Almost 50 years ago, Roman Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby hit the screens. This artful and engrossing suspense drama instantly won over critics and audiences alike. Today, it seems worth revisiting what made this classic one to remember.
Based on Ira Levin’s novel, the narrative revolves around a young couple, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes). They are new to an apartment complex, and soon encounter their seemingly sweet elderly neighbours, the Castevets. However, as time passes, they slowly become more absurdly intrusive and sinister.
When Rosemary finds herself pregnant the couple is overjoyed, (and so are their neighbours). Yet, just as everything in this film begins to turn sour, so does this, as Rosemary suspects her unborn child may have been promised away in an occult ritual. She believes her husband may have exchanged it for success in his acting career. As Rosemary slowly grows more convinced of this twisted deal, the atmosphere darkens and the story becomes steadily more engrossing.
At the heart of this story is a most macabre concept. It is about a mother’s desperate plight to protect her unborn child. The maddening and terrifying idea, that Rosemary’s baby may be sacrificed, deepens the suspense of the film. To believe people are capable of such acts asks a lot of the audience. It may be more reassuring to think that everything is a product of Rosemary’s paranoia. However, as Rosemary’s suspicions grow, we aren’t left behind. We become gradually more suspicious with her. This aids the strong sense of suspense and tension that runs throughout the film. Every step is riddled with anxiety, due to its believability. Polanski expertly constructs a thrilling and dark journey, which above all, is startlingly convincing.
One of the main strengths of this film is its characters. Most of the time, they don’t seem to be at the mercy of the plot, they transcend it. Mia Farrow is captivating in the leading role. Her descent into suspicion, distress and illness is beautifully executed. You feel truly invested in her journey. For an actress relatively unknown at that time, she certainly holds her own. Ruth Gordon (Adam’s Rib, Harold and Maude) is exceptional in her supporting role as Minnie Castevet. She has the masterful ability to switch between both sides of her character, seemingly harmless and subtly sinister. Sidney Blackmer (High Society) plays her husband Roman Castevet, also delivering a memorable performance.
Perhaps we wouldn’t have quite the same film had the original casting gone to plan. Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) was originally selected as the ideal Guy Woodhouse. When this fell through, all eyes turned to Jack Nicholson (Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) to play the part. Evidently, Nicholson also turned down the role. Polanski himself eventually suggested John Cassavetes for the character.
There was an equal amount of indecision when it came to the main role of Rosemary. The director wanted his wife Sharon Tate (Valley of the Dolls) to step up to the plate, or otherwise actress Tuesday Weld (The Cincinnati Kid). Mia Farrow seemed an unlikely candidate in comparison. Her waif like appearance was not what the production team had in mind. However, this ended up being an asset to the narrative, as Farrow easily transformed into the sickly woman Rosemary became. Once Farrow was being seriously considered there were further difficulties. Her husband at the time, Frank Sinatra, had requested she give up her acting career when they were married. He was extremely displeased to learn of her consideration for the part. Farrow felt extraordinarily conflicted, which continued throughout some of the filming schedule, however, she ultimately kept with the project and Sinatra served her divorce papers on set.
Polanski had assured Farrow she would likely be nominated for an Academy Award for her part. This did not eventuate, despite her fabulous performance. Instead, Rosemary’s Baby received two other nominations, for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. Ruth Gordon came away with the gold statue for the latter. The film also received a handful of nominations at the Golden Globes and saw widespread praise from critics and audiences everywhere.
Today, Rosemary’s Baby is considered one of the best horror films ever produced. It isn’t filled with gore; it truly masters the sense of suspense. It will continue to stand out as an expertly constructed and macabre classic.