In the summer of 1968, our mother, recently widowed, treated my sister and me to a week at the beach. After a few days, needing some time to herself, she asked a woman she had struck up a friendship with at the hotel if she would watch us so she could see the new hit horror movie playing at the little cinema on the boardwalk. When she got back, she could hardly contain her excitement and delight; it was “one of the best movies,” she said. She went to bed and tossed and turned all night long. “What kind of a movie,” I thought, “does THAT to you?!”
The answer, of course, is Roman Polanski’s twisted masterpiece, “Rosemary’s Baby,” a movie that, for almost 50 years, has been scaring the daylights out of people. Based on the Ira Levin bestseller of the same name, “Rosemary’s Baby” hit theaters like a tidal wave. A surefire “blockbuster” back before that term ever existed, it had moviegoers lined up for blocks, dying to see what they had heard was the most terrifying movie since “Psycho.” And they did not come out disappointed. Like all well-crafted movies, “Rosemary’s Baby” survives the test of time and is as scary now as it was in 1968. Scarier, even, maybe because its spiritually shattering story stands in such sharp contrast to our present day pragmatism and shock-resistant, “who gives a damn? ” nonchalant society. The movie shakes people on every level and still sends shivers up the spine.
Filmed mostly in and around Manhattan’s fabled, eerie Dakota Building (home, by the way, to many famous celebrities including John Lennon and Yoko Ono –he was murdered outside its gates –and Lauren Bacall, who still lives there), “Rosemary’s Baby” tells the story of newlyweds Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, a couple seemingly drawn from some urban fairytale, kittenish with each other and smitten with their brand new apartment and brand new life together. He is a promising actor and she his ever-devoted wife. They glow like post-coital coals in their new nest and their story opens not unlike the Doris Day/Rock Hudson romances so popular at that time — the pert, virginal, young bride and her dashing, handsome, young groom fawning all over each other like frisky puppies in their new digs –a false start, to be sure, designed deliberately to deceive the viewer into a sense of security. Here, Polanski mimics his mentor, Alfred Hitchcock, who knew that the surest way to build suspense in a picture is to place the characters and the audience in an ordinary setting, doing ordinary things, going about their ordinary lives, before peril sets in.
Because we soon learn there is nothing ordinary about any of what we are seeing: halls and doorways and closets suddenly seem not so benign, neighbors seem not so neighborly, friends seem not so friendly or trustworthy. Or do these changes exist only in Rosemary’s mind triggered by the very difficult pregnancy she is going through?
T.V.’s “Peyton Place” made a star of Mia Farrow in the early 1960s. The daughter of movie legend Maureen O’Sullivan, of “Tarzan” fame, and director John Farrow, Mia’s porcelain, offbeat face and wide, blue child’s eyes made her a star in her own right and made her perfect for the role of innocent, trusting Rosemary whose life is turned upside-down, tainted from the moment she and her actor-wannabe bridegroom (a deceptive John Cassavetes), begin their new life together in the spooky “Bramford” Building. A Gothic, wonder castle of nightmarish architectural proportions, if ever there was one — Polanski chose it for its dark, dreary colors and tight, narrow hallways. If Farrow was an American star when she was in “Peyton Place,” she became an international superstar thanks to “Rosemary’s Baby” –her waif-like naivete and China doll vulnerability slowly morphing into abject terror and physical deterioration as she realizes that the terrifying dreams she has been having ever since her pregnancy began might not be dreams at all but quite possibly all-too-real dramas being played out on her by her neighbors and friends. And maybe even her husband. Is she going insane? Is she a victim of pure evil? Is she imagining all this?
Polanski, for many months, insisted that actress Tuesday Weld play his Rosemary; he felt the part required a more typically pretty, milk-fed, stronger girl than the sylph-like Farrow but eventually caved to producer Robert Evans’ choice and the reality that Farrow’s delicate face and frame were far more representative of what the confused, victimized Rosemary should look like. He wanted Cassavetes from the start feeling he carried within him that look of the starving -for-fame Method actor’s intensity needed for a man desperate to be successful at any cost. Cassavetes’ twitchy, slick Guy plays perfectly against Farrow’s meek sweetness.
As the nosy neighbor, Minnie Castevet, the one-of-a-kind veteran Ruth Gordon makes a grand play to steal the movie out from under everyone and pretty much succeeds. Hailing from our own Wollaston, Massachusetts, Gordon was a huge Broadway star but movie stardom evaded her (she always gave good performances but in bad movies) until the age of 72 when her appearance in “Rosemary’s Baby,” along with her portrayal of a crazy, old lady in love with a teenage boy, in the cult classic, “Harold and Maude” elevated her to star status and turned her into a hero of senior citizens and young people everywhere. Gordon was a real character, in more ways than one, and in “Rosemary’s Baby,” she brought along her own zany personality to breathe life into the archetypal New Yawk busybody neighbor to such a winning degree that her creation of the not-so-harmless Minnie Castevet has, I think, never been equaled, so assuredly did she nail it, winning a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Polanski wisely peppers his movie’s secondary characters with old-time Hollywood dependables: the Shakespearean actor, Maurice Evans as Rosemary’s friend and confidante, “Hutch,” Sidney Blackmer as suave, worldly Roman Castevet, Ralph Bellamy as her doctor, Elisha Cook as her rental agent/landlord, and the redoubtable Hope Summers and Patsy Kelly (of “42nd Street” fame) as her neighbors.
In spite of his lifetime of personal problems (his beautiful, young wife, actress Sharon Tate, their unborn child and guests were slaughtered in a home invasion by the Charles Manson Gang, and some years later, after being found guilty of drugging and raping a minor in California, he fled into exile to France), Polanski stands as one of the most acclaimed directors the world has ever known. With a clear and brilliant eye for technical detail –it is said he knows more about cameras and lenses than the cameramen themselves –and a surefire preference for audience-pleasing, psychologically macabre stories, he has channeled his masterful artistry into such classics as “Cul-de-Sac,” “Knife in the Water,” “Repulsion,” “The Vampire Killers” and “Chinatown,” to name a few.
(An interesting aside: While making “Rosemary’s Baby,” Farrow was married to a very controlling and much older Frank Sinatra, who demanded she leave production to be in the film he was then making, “The Detective.” Farrow refused, and, in defiance of Sinatra’s repeated attempts to boss her around, had her long, silky blonde locks that he loved so much chopped off. What remained was a super radical pixie turning Farrow into the likeness of a little boy. Sinatra was furious, as was Polanski who had already shot many scenes of Farrow with her long hair, feeling the longer look underscored Rosemary’s innocence. He worked the altered hairdo into the storyline saying it added to the character’s increasingly debilitating look and illness. Sinatra and Farrow were divorced not long after. Their marriage didn’t last but Farrow’s stardom lasted for decades, and the Vidal Sassoon haircut became all the rage that year and made Sassoon a hairdressing superstar.)
Upon its release, it was so infamous, the Vatican condemned it, parents were locking their kids in their rooms to keep them from seeing it and MAD Magazine had its most popular issue to date doing a parody of it called “Rosemary’s Boo Boo.”
So, yes, see “Rosemary’s Baby” because you want to see it but see it, too, because you just HAVE to! It is one of a handful of cinematic masterpieces the likes of which will probably never be made again.