Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
July 25, 1968, Vol. XIII, No. 41
by Andrew Sarris
“ROSEMARY’S BABY” has been blessed with such extraordinary popularity from the printed page to the silver screen that it seems superfluous if not presumptuous for a critic to recommend the movie as good hot-weather-goose-pimply entertainment. Everybody read the book and now everybody’s going to the movie as book and movie are discussed interchangeably as media permutations of the same basic formula. Good luck and perfect timing have played a part in these proceedings. Certainly only luck can explain the fortuitous conjunction of a strong commercial property like Ira Levin’s novel with a strong directorial personality like Roman Polanski without the novel being distorted or the director diluted.
Indeed Levin and Polanski actually reinforce each other, Levin being more a storyteller than a stylist and Polanski more a stylist than a storyteller. Even in “Rosemary’s Baby” there are moments of excessive embellishment in the beginning when good old Elisha Cooke, Jr., is showing Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes through the Dakota Apartments. Polanski’s camera seems a bit too jittery and his cutting a bit too jazzy and the overall effect a bit too ostentatiously ominous. But then Levin’s potent plot takes over, and Polanski sems to relax into a contemplative calm with only occasional touches and asides to remind us of his impish irreverence.
By now the plot of “Rosemary’s Baby” is familiar enough to analyze without spoiling anyone’s fun. In an age of themes, Ira Levin has come up with a plot so effectively original that it is deserving more of a patent than a copyright. The qualities of a good plot are simplicity, directness, and an oblique treatment of essentials. “Rosemary’s Baby” can be synopsized in one sentence as the adventures of an actor’s wife, delivered to the devil and his worshipers by her ambitious husband so that she might bear the devil’s baby which she does. The beauty of the plot is that it virtually conceals the real subject. On the surface Rosemary’s Baby seems merely a diabolical reversal of Mary’s Baby, a reversal made even more flagrantly sacrilegious by Polanski’s God-Is-Dead gaiety. A Catholic group has bitten on the bait by condemning the film though probably more for the director’s deftness with nudity than for his disrespect for the Sacraments. Many critics have missed the point of the story because of their prejudice against melodrama as a meaningful dramatic form, a prejudice traditionally diagnosed as the anti-Hitchcock syndrome.
“Rosemary’s Baby” is more than just a good yarn, however. Its power to terrify readers and viewers, particularly women, derives not from any disrespect toward the Deity nor from any literal fear of embodied evil. Ghosts, Holy or unholy, have ceased to haunt our dreams in their metaphysical majesty. The devil in “Rosemary’s Baby” is reduced to an unimaginative rapist performing a ridiculous ritual. It could not be otherwise in an age that proclaims God is Dead. Without God, the devil is pure camp, and his followers fugitives from a Charles Addams cartoon.
What is frightening about Rosemary’s condition is her suspicion that she is being used by other people for ulterior purposes. She has no family of her own to turn to, but must rely on a husband who seems insensitive to her pain, neighbors who seem suspiciously solicitous, a doctor whose manner seems more reassuring than his medicine, and a world that seems curiously indifferent to her plight. When she tells her story to a disinterested doctor, he dismisses it as pure paranoia as most doctors would if a pregnant woman walked into their office and told them the plot of “Rosemary’s Baby.” The disinterested doctor calls the witch doctor and Rosemary is delivered to her satanic destiny. After spitting in her husband’s face, Rosemary approaches the rocker where her yellow-eyed baby is crying and by slowly rocking the infant to sleep acknowledges her maternal responsibility toward a being that is after all a baby and ultimately HER baby.
Thus two universal fears run through “Rosemary’s Baby,” the fear of pregnancy, particularly as it consumes personality, and the fear of a deformed offspring with all the attendant moral and emotional complications.
Almost any film that dealt directly with these two fears would be unbearable to watch because of the matter-of-fact clinical horror involved. By dealing obliquely with these fears, the book and the movie penetrate deeper into the subconscious of the audience. It is when we least expect to identify with fictional characters that we identify most deeply. If Levin had been fully aware of the implications of what he had been writing, he would have been too self-conscious to write it. Conversely, Polanski who is too aware of implications and overtones could never have invented the plot of “Rosemary’s Baby.” Hence, the fruitful collaboration of instinct and intellect on this occasion.
Levin’s lady-in-distress mannerisms are misleading in that they are designed merely as plot devices to tighten the tension during the period of pregnancy, a period during which even witches and warlocks lack the ability to accelerate events. At times the suspense of the story is more rhetorical than real since we are always more curious about what Rosemary is trying to escape from (witchcraft) than what she is trying to escape to (the normal, neurotic everyday world). Consequently, Rosemary is infused with a feeling of helplessness and Zen passivity that creates in the reader and viewer a mood of voluptuous self-pity. Where the story does succeed as melodrama is on the level of persecution trying to prove that it is not paranoia, and of course the best way for an artist to project his own paranoia is to describe real persecution. The great stories are acts of faith in the reality of feelings. The wondrousness of a story or a movie is a plea to the audience to be less skeptical about the possibilities of human experience.
No movie succeeds without a reasonable number of casting coups, and “Rosemary’s Baby” is more fortunate than most in this regard. The biggest surprise is Mia Farrow as a Rosemary more ideal than anyone would have suspected after “A Dandy in Aspic.” Even her curiously pallid and awkward artificiality works to her advantage in a role for which it is desirable not to seem too credible to the outside world. Polanski is especially good in directing her physical movements of escape and evasion in a way that makes her plausibly but affectingly ineffective. And when she apologizes for her husband’s rudeness by observing that even Laurence Olivier must be self-centered, her gaucherie is heartwarming to the point of heartbreak.
The supporting people are uniformly excellent, Ralph Bellamy being the outstanding revelation as the bearded witch doctor and yet typical of a cast that plays against the strangeness of the situation with tenaciously tweedsy folksiness mixed with an air of perpetual preoccupation. Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, and Maurice Evans match Bellamy with an energetic seriousness that is amusing without ever being ridiculous. John Cassavetes is somewhat miscast as the actor-husband, a part that would have been more appropriate for the narcissism Richard Chamberlain displayed so precisely in “Petulia.” Cassavetes is too intelligent and off-beat an actor to project self-absorption. Above all, he lacks the beautiful self-sacrifice mask of an actor capable of selling his wife to the devil for a good part. Cassavetes is simply more than his character calls for, but he too has his moment in an almost flawless entertainment.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]