You can learn a lot from ROSEMARY’S BABY, the 1968 film adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel, available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. But here’s the most important lesson: never date an actor.
If only someone had warned poor Rosemary Reilly when she got off the bus from Omaha in 1962. She would never have married frustrated Another World day player Guy Woodhouse, they would never have moved into the apartment next door to that kooky old couple, and Guy would never have bartered Rosemary’s reproductive system to a coven of geriatric devil worshippers in return for his big break in showbiz.
Oh, well. As my mother would say, “Life is a learning experience.”
Here’s another thing mom used to tell me: “You can’t sleep in our bed every time you watch a scary movie!” And ROSEMARY’S BABY has been a favorite of mine, ever since my parents’ ill-advised decision to let me watch it on TV back in the late ‘70s. I became obsessed with the concept of evil living next door, or in that mysterious old lady’s house down the block, where none of us would ever dare trick-or-treat. ROSEMARY’S BABY did for senior citizens what JAWS did for beach going. I haven’t trusted the elderly since.
And 45 years later, it still holds up, like so many films from the Hollywood New Wave of (roughly) 1967 through 1977. Freed from the self-censorship of the Taliban-esque Motion Picture Production Code (abandoned in favor of the MPAA rating system), and desperate to offer a competitive alternative to increasingly provocative broadcast television, the major Hollywood studios produced a trove of startlingly original, often highly pessimistic films that still resonate today. A quarter of the AFI’s 100 best American movies come from that decade alone. I think of those years as “The Era of the Unhappy Ending” and, in that regard, ROSEMARY certainly doesn’t disappoint. Unless you’re a Satanist.
In fact, ROSEMARY’S BABY serves as a perverse bridge from Old Hollywood to the New, with familiar faces from the Golden Age re-imagined as figures of secret menace: screwball comedy sap Ralph Bellamy as Rosemary’s evil obstetrician; 1930s short-subject comedienne Patsy Kelly as cradle-rocker Laura-Louise; former matinee idol Sidney Blackmer, who played Teddy Roosevelt on screen more than a dozen times, as anagrammatic warlock Roman Castevet; and Ruth Gordon, borrowing Cesar Romero’s Joker makeup, as the malevolent Minnie – a bravura performance rewarded with a well-deserved Oscar.
Waifish and freckle-nosed Mia Farrow, fresh from her lead in the primetime soap opera Peyton Place and looking barely out of her teens, plays Rosemary as a dreamy Midwestern girl a few years behind the feminism curve. And that leads us to the second lesson of ROSEMARY’S BABY: a young housewife should always keep cash on hand, just in case she needs to escape from a husband who has lent her womb to Lucifer in return for a plum role in a television pilot. (See above.)
As the duplicitous thespian, Method master John Cassavetes gives the most motivationally consistent performance in the film, grounding it with vital believability. We meet Guy as a charmingly macho 1960s chauvinist, banging his much-younger wife on the floor of an apartment financed by a single appearance in an aspirin commercial. Soon he devolves into a glassy-eyed con-conspirator, chain-smoking his way through every interaction with Rosemary, un-able to look at her, haunted by the supernatural depth of his betrayal. But he fools her because he is an actor. (See above, again.)
Though ROSEMARY’S BABY was the first Hollywood production for Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski, he directs the film with the light touch of an industry veteran. From his frequent use of intimate, handheld camerawork, to his artful juxtapositions of silence and ambient sound, Polanski exhibits remarkable restraint with a story that, in less-confidant hands, might have crossed the imaginary line of camp. In fact, the delightfully pulpy novel, to which Polansky’s Academy Award-winning screenplay is slavishly faithful, offers a detailed description of the baby (claws, tail and “the buds of his horns”), yet the director chooses to leave the li’l devil to the audience’s imagination. It’s a creatively courageous decision that, four decades later, seems prescient. Nothing dates a horror film more irrevocably than no-longer-special effects.
Polanski does make one creative big misstep, and it happens at a key moment. During the brilliantly surrealistic sequence in which Rosemary and Beelzebub give new meaning to the term “beast with two backs,” the director employs shots of an actor wearing what is supposed to be, I assume, a devil costume. Although the images are fleeting, it appears that Mia Farrow is hooking up with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The scene is already the most disturbing in the picture; adding a dopey costume only makes it less so.
Maybe this was the trade-off Polanski made to win the battle of not showing the baby. Or perhaps it was the influence of producer William Castle, who made his bones directing B-grade horror quickies with Barnum-like marketing hooks, such as tingling seats, inflatable ghosts and costumed “nurses” in the lobby to treat frightened patrons. Whoever’s decision it was, it was the wrong one.
And that is the final thing we are taught by this film: there is nothing more chilling than betrayal by those you trust. That’s the true horror of ROSEMARY’S BABY, not a guy in a rubber suit. And that’s why you should never date an actor – because they are trained to deceive you.
You should, however, get your claws on Criterion’s beautifully restored new transfer. There’s nothing better than watching this creepy classic late at night, with all the lights out, preferably in a New York City apartment building where you don’t really know your neighbors. It’s an experience that can’t be duplicated in a crowded theater, with people gleefully chomping on popcorn all around you. But if you do a get a chance to see it on the big screen, I have one request: please don’t shout “He has his father’s eyes!” in unison with the soundtrack during the climax, as the guy sitting behind me did the last time I saw the movie at Film Forum. Ecstatic yelling may be appropriate at demonic rituals, but it’s still frowned upon at the cinema.
For modern moviegoers, that may be the most important lesson of all.
Note: This is a revised version of an article published in The Villager on October 29, 2008.