January 13, 2006

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

written and directed by Roman Polanski
based on the novel by Ira Levin (1967)

This movie is great.

I’m going to start off with the first edition book cover this time, instead of saving it for the end.

Sorry I couldn’t find a cleaner image, but you get the idea. For once, I actually know who designed this cover: Paul Bacon, whose work (click on the ‘image gallery‘ link), now that I’ve googled my way through a bunch of it, readily coheres into an “okay, that guy.” One of those figures whose importance is indicated by the fact that I was aware of his work’s significance before I was aware that it was any one person’s work. It’s always a bit exciting to discover that some vague part of the aesthetic landscape in one’s mind can actually be quantified and ascribed to a specific point of origin. This recent piece on jacket design by John Updike includes a brief assessment of Paul Bacon. It’s got some other interesting stuff in it too – the thing at the end about the possible legitimacy of a “deceptively conceptual… nonexistent point of view” is going to ring in my head for a while. But it has nothing to do with Rosemary’s Baby so let’s move on.

Next on the list is Krzysztof “Christopher” Komeda, composer of the movie’s excellent score. I’ve seen the movie quite a few times and the distinguishing thing about this viewing was that the score “popped,” for me. I remembered the main lullaby theme (sung, I have only since learned, by Mia Farrow herself), but I don’t think I had ever listened closely to the other cues, which all sounded sort of familiar but now revealed themselves as really interesting, clever choices, especially the squeaky freaky jazz elements under scenes of horror. I love the little cue when she eats the raw liver, without which the scene wouldn’t work. Komeda’s straight jazz compositions are less interesting to me, and even his other movie work, from what I can hear of it, sounds pretty similar in style to Rosemary’s Baby. But his dramatic sense seems to have been strong, and of course a smart musician can get a lot of emotional range out of a limited style. I’d be curious to see some of the many other movies he scored – they’re pretty much all in Polish, though, but several of Polanski’s are still available. Komeda was apparently a major jazz figure in Poland and might well have been just on the verge of becoming an international big deal, what with this movie and Polanski’s career in general, but he died less than a year after its release, from injuries sustained in a car crash.

The best thing about the movie is John Cassavetes’ thrilling performance, which constitutes a perfect, archetypal caricature of a certain popular blend of impenetrable bullshit and misogyny-by-default, and which frequently comes to mind when I am trying to figure why I hate some guy so much. For me, one of the most upsetting sequences in the whole thing, I’m not entirely sure why, is when Rosemary asks Guy to show her his shoulder (suspecting that he has been hiding some kind of satanic tattoo), and he complies, as though he can’t imagine why she’s asking, in faux good humor, smirking “that’s as far as I go without a blue light.” I think what gets me is the fact that even his malicious and unfunny joking is, itself, bullshit; even the part of his personality that’s a dismissive asshole is only bullshit. Even his cruel display of disinterest is just a mask for the true blackness of his fundamental, cosmic, deadly disinterest. Yes, he is after all a “bad guy,” but there’s something scary there that goes well beyond the issue of Rosemary’s baby or Rosemary’s Baby. To me, there’s something truly, philosophically dark in that performance that I want to attribute to Cassavetes himself. The role as written (as it appears in the book) is just a hateful, frivolous, self-serving jerk. In the movie, he’s a pit of darkness that has decided to act the part of a hateful, frivolous, self-serving jerk because that seems like a good idea.

More than any paranoid fear of conspiracies or of the devil, the horror in Rosemary’s Baby is of the possibility of complete isolation. It’s the fear that nobody cares about you, regardless of what they might say – nobody.* While, in the movie, the reason for all the lying is a conspiratorial plot, the presence of that horrible husband character gets the wider message across – people might be lying to you and using you for their own purposes because that’s all there is out there. Rosemary’s childlike claim to being a sophisticated young woman is terrifying because it’s so insufficient in the face of b) all of them witches and a) her husband and everyone else. Almost nothing scary happens in the movie that we don’t pretty much know is going to happen – the fear comes from the worry that we are all as nitwitted and hopeless as Rosemary, being duped for whatever reasons (the devil is just a nice stand-in for any dark cause) by everyone around us. Ultimately she’s duped by her own baby. In the book the punchline seems to be “and now the world is doomed ’cause of the devil baby!” but in the movie, I read it as “of course, your friend Rosemary can only ever be a witless, hopeless slave – sound familiar?”

Is that just me? Or, alternately, is it of course everyone and I’m the only one who thinks it’s just me? Anyway, it’s me.

* The presence of good ol’ Hutch definitely dilutes this a bit, which is part of the reason that I don’t think this kind of sweeping existential curse was ever quite Ira’s (or Roman’s) intention. But it’s what makes the movie work, to me, and I like to imagine that John Cassavetes was in on it. Assigning the role of Satan to the ridiculous, commonplace Castevets is a gesture that the real horror is elsewhere. I think Ira’s idea was that horror in the present day would take a familiar present-day form, and that its outward mundanity would make it all the more horrific (cf. The Stepford Wives). But by keeping the Castevets silly even to the bitter end – in the theater where we saw this (midnight screening!), Minnie’s gossipy delivery of the grandiose in her climactic line about “he chose you out of all the women in the world!” got the movie’s biggest laugh – the book and the movie don’t make them more horrific, they just indicate that the horror is something above and beyond their specific machinations. Maybe they thought it was the devil, or the whole conspiracy thing. But obviously that stuff is just fun genre stuff. The real scare in the movie, though it may well have arisen only as a serendipitous byproduct of the plotting, is that we are all on our own and the world couldn’t care less.

