Saturday, June 25, 2016

Roman Polanski's Baby Nears 50 Years

Thanks to Mad Magazine's satire of Rosemary's Baby, I've known all the key images and plot points since the movie was new in 1968. So, seeing it for the first time this week, I was free to admire director Roman Polanski's skills in his adaptation of Ira Levin's 1966 novel. 
After a sunny fly-over shot brings us down to street level in the old brownstone building where most of the story takes place, Polanski makes sure that Mia Farrow as "Rosemary" is either on-camera or else we're seeing something from her perspective.  At the start, "Rosemary" has a full head of golden hair, a well-fed look, and a healthy, playful, mutually considerate relationship with her husband Guy. Once she conceives, Rosemary's face thins, even her hair is chopped short, while her wary, disbelieving, red-rimmed eyes seem to take up more of the screen.  In a movie with only one bloody image early on, no weapons used, no car chases, and no explosions, Polanski makes Mia Farrow's face the field where the horror happens.

The action takes place in 1966, and Polanski (perhaps after Levin) works a couple of then-current cultural icons into the story.  There's an oblique reference early on to the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, widely seen as proof that you can't count on your neighbors.  Waiting at a doctor's office, Rosemary picks up the issue of Time magazine famous for its cover, white words on a black field, "Is God Dead?"  The bad guys give their answer to that question: Yes! Long live Satan.

Even without visions of Satan and instruction of the audience in covens and black masses, this movie would be as creepy, and maybe more resonant.  With her short hair and the baby-doll dresses of the time,  Farrow looks more and more like a frightened child as the movie progresses;  and what child does not, like her, feel a pawn of elders who prescribe what to eat, what medicine to take, what to be afraid of, and what to stop worrying about?  In 1966, Betty Friedan had raised women's consciousness of how the American wife was, like a child, kept from knowing grown-up business, her world limited to the kitchen, the bedroom, and, eventually, the nursery. That's Rosemary's world in the movie, increasingly hemmed in by husband, her elderly neighbors, and the doctor they choose for her. 

When Rosemary gets that hair cut that no one likes, she's rebelling.  She plans a dinner party for their old friends -- in today's terms, she re-connects to her network.   Polanski encourages us to think she'll make it.  We identify with her, and the suspense builds.

The satanist stuff in the denouement actually removes the evil from the world we know and puts us into the safer world of make-believe.

With conspiracy on my mind, I have to wonder:  with the malefactor named "Roman Casevet," is it just coincidence that producer William Castle chose Roman Polanski and John Cassavetes to make the movie? 

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