to be creative?

    When I think of the most challenging, original films of the past five years, none of them were Hollywood creations--they have all been either US indy flicks or foreign language movies!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Every once in a blue moon a remake is justified, but when there is a rare film that does everything just right, it seems crass, low, and moronic to go the remake route ("Psycho" comes to mind). It always feels like Hollywood has no respect for it's own minor miracles.

      Delete