Monday, March 2, 2009

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Raising Hell

If it is true that, as critic Andrew Sarris and other proponents of the “auteur theory” of filmmaking have postulated, a film’s director ultimately must be considered its true “author,” then it reasonable to hypothesize that the same film’s producer is that author’s editor – and, by extension, that someone in the gatekeeping position of Robert Evans during his 1966-74 tenure at Paramount is nothing less than the editor in chief.

Consider the case of Rosemary’s Baby, the second-highest grossing Paramount release of 1968 (according to box-office figures reported in the Jan. 8, 1969 edition of the trade paper Variety), and the widely acknowledged progenitor of an entire subgenre of novels and motion pictures dealing with children possessed and/or spawned by Satan.

Adapted by writer-director Roman Polanski from the 1967 novel of the same title by Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby is a subtly suspenseful drama of supernatural activity in modern-day Manhattan. In its time, it was enormously popular with audiences and extremely well-received by critics. The aforementioned Andrew Sarris, speaking for the majority of his colleagues, hailed the film as “an almost flawless entertainment”; Roger Ebert admired it as “a brooding, macabre film, filled with the sense of unthinkable danger”; and the estimable Pauline Kael embraced it as an unusually clever commingling of comedy and terror, the sacred and the profane:

Pregnant women sometimes look at their men as if to say, “What have you done to me?” Rosemary (Mia Farrow), the Omaha-born girl who’s now living in Manhattan, has reason to wonder, and this satirical gothic thriller… is told from her point of view. Rosemary’s actor-husband (John Cassavetes) conspires with a coven, drugs her, and mates her with Satan, in exchange for a Broadway hit. It’s genuinely funny, yet it’s also scary, especially for young women: it plays on their paranoid vulnerabilities. The queasy and the grisly are mixed with its entertaining hipness. (It’s probably more fun for women who are past their childbearing years.) Mia Farrow is enchanting in her fragility: she’s just about perfect for her role. And the darkly handsome Cassavetes is ideal as the narcissist who makes the deal for a cloven-hoofed infant.

Rosemary’s Baby initially was brought to the attention of Robert Evans by producer-director William Castle, who had purchased the rights to Ira Levin’s novel for $100,000 – with an additional $50,000 to be paid to Levin if the book became a best seller (which it did). Evans was impressed by the manuscript. But he was convinced that Castle, who intended to direct the film adaptation, was the wrong man for the material.

The director of such high-grossing, low-budget horror movies as Macabre (1958), The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill (both 1959), Castle had made his mark by dint of exuberant showmanship, not filmmaking artistry. His promotional stunts for his critically reviled B-movies were the stuff of instant Hollywood legend. (At various movie theaters throughout the United States, Castle arranged for a faux skeleton to be dangled over the heads of screaming moviegoers during a key scene in House on Haunted Hill.) But even after he landed a production deal with Paramount in the mid 1960s, and began to manufacture slightly pricier and more prestigious products, he never managed to completely escape his self-invented image as a shameless huckster – an image he audaciously referenced in the title of his autobiography, Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America (Putnam, 1976).

Evans played his trump card – i.e., Castle’s multiyear production deal with Paramount – to lure Castle out of the director’s chair, and into the highly remunerative but largely ceremonial position of producer for Rosemary’s Baby. (Various sources – most notably, the autobiographies of Robert Evans and Roman Polanski, and a documentary featuring commentary by both men and production designer Richard Sylbert -- indicate that all final decisions regarding budget, casting and locations were made by Evans, not Castle.) With that out of the way, the Paramount chief set his sights on Roman Polanski, a Polish-born director who had gained international acclaim for what Evans described as “three really offbeat thrillers”: Knife in the Water (1962), Polanski’s debut feature, a suspenseful drama fueled by the tensions that ensue when a couple invites a handsome hitchhiker along for a sailing weekend; Repulsion (1965), a psychological thriller about a troubled young woman (played by Catherine Deneuve) who, not unlike the heroine of Rosemary’s Baby, is driven to extremes by mounting paranoia; and Cul-de-Sac (1966), a bleakly funny black comedy about a May-December couple (Donald Pleasence, Francoise Dorleac) whose remote home is invaded by a fugitive gangster (Lionel Stander).

Undeterred by the difficulties Polanski was experiencing at the time with his first Hollywood-produced film – Dance of the Vampires (1967), which was taken out of Polanski’s hands, drastically re-edited, and fleetingly released in the United States under the title The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck – Evans actively recruited the Polish filmmaker take the job of delivering Rosemary’s Baby to moviegoers.

Such bold willingness to gamble on idiosyncratic talents was a defining feature of the New Hollywood era in general, and Robert Evans' Paramount regime in particular. As Peter Bart, Evan’s second-in-command, recalls, “Everybody was looking for an answer. One answer seemed to be, if you found a brilliant young director with a vision, go with him. It was [Stanley] Kubrick, more than anybody, that had an impact on us.”

Knowing that Polanski was an avid ski buff, Evans invited Polanski to the United States to “take a meeting” to discuss a promising project that eventually would be known as Downhill Racer. (The script was filmed in 1969 by director Michael Ritchie with one of Polanski’s original choices for the male lead in Rosemary’s Baby – Robert Redford.) At the meeting, the Paramount chief also suggested that Polanski take home the galley proofs for a new novel, Rosemary’s Baby, to gauge the book’s potential for film adaptation. Polanski initially was unimpressed – the first few chapters struck him as “a soap opera” – but he pressed on. By the time he reached the final page, he was ready to sign on.

The actual filming of Rosemary’s Baby proved to be quite stressful for both Polanski, an artist whose penchant for perfectionism caused production delays, and Evans, who repeatedly had to defend Polanski whenever chairman Charles Bluhdorn and other board members at Gulf + Western (the New York-based conglomerate that owned Paramount at the time) complained about cost and schedule over-runs. Evans recalls:

By the end of the first week’s shooting in New York, Roman was a week behind schedule. His dailies were brilliant, but everyone from Bluhdorn to Bill Castle wanted me to throw him off the picture…

Roman’s dailies touched an ominous sense of fright – one I’d never seen on film before. At the same time, Bill Castle was pressing the right buttons getting the New York brass unnerved over my Polish discovery. “Fire the Polack” was the word from New York. I flew to New York and confronted the accusers. “If he goes, I go.” And I would have. You can’t make a deal unless you’re prepared to blow it. For a moment, I thought I’d have to pay my own plane fare back. Not with a smile, they acquiesced.

That night, I grabbed Roman aside. “Pick up the pace, will ya, or we’ll both end up in Warsaw.”

The casting of Mia Farrow in the lead role also caused problems. At first, Polanski was eager to hire Tuesday Weld; Evans insisted on Farrow, then a popular actress because of her role on the TV soap opera Peyton Place. Much to the relief of all parties involved, Polanski quickly recognized Farrow’s talent, and agreed to use her without even asking for a screen test. Indeed, once production began, Polanski recalls, he and Farrow “enjoyed a marvelous rapport.”

Three-quarters of the way through filming, however, superstar entertainer Frank Sinatra, Farrow’s husband at the time, pulled a power play that very nearly sunk the entire project. Sinatra was adamant that his wife complete work on Rosemary’s Baby by Thanksgiving, so she would be able co-star in his next film – ironically, a film adaptation of The Detective, the novel that had established Robert Evans as a producer in the first place. When told that Polanski would not wrap his picture until after Christmas, Sinatra demanded that Farrow simply walk off the set.

Farrow might have done that, Evans claims, had he not prepared for her private viewing an hour-long rough cut of Rosemary’s Baby footage. After the screening, Evans sealed the deal by telling her – inaccurately, as it turned out – that she was a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination. Farrow decided to defy Sinatra. Sinatra responded by having his lawyer serve her with divorce papers – on the set of Rosemary’s Baby. Farrow was upset by this real-life drama – but never missed a day of shooting until the film was completed.

Catching Hell

Completed at a cost of $2.3 million, Rosemary’s Baby earned $30 million worldwide. Its box-office performance was all the more impressive in light of the movie’s most significant negative review – a “Condemned” rating by the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures (NCOMP), the watchdog organization that had been founded by Roman Catholic bishops in 1933 as the Catholic Legion of Decency, and was known from 1934 to 1966 as the National Legion of Decency.

