This Month

Rosemary's Baby

And the award for the creepiest movie ever made about an abnormal pregnancy goes to.....Rosemary's Baby (1968). In Roman Polanski's chilling adaptation of the Ira Levin novel, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) goes from being a blissful newlywed to a hysterical mother-to-be, mostly due to her intrusive next door neighbors who turn out to be the leaders of a New York witch coven. The film's runaway success was somewhat surprising because it had no major stars, the director was a Polish filmmaker making his first American feature, and the film's climax was bleak and disturbing - evil triumphed! Yet people turned out in droves to see it, even moviegoers who rarely attended horror films. This one was different, from its depiction of devil worshipers as rather mundane, middle-aged New Yorkers to its final scene, which greets the arrival of a new baby as a harbinger of doom. Rosemary's Baby obviously influenced the creators of future books and movies about demonic children (The Exorcist, The Omen, etc.) and still remains the best movie in that specialized genre - the satanic pregnancy film. It also won an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress Ruth Gordon.

The film rights to the novel were immediately snapped up by producer/director William Castle while the book was still in galley form (literary agent Marvin Birdt smuggled him a copy). Castle, of course, was the ingenious promoter and director behind such schlocky horror movies as House on Haunted Hill (1958) and Homicidal (1961); his ad campaigns, which always focused on an outrageous gimmick (like electrically-wired seats for The Tingler, 1959), were often more effective than his pictures. But Rosemary's Baby was going to be Castle's bid for respectability; he was going to direct an adult horror film on a big budget for a change. There was a catch. He spent all his money on the film rights and had to take on a partner, Paramount, who agreed to finance it plus award him fifty per cent of the profits. However, they were set on Roman Polanski directing it. Despite his huge disappointment, Castle eventually agreed to serve as producer.

Polanski was particularly impressed with Levin's novel and excited about telling the story in cinematic terms but, according to his autobiography, Roman, "one aspect of Rosemary's Baby bothered me. The book was an outstandingly well-constructed thriller...Being an agnostic, however, I no more believed in Satan as evil incarnate than I believed in a personal god; the whole idea conflicted with my rational view of the world. For credibility's sake, I decided that there would have to be a loophole: the possibility that Rosemary's supernatural experiences were figments of her imagination. The entire story, as seen through her eyes, could have been a chain of only superficially sinister coincidences, a product of her feverish fancies...That is why a thread of deliberate ambiguity runs throughout the film."

Casting for Rosemary's Baby presented its own problems. Polanski wanted Tuesday Weld for the lead, Castle wanted Mia Farrow. Both men wanted Robert Redford for the role of Guy Woodhouse, Rosemary's husband, but negotiations broke down when Paramount's lawyers served the actor a subpoena over a contractual dispute involving Silvio Narizzano's film Blue (1968). Richard Chamberlain, Robert Wagner and James Fox were all mentioned for the part of Guy. Laurence Harvey begged to do it, Jack Nicholson actually tested for it, and Polanski tried to convince Warren Beatty to do it before the part was given to John Cassavetes. For Minnie and Roman Castevet, Polanski suggested Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the famous Broadway acting duo. He even tried to convince Castle to play the part of Dr. Sapirstein, a role eventually filled by Ralph Bellamy. In the end, everything fell into place as if by fate and it's hard to imagine a more perfect cast for Rosemary's Baby, particularly Mia Farrow, whose harrowing performance was a surprise to most critics.

In her autobiography, What Falls Away, Mia Farrow described her working relationship with Roman Polanski on the set of Rosemary's Baby: "When Roman wanted me to eat raw liver, I ate it, take after take, even though, at the time, I was a committed vegetarian. While we were shooting on Park Avenue, he had the idea that I should absentmindedly walk across the street into moving traffic, not looking right or left. 'Nobody will hit a pregnant woman,' he laughed, referring to my padded stomach. He had to operate the hand-held camera himself, since nobody else would. I took a deep breath - an almost giddy, euphoric feeling came over me. Together Roman and I marched right in front of the oncoming cars - with Roman on the far side, so I would have been hit first. 'There are 127 varieties of nuts,' he told a journalist. 'Mia's 116 of them.' I'll take a compliment any way it comes." Off screen, Farrow was having marital difficulties with Frank Sinatra and they divorced in August of 1968 while Mia was in the midst of filming Secret Ceremony.

Despite the fact that Rosemary's Baby was easily the most successful film of William Castle's career, he felt the film carried a curse for him. Not only was he denied directing it but he found working with Polanski a very frustrating experience. The worst part was being struck down with a severe case of gallstones immediately following the production. Castle was subjected to months of painful treatments and eventually surgery. During his slow rehabilitation, he learned that Krzysztof Komeda, the film's composer, had died suddenly in an accidental fall and just after his recovery he received the news that Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, and four others had been slain in a ritualistic mass murder at their Benedict Canyon home. As he stated in his biography, Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, "The story of Rosemary's Baby was happening in real life. Witches, all of them, were casting their spell, and I was becoming one of the principal players." But in the actual film, he's only a minor player; yes, that's him standing outside the phone booth while Mia Farrow is frantically trying to make a call. Other interesting cameos include childhood star and comedienne Patsy Kelly as a devilish nurse and Playboy pinup Victoria Vetri (billed here as Angela Dorian) whose other claim to fame is her starring role in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). That's her in a brief scene in the creepy basement of the Dakota with Mia Farrow, discussing her mysterious locket.

Director: Roman Polanski
Producer: William Castle
Screenplay: Roman Polanski (based on the novel by Ira Levin)
Cinematography: William Fraker
Production Design: Richard Sylbert
Music: Krzysztof Komeda
Cast: Mia Farrow (Rosemary Woodhouse), John Cassavetes (Guy Woodhouse), Ruth Gordon (Minnie Castevet), Sidney Blackmer (Roman Castevet), Maurice Evans (Edward Hutchins), Ralph Bellamy (Dr. Sapirstein), Charles Grodin (Dr. Hill).
C-137m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford