Rosemary’s Baby (Blu-ray Review)5 Nov, 2012 By: Mike Clark
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Stars Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer.
Critical hits that blast commercial four-baggers out of the park still happen very occasionally, but Roman Polanski’s instant classic of Ira Levin’s everyone-read-it novel was and is about as good as commercial filmmaking gets — not that the picture was any marketing natural in those days before The Exorcist, The Omen and all that Polanski’s first Hollywood career wave-maker sparked.
Thinking as a former film programmer here, I am struck by how many possible series or retrospectives where Rosemary’s Baby would be an essential component: calendars, say, devoted to screen horror; screen horror amid realistic settings; Catholicism; rank ambition; the acting profession (especially one dealing with the kind of narcissistic actor-ish “type” you find in every college drama department); New York living; maternal instincts; paranoia; imaginative casting — and, of course, auteurism. No one can ever dispute that Polanski (the first choice of producer Robert Evans, another auteur) is the one who really put the movie over.
Dovetailing some with Time magazine’s famed 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover story, Levin’s was a novel that absolutely captured the national imagination (much as another future Paramount smash: True Grit, from Charles Portis’ novel, would not long thereafter). In a way, it’s surprising to hear producer Evans (featured on an excellent 45-minute Criterion look-back with Polanski and title lead Mia Farrow) talk of how it was such a tough picture to sell. My recollection is that this was a movie for which the masses were waiting, and I can recall my chagrin when, back in the days when platforming was still highly prevalent (my home state Ohio got movies about 52 years after they opened in New York City), I mistakenly thought that fortuitous timing had made it possible for me to see Baby in Denver between flights. Instead, it had ended the day before, and John Wayne’s The Green Berets was playing in the recent vacated venue. Of course, any movie summer that can give you John Wayne fighting Viet Cong and Polanski orchestrating the birth of Satan’s offspring by Rosemary in a Dakota-like building on NYC’s Upper West Side isn’t bad.
We’ll probably never know what the Duke thought of Baby, but we learn in the documentary that while in bed with then-spouse Farrow, Frank Sinatra read the script and said that he couldn’t see her in the part — which added to the actress’s insecurities regarding the role. We also hear the famous the story about how Frank, chagrined that the Baby shooting schedule made it impossible for her to appear with him in 1968’s The Detective, served her with divorce papers on the set (though they remained good friends until Sinatra’s death). Other rich anecdotes (some familiar, some not) get spun as well — as in Polanski’s disagreements with co-star John Cassavetes (who, of course, had his own ideas about direction); of how Robert Redford was the first choice to play the role as Rosemary’s husband (casting that might have been too spot on, in my opinion); and how producer William Castle — he of the shock/schlock apparatus wired to your theater seat in one of his own movies — wanted to direct the movie himself (Evans thought no way) but turned out to be supportive of Polanski.
Ruth Gordon, of course, got the year’s supporting actress Oscar as Rosemary’s batty apartment neighbor and Satan partisan — but I had forgotten (a little) just how good Sidney Blackmer is here as her husband, who helps the younger woman’s husband achieve professional success as an actor (Yamaha commercials and more) making a literal Deal with the Devil. But then, the picture is a kind of casting director’s delight for veteran character actors of the day, including Ralph Bellamy, Maurice Evans and Patsy Kelly (who, like Gordon, is good for some valuable comic relief). The collaborative team is top-flight right down the line: Richard Sylbert production design; the score, which riffs on what sounds like a child’s lullaby, by the prematurely deceased Krzystof Komeda (subject of a full-length documentary included as a Criterion extra); and the career breakthrough for cinematographer William A. Fraker (who then shot Bullitt the same year). I can remember hearing Fraker talking in one of the super documentaries about cinematography (I think it was Visions of Light) where Fraker talks of Polanski’s odd-to-him decision to shoot on of Baby’s telephone scenes (landline era) with a doorway entrance bisecting the screen so that we can see only half of the telephoner. It was odd until Fraker finally saw the film projected with an audience, and everyone in the theater leaned in heir seats to the right, trying to get a better look at what was going on.
It’s difficult to say if the movie, which hasn’t lost a beat (especially in Criterion’s rendering) did more professionally for Polanski or Evans. Without it, there might not have been a Chinatown.