Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” was a box-office hit upon its release in the summer of 1968. It grossed $33 million dollars off a $3 million dollar budget (adjusted for inflation that’s $221million from a $19 million budget) and it paved the way for horror blockbusters like “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” in the years to come. Made by Polanski at the age of 34, it was the Polish director’s American film debut, and the picture became nominated for two Academy Awards, including a win for Ruth Gordon's deliciously quirky Supporting Role performance as the neighbor from hell. It also earned Polanski his first Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel, which is not bad for a guy that didn’t speak English as a first language.
A creepy, darkly comic psychological horror/drama, “Rosemary’s Baby,” in case you’re living under a rock, centers on a New York young couple (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) who move into a new apartment, only to be surrounded by peculiar neighbors and odd occurrences. When the wife becomes mysteriously pregnant, paranoia over the safety of her unborn child begins controlling her life (and that's just the tip of the iceberg).
It’s become a touchstone horror film, that like all the classic ones, is much more than just a horror picture thanks to its deliciously wry humor and its potent ambiguity (some have posited the entire story is just in Rosemary’s head). Released on the Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray this week, it’s finally found a suitably cared for home by these home video tastemakers with a gorgeous transfer and insightful extras.
Evidently Alfred Hitchcock himself had passed on an option of the novel and instead horror producer William Castle optioned it and took it to renowned Paramount head Robert Evans who, on the extras, said the movie “remains a highpoint of my career.” Evidently no one at Paramount, including the notoriously conservative chairman Charles Bludhorn, wanted to Polanski to direct the film nor trusted him to make a horror for his first English-language picture in the U.S. But Evans dug in his heels and Bludhorn eventually relented. The DVD extras detail out several fascinating aspects of the production so here’s seven highlights of elements we learned from “Rosemary’s Baby.”
1. Producer William Castle was once poised to direct the film after Polanski was already on board, according to Mia Farrow.
According to the Criterion Collection DVD extra “Remembering Rosemary’s Baby,” Mia Farrow recalled that Castle called her and said, “I’m so glad you’re going to do the part, but we may be doing it without Roman,” she remembered, noting that Castle, also a director, would take the helm if such a thing happened (presumably this meant the filmmaker had a change of heart at one point or negotiations weren’t going well). “My heart sank. I mean, lovely man, William, but I knew the power of the film would lie in Roman telling the tale.”
Evans wouldn't let Castle direct it. Instead choosing Polanski because he was so impressed and unnerved with "Repulsion” and the directorial prowess evinced by “Knife In The Water” and “Cul De Sac.” Evans said he was “fascinated” with Polanski’s films, while Castle was a shlocky B-film director/producer of gimmicky horror films. “Macabre” was touted as being so scary it came with a ridiculous $1,000 life insurance policy for each customer in case they should die of fright during the film. “13 Ghosts” was shot in “Emergo” (essentially accompanied by a dangling glow-in-the-dark skeleton in the theater) and he best known for wiring theater seats to jolt patrons of “The Tingler.”
“He was good [at what he did],” Evans said. “But the quality of the films were not what I wanted to make. I read his submission of 'Rosemary’s Baby' and I loved it. Because it was a horror film, but brilliantly written. It was too good for Bill Castle,” he laughed, saying he needed a special person to take on the job.
2. Robert Evans essentially tricked Polanski into directing the film by luring him with the prospect of letting him helm the ski film “Downhill Racer.”
As Polanski was a ski buff, Evans hooked him under the false pretense of letting him direct "Downhill Racer.” But Evans told Polanski, before he should do anything, he should read this other script first, “Rosemary’s Baby.”
It struck Polanski like a like a syrupy Doris Day number at first. “I went to the hotel and started reading and it looked to like a kitchen melodrama for television,” Polanski said on the DVD extras, “But as I read, I got deeper and deeper into it and the suspense was such that i didn’t stop until 4 in the morning and the next day I came back to the studio and I said, ‘Ok, let’s do this first.’ ” Of course, “Downhill Racer” would eventually be directed by Michael Ritchie and star Robert Redford (also on The Criterion Collection), but Polanski didn’t seem to care after the creepy mood horror launched his career.
3. Roman Polanski got some much-needed advice from Otto Preminger while filming.
During production, one day William Castle called Robert Evans and complained that Polanski was ten days behind schedule and if this continued he was going to cost Paramount a fortune. Evans said the producer’s suggestion was to “get rid of him.” Evans quickly flew to New York and told Polanski to pick up the pace or said he’d get shipped back to Poland. But the producers were thrilled with the dailies and what they were seeing thus far.
Worried, Polanski ran into filmmaker Otto Preminger in L.A., and the elder director asked Roman why he was so visibly concerned and gloomy. Polanski explained his situation, that he was behind schedule and he was worried that Evans and Paramount were going to fire him. Preminger said, “What about the rushes? Do they like them?” And Polanski said, “They’re delighted with them!” Preminger, countered, “So what do you care then? They never fired anyone because of schedule, but if they don’t like the rushes, you’d be out very soon.” And soon after, Polanski regained his confidence and stopped fretting.
While Polanski concurs with Evans and Paramount was making him “miserable” during the production, the director gave him a big compliment. “Robert Evans trusts talent very much,” he said. “He was a great enthusiast of motion pictures. He loved a good movie and he was trying to inject new blood into the system and it paid off.”4. The Church of Satan had nothing to do with “Rosemary’s Baby,” but that didn’t stop a urban legend from growing.
Movie folklore insists that Church of Satan leader Anton LaVey not only served as a "technical consultant" on the film, but he “donned the hairy devil suit for the film's notorious rape scene.” Needless to say, this is false.
5. There was no love lost between John Cassavetes and Polanski, both writer/directors, but “Rosemary’s Baby” was Roman’s film.
Cassavetes' "Faces" came out the same year as "Rosemary's Baby" and he and Polanski tangled often. Cassavetes, prone to improv in his own work, didn't love his experience on the film. “John wanted to improvise and John wanted to move around,” Farrow explained. “And Roman said no. And so, I’m oversimplifying, but over time, the tensions between the two styles of acting and directing, you had two superb actor/directors…the tension became more and more.”
Polanski conceded as much. “John Cassavetes was not my best experience I must say,” he said. “He didn’t feel comfortable in his role I think. When an actor has not problem with the part, he is happy and he is kind to the crew, the director, to everybody around you. When an actor struggles he becomes a pain in the ass. Cassavetes was a pain from time to time. I can’t say he was difficult constantly, but he had problems when we tried to dress him up, for example. He was comfortable in sneakers. You took his sneakers, he had problems with his acting.”
According to Ed Park’s excellent Criterion piece, in her 1997 autobiography, Farrow wrote, "John became openly critical of Roman, who yelled, 'John, shut up!' and they moved towards each other." Actor Ruth Gordon's consummate professionalism, put a stop to it, but the ill-will lingered for years. "Yes, he really was ill at ease. But perhaps he’s a little bit too Actors’ Studio to play a character. What he knows how to play best is himself," Polanski said in an interview from around 1969. And Cassavetes
Polanski is more generous to Cassavetes on the extras. “I liked John. He was not the favorite of the studio, but I suggested him and we hired him on my request,” Polanski said. “It’s not like he was thrown upon me.”
6. Actors such as Tuesday Weld, Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson were considered for the leads at first.
Polanski's first choice for the lead part was the “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” star but Evans wanted Mia Farrow. “After many meetings Polanski and casting fights, he wanted Tuesday,” Evans said explaining that Polanski was reluctant because she was on the TV show “Peyton Place” and this made him slightly uncomfortable. “I imagined someone more all-American, milk fed,” Polanski said. “By the way that’s how Ira Levin describes Rosemary [in the book]. Mia was more fragile, more baby-like, but I auditioned a few actresses, but finally I thought to myself, ‘There’s nobody better.’ And I knew how much Bob [Evans] was counting [on me casting her]. He thought she was very talented and he was right.”
Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson were both suggested for the part that Cassavetes eventually landed. “John wasn’t our first choice,” Evans said. Unfortunately, however, Paramount was suing Redford at the time for another matter. “Redford was [our first choice]. He was the type we wanted, all American, very straight type. John Cassavetes was not ordinary casting. While he was an extraordinary actor, he had a different interpretation of it and Roman and he… there was no honeymoon.”
7. Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow divorced over her commitments to the movie.
Before she took the role, she asked her husband at the time, Frank Sinatra, what he thought. He immediately said, “I can’t see you in the part,” which immediately gave her doubts herself. She wasn’t sure she could pull it off.
Months later, when she finally took the role, she was urged to leave the film, because as it was running beh behind schedule it was conflicting with other parts she was supposed to take. One of them was “The Detective,” starring Sinatra. And the hot-headed singer-turned-actor was becoming extremely impatient. “In the end my husband said, ‘It’s either ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ or me,’ ” Farrow recalled of his ultimatum. “Every weekend I was flying to New York [shooting had moved to the Paramount lot in L.A. by this point] and trying to make peace. But he was Sicilian, and it was about doing what he wanted. I loved him and we remained friends until the day he died, but I couldn’t leave the movie.”
Farrow explained that she came from an acting family with parents who would never walk out on a movie if it was incomplete and that work ethic was deeply instilled in her. “It was never in question,” she said of leaving the movie, “But it was an agonizing thing and I just hoped he didn’t mean it.” Sinatra sent his lawyer to L.A. and in the middle of a scene handed Farrow divorce papers. “I just signed everything through a blur of tears. I don’t know how I [still shot scenes] that day.” Evans was so upset by Sinatra’s rashness that they didn’t speak for four years and the producer said things got so heated between them that before he went to a restaurant, he would call the maitre d' and make sure the star wasn’t already dining in the same place.
Evans would have his revenge. “The Detective” and “Rosemary’s Baby” opened on the same day in June, 1968, according to Evans*. “ ‘The Detective’ did good business, but ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ was a blockbuster." (*Wikipedia says they opened two weeks apart).
“Rosemary’s Baby” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray via The Criterion Collection. Watch Criterion’s three reasons to watch the film (as if you need them) below.