By any name, the organization had held immeasurable influence over the content of motion pictures produced and/or distributed in the United States for over three decades prior to the 1968 release of Rosemary’s Baby. From the early 1930s onward, Hollywood moguls appreciated – and feared – the power that Catholic clergy might wield if moved to rally the faithful against individual films, or the film industry as a whole. Will Hays -- the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), later known as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) -- went so as to publicly acknowledge the Legion’s role in the establishment of the Production Code of America (a.k.a. “The Hays Code” or “The Hays Office”), the “self-regulatory body” body charged with maintaining moral standards in movies made by studios that were signatories to the code. (Such a code, industry leaders dearly hoped, would prevent, or at least diminish, censorious regulations by federal, state or local government entities.) By 1935, Garth Jowett writes in his book Film: The Democratic Art:

[T]he motion picture industry was essentially under the control of a Catholic hegemony… Protestants could debate control, and social scientists could measure, but only organized power and authoritative morality could achieve effective control. The result was not the smooth integration into American society which the industry and its supporters had hoped for, but instead it placed a superficial Catholic veneer on the medium which remained in effect until after the end of the Second World War.

It is arguable that the first significant cracks in that “Catholic veneer” were caused by NCOMP’s Condemned (or “C”) rating of Rosemary’s Baby. (Other NCOMP ratings: A-I [Suitable for All Audiences], A-II [Suitable for Adults and Adolescents], A-III [Suitable for Adults], A-IV [Suitable for Adults with Reservations] and B [Morally Objectionable in Part for All].)

Within days of the official announcement of it condemnation of Rosemary's Baby, Rev. Patrick J. Sullivan Jr., executive secretary and director of NCOMP, insisted that while his organization was opposed to censorship, it would continue to brand offensive films with the dreaded “C”: “We find it is still a force, particularly when the film producer has his mind on the TV [sales],” he was quoted in an article that appeared in the June 19, 1968 issue of the show business trade paper Variety. Rev. Sullivan also claimed that, even though his organization never placed direct pressure on exhibitors, the public continued to place great stock in NCOMP ratings: “[T]he fact that theaters have been able to show any film they wish without any static from our office leads [exhibitors] to believe the public is accepting this fare. This just is not so. We get hundreds and hundreds of complaints each month concerning violence and sex in films.”

In the same issue of Variety, however, staff writer Stuart Byron noted that NCOMP risked overstepping its bounds and losing its credibility, in the eyes of both film industry leaders and the general public, by condemning Rosemary’s Baby not just because of brief female nudity or impolite language [1], but primarily because of what NCOMP perceived as the film’s “sacrilegious” elements. Byron quoted the official wording of the NCOMP announcement: “Because of several scenes of nudity, this contemporary horror story about devil worship would qualify for a condemned rating. Much more serious, however, is the perverted use which the film makes of fundamental Christian beliefs, especially in the events surrounding the birth of Christ, and its mockery of religious persons and practices. The very technical excellence of the film serves to intensity its defamatory nature.”

Thus [Byron wrote] the issue looms clearcut to showmen: a film with obvious mass appeal vs. the Catholic office. No other recent [movie] receiving a “C” rating really has presented this issue so starkly, it is argued. Among the big Hollywood films condemned were such as Kiss Me, Stupid, Hurry Sundown [2] and Reflections in a Golden Eye, [films] never considered to have that much commercial potential and all of which ended up breaking even at best. As for such specialized fare as Blow-Up, The Pawnbroker and the current The Fox, though they were or are spectacular successes, they scored largely by appealing to the biggest possible extension of the art market. Against all these, Rosemary’s Baby is clearly a film for general audiences and will succeed or fall on a mass base.

That Rosemary’s Baby did indeed succeed on a mass basis was yet another sign that a “New Hollywood” era had arrived, an era that dawned largely because the general public appeared willing to accept edgier, envelope-pushing fare. And because there is more than one way for a studio production chief to serve as an agent of change for the diffusion of innovations.

[1] As Variety film critic A.D. Murphy (a.k.a. “Murf”) disapprovingly noted in his May 29, 1968 review, Rosemary Baby “probably is the first U.S.-made, major studio film to utilize a four-letter English-language vulgarism of debatable justification,” possibly limiting its box-office potential, however slightly, because of “individuals who may be alienated by that gratuitous crudity.” It’s worth noting that producer William Castle was not at all ashamed when he referred to this “gratuitous crudity” thusly: “I was the first one that brought shit to the public… I’m talking about the word, not the film.”
[2] A 1967 Paramount release, directed by Otto Preminger, infamous for a suggestive scene involving Michael Caine, Jane Fonda and a saxophone.


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