Every week at the Cinema Sangha Patreon I recommend something to subscribers at the $5 and above level. Sometimes it’s a book, sometimes it’s a song, sometimes it’s a movie. Every time I try to write in depth about the thing and what it means. This week I’m recommending the classic film Rosemary’s Baby. This is an excerpt; to read the entire review, become a Patron at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha.
Mia Farrow might give the best horror movie performance ever in Rosemary’s Baby. I’m hedging my bets a little here because I’ve learned that any declarative statement is nothing but a dare for a series of “what about” responses, but if Farrow’s performance isn’t the best, it’s certainly top three. It’s monumental, it’s profound, it’s harrowing, but maybe most of all it’s got a metatextual texture that I find absolutely compelling.
Rosemary’s Baby is one of the era-straddling films of the late 60s, a movie that has one foot planted firmly in Old Hollywood and one in New; more than that it straddles cultural divides, and it includes content and themes that would have been unimaginable in a mainstream Hollywood film only a few years earlier. At its center is Mia Farrow as a beautiful hippie-era woman who finds herself in a generational conflict the likes of which she could not have previously understood or imagined. She is slowly confined and gaslit by a coterie of oldsters, and while her new home seemed to be the first steps into a free life of promise, it turns out to be secretly controlled by a patriarchy of witches.
(I think it’s very interesting that this coven is indeed patriarchal, and that they are indeed called witches. The modern view of witches as avatars of feminist freedom does not exist in this film)
What makes Farrow’s performance so good and so metatextual is the way it evolves over the course of the film. When we first meet Rosemary Woodhouse, Farrow plays her in the slightly stiff style of pre-Method acting; Farrow is bringing classic Hollywood screen acting in the beginning to signify Rosemary as a very ordinary person. But as the film goes on, Farrow digs deeper and deeper and brings more and more to the surface. She gets more and more raw, edgier, intense. Farrow’s performance bridges the eras, giving birth to a new era of genre performances that are emotionally honest and legitimate. You can almost pinpoint the switch over of Hollywood eras based on Farrow’s hairdo in this movie.
Today we’d call Rosemary’s Baby elevated genre, but that’s because we are a fallen people, far from the light of God. Genre has always been elevated – it’s always been where we find the most human stories, the most cutting observations, the most honest depictions of our foibles and fears – it’s been the critics who have kept genre down. That said, Roman Polanski was able to take a potboiler about Satanists in an old New York City apartment building and turn it into something next level; William Castle’s cameo in the film (he’s waiting outside the phone booth as Rosemary is frantically calling Dr. Hill, aka Charles Grodin in his debut role) reminds us that the schlockmeister had brought Ira Levin’s book (still in galleys!) to Robert Evans at Paramount. There’s schlock in here, and Castle saw its potential, but Evans understood that there was something else to be achieved here.