Oops, okay, so I’m putting this below the footnote because it’s an addendum a few days later and unrelated to the above, but related to Rosemary’s Baby.

In the movie (and in the book), Rosemary proudly tells several people that Guy “was in Luther and Nobody Loves an Albatross and a lot of TV commercials.” Only in googling around for the above post did I learn that both plays were real and both premiered on Broadway in the 1963-4 season. Obviously, the first question was: was there an actor who was in both productions? Answer: no. Luther, by John Osborne, ran from September 1963 to March 1964, and Nobody Loves an Albatross, by Ronald Alexander, ran from December 1963 to June 1964. Obviously, nobody could be in both shows. More likely, in fact, that Ira Levin saw both shows around the same time. He certainly seems to have seen Luther, based on the fact that Roman Castevet calls it “a good picture of the hypocrisy behind organised religion,” and from the sound of the thing, it seems possible that the subject matter of Albatross was meant to connect to Guy’s life of cynical TV-land lies.

So, to the important questions: did Albert Finney play the title role in Luther as reported by Roman Castevet? Answer: yes. (Scroll down to see a press caricature here.) Okay, and does his character have a fit, as reported by Guy Woodhouse? Answer: Yes, at the end of the first scene, according to the synopsis in this helpful study guide. And now the big question – did Albert Finney have an understudy, and if so, would he have been onstage during the scene when Luther has his fit, so as to make the “involuntary reach” gesture for which Guy Woodhouse is praised? Answer: yes, and most likely, yes. The IDDB page (same link as above) indicates that one John Heffernan was the understudy for the role of Martin Luther, and that he played Weinand, whom, if you read the synopsis carefully, you will see is very likely onstage during the fit.

So, who is John Heffernan? Well, he played Eddie Niles, the bank teller who takes the bets at the end of The Sting. Can anyone find me a picture?

What does this mean? I believe it means nothing. When asked if he was Albert Finney’s understudy, Guy does, after all, say “no.” However, the implication of the scene is that Roman Castevet noticed Guy and identified him in the program, which would have been impossible if he were just one of the six cast members credited only as “Monks, lords, peasants, etc.” On the other hand, the further implication of the scene is that Roman is masterfully manipulating Guy and his praise for Guy’s performance is probably a bluff based on research rather than memory. BUT, since the scene mentions a real event in the play, it seems probable to me that Ira Levin was describing an actual gesture he saw onstage. Perhaps he had Guy say that he was not Albert Finney’s understudy solely to avoid slandering the actual understudy, whose gesture was nonetheless the one described. Or perhaps John Heffernan is a horrible horrible person, the kind who’d sell his wife’s womb to satanists, and I’ve revealed the truth to the world. But I doubt it. He comes off like a pretty nice guy, in The Sting. Plus, remember how he was so reasonable and pleasant that time when he witnessed an explosion on 20th Street? Now that was scary!

ADDENDUM 2: Okay, now it’s almost a month later and I’m still adding to this. Enough already! I just wanted to let everyone know that I’ve checked the book itself and the dialogue actually runs like this:

“A good picture of the hypocrisy behind organized religion,” Mr. Castevet said, “was given, I thought, in Luther. Did you ever get to play the leading part, Guy?”

“Me? No,” Guy said.

“Weren’t you Albert Finney’s understudy?” Mr. Castevet asked.

“No,” Guy said, “the fellow who played Weinand was. I just covered two of the smaller parts.”

“That’s strange,” Mr. Castevet said; “I was quite certain that you were his understudy. I remember being struck by a gesture you made and checking in the program to see who you were; and I could swear you were listed as Finney’s understudy.”

“What gesture do you mean?” Guy asked.

“I’m not sure now; a movement of your–“

“I used to do a sort of thing with my arms when Luther had the fit, a sort of involuntary reaching–“

“Exactly,” Mr. Castevet said. “That’s just what I meant. It had a wonderful authenticity to it. In contrast, may I say, to everything Mr. Finney was doing.”

“Oh, come on now,” Guy said.

“I thought his performance was considerably overrated,” Mr. Castevet said. “I’d be most curious to see what you would have done with the part.”

Laughing, Guy said, “That makes two of us,” and cast a bright-eyed glance at Rosemary.

Which very explicitly lets John Heffernan off the hook. I’m not going to do the hard research right now, but if we take Guy’s comment to mean that he understudied two of the smaller parts, which is how I take it, that leaves us with these three, all originally credited as “Monks, lords, peasants, etc.”:

Harry Carlson (understudy for Lucas, Weinand)
Stan Dworkin (Eck, Hans)
Roger Hamilton (Leo, Prior)

Though it doesn’t sound like Guy thought of Weinand as a “smaller part.” My bet is on Roger Hamilton, the only one of the three with a real Broadway career. Thoughts?

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