Synopsis: A young mother-to-be grows increasingly suspicious that her overfriendly elderly neighbors and self-involved husband are hatching a satanic plot against her and her baby.
Stars: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Patsy Kelly, Angela Dorian, Charles Grodin
Director: Roman Polanski
Running Length: 137 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: A sure sign a film is destined for classic status is when it gets better with each viewing. Like great music, sometimes you need time to step back and reflect on the reaction of all your senses before returning to the source to recalibrate your feelings. I’ve started off hating albums that I now can’t live without, and the same goes for movies that didn’t thrill me at first glance, but on repeat watches have found their way into my soul. Part of that comes with understanding the importance of art; the other is an emotional maturity that allows you to appreciate what the given medium is saying and at what time/place it was speaking.
Watching Rosemary’s Baby recently in a theater with a near-capacity crowd, I was struck by how ahead of its time it was. Released in 1968, a year after Ira Levin’s novel of the same name was published, the rights had already been with B-Movie impresario William Castle (I Saw What You Did) since it was in galley form. When Castle brought it to Paramount big wig Robert Evans intending to direct it, he instead saw his movie handed over to European auteur Roman Polanski. As brilliant at marketing a picture as Castle was, even he had to admit that this movie required more than a stock schlock push; it needed the Paramount polish.
Young couple Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are moving into The Bramford, an impressively imposing but enviable apartment building in the heart of New York City. Like most old buildings, this one comes with a storied history involving witchcraft and Satanism, but that was years ago, and the Woodhouses don’t need to be concerned about any of that…for now. Instead, there is much to be done as Rosemary (Mia Farrow, See No Evil, waifish and wonderful) gets their new home in order while her struggling actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes, The Fury) goes on auditions, hunting for his big break.
Rosemary meets a woman around her age in the spooky basement laundry room, and they hit it off. Friends are hard to come by at The Bramford, though, because not long after, the girl is found dead on the pavement outside, the victim of an apparent suicide. She had been staying with an elderly couple down the hall from Rosemary, and soon Minnie and Roman Castevet have wormed their way into the lives of the Woodhouses, becoming overly gregarious (read, pushy) neighbors they can’t quickly get rid of. Actually, Guy appears to like the Castevets more than Rosemary and begins to spend more time at their place.
Soon after, Rosemary has a horrific dream of being attacked and violated by a hideous beast. And then she finds out she’s pregnant. And Guy gets his big break…at the severe expense of the health of his closest rival in the acting profession. Rosemary’s world gets smaller the bigger she grows and the more successful Guy becomes until she’s a shadow of her former self. That’s when the paranoia sets in, and her suspicions arise that perhaps her neighbors and husband are conspiring against her…but to what end? With her due date drawing near and options running scarce, Rosemary must decide if she’s going to fight to be a mother or first fight for her life.
Polanski’s first US picture has become an indisputable classic for many reasons, too many to mention here. The highlights are its exquisite production values, filmed on both the East and West Coast. The viewer can hardly tell when the action switches between exteriors in NYC and soundstages in California. The Woodhouse apartment begins dark and confined but is given contemporary life by Rosemary’s good taste and modern sensibilities. The rest of the apartments and owners feel stuck in a different time, and Rosemary represents (and is costumed to look like) the future.
The casting across the board in Rosemary’s Baby is perfect. Relative feature film newcomer Farrow was a risky choice, and while more prominent names were mentioned, sticking with the rising star was a fantastic move. The entire film is told from her perspective, and I’m sure she’s onscreen for nearly all the 137 minutes. Barely any scenes happen without her direct involvement, and you can see why Farrow’s husband at the time, Frank Sinatra, wanted his bride back home so bad that he served her with divorce papers on the set when she kept working instead of returning when he beckoned. How Farrow didn’t wind up with an Oscar nomination is beyond me. Though this was the year of the infamous tie between Barbara Streisand and Katherine Hepburn, Farrow’s name should have been one of the five.
Someone who did take home an Oscar that year was Ruth Gordon for her unforgettable performance as Minnie Castevet. The nosy neighbor is pure “Niw Yahwk,” talks a mile-a-minute, and potentially hides a dark agenda you don’t want to be a part of. Gordon is sensational whenever she is onscreen, and for a role that creates such an energetic whirlwind, she always manages to make her co-stars look good. That’s why she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, one of the most deserved wins ever in the category. I’ve always liked Cassavetes more as a director than an actor, so it’s hard to judge him fully here, especially since he’s playing such a louse…but wow, does he nail it.
Bringing his European ethos to his film, Polanski (Carnage) pushes the boundaries for sex and nudity, making Rosemary’s Baby far more adult than I remembered. There’s a scant amount of blood, with Polanski preferring to let audiences create their own terror but getting more mileage out of the unnerving dream sequences Rosemary has the deeper she falls under The Bramford’s strange spell. They don’t always make sense, but these sequences are surprising and disturbing and achieve the desired effect of keeping the viewer off balance if Polanski wants to keep them on shaky ground.
When Polanski wants your attention, he knows how to get it. My mind explodes when I think of how audiences in the summer of 1968 reacted to the last 20 minutes of the movie, a tour-de-force of suspense that will make your heart jog right up into your throat. William A. Fraker’s cinematography frames Farrow holding a knife that both reassures you she can defend herself but terrifies you simultaneously because you become acutely aware she (and we) is about to head for an unknown horror. The tail end of the film may be a little soft, but if you’ve been following along the breadcrumbs Polanski dropped (he wrote the screenplay), it should make perfect sense.
I’ve said it before, and it’s worth repeating. Certain movies are classics for a reason, and it often doesn’t take long to figure out why. In both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, I’ll admit that when I was younger, I came to them expecting to experience horror the same way I was trained to experience it: with it being thrown in my face accompanied by blaring rock music. Now, when I watch both movies, I have to talk myself into it because I know both will keep me up at night. As effective now as it was then, Rosemary’s Baby earns its reputation as an all-time horror classic, a legitimately scary movie for the ages made during a time when the voices of many were struggling to be heard.