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Wednesday
Oct262011

Oscar Horrors: Roman Polanski's Chalky Undertaste

In the Oscar Horrors series we're celebrating Oscar nominated or Oscar winning achievements of or related to the Horror genre. Daily through Halloween!

HERE LIES… Roman Polanski’s screenplay for Rosemary’s Baby, which he adapted from Ira Levin’s bestseller. It lost the statue for Best Adapted Screenplay to a tale of a very different plot – “There are plots against people, aren’t there?” in The Lion in Winter.

JA from MNPP here. When people ask me what my favorite movie is I tell them it’s a tie between Rosemary’s Baby and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. (I’ve always wished I could fall madly in love with another movie that starts with “R” just so I could make some lame comment about how I bide by “The 3 R’s” but it hasn’t happened yet. Yes I am a nerd.) Point being, since seeing Rosemary for the first time twenty years ago or so, I’ve managed to watch it at least once a year, sometimes more, so it’s one of those movies I know by heart.

One of my first activities upon signing up with a Twitter account was, much to my Twitter follower’s understandable exhaustion, a live tweeting of the film – I find exuberance in pretty much every line of dialogue, whether it be something small like the way Minnie (Ruth Gordon) gags out the words “THE CCCCAAARRRPPPETTT” as Roman (Sidney Blackmer) spills the vodka blush, or something big like Guy (John Cassavetes) telling Rosemary (Mia Farrow) that “ it was kinda fun, in a necrophile sorta way.” I consider the script a perfect thing, and a week (hell, a day) doesn’t go by where I don’t quote something from it.

“The name is an anagram.”

“Pain be gone, I will have no more of thee.”

“He has his father’s eyes.”

“It has a chalky undertaste.”

More on the brilliant screenplay and one of cinema's most iconic shots after the jump...

I could go on and on and on, as my Twitter followers learned to their mounting horror. (All of them witches!) So it took me by surprise to realize only a year or two ago that I’d never bothered to read Ira Levin’s book. The amazing thing about the book and the screenplay is… they are exactly the same. That’s a bit of an exaggeration of course, there are some minor changes (there’s a little bit more about Rosemary’s Catholic family, for instance), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book and a screenplay so closely knit. Take this passage from the scene where Rosemary throws a very special party where you have to be under sixty to get in.

Rosemary wept, black streaks smearing down her cheeks. Elise put her into a chair; Tiger took the spoons from her hands and moved the salad bowl to the far side of the table.

The door started to open and Joan ran to it and stopped and blocked it. It was Guy. “Hey, let me in,” he said.

“Sorry,” Joan said. “Girls only.”

“Let me speak to Rosemary.”

“Can’t; she’s busy.”

“Look,” he said, “I’ve got to wash glasses.”

“Use the bathroom.” She shouldered the door click-closed and leaned against it.

“Damn it, open the door,” he said outside.

I picked this excerpt totally at random, and then went and looked at it in the film to see how different it is. Wanna know what’s different?

The only thing that's different is nobody moved the salad bowl out of the way! But you can see it sitting there on the table, meaning that Polanski made sure a salad bowl was in the scene – that’s how strictly he stuck to the source. Although I sometimes doubt the reality of the myth this has turned into, the story goes that Polanski had never adapted anything at this point in his career, so when he wrote the screenplay he didn’t know he could change anything. Reading the book it certainly seems possible.

And yet he turned it into a cinematic tour de force. Take a look at another passage from Levin’s book, from Rosemary and Guy’s first dinner with the Castavets:

Rosemary looked outside the door. She could see only the end of the living room that was bridge tables and file cabinets; Guy and Mr. Castavet were at the other end. A plane of blue cigarette smoke lay motionless in the air.

Photobucket

 

From Levin’s words to one of the most iconic shots in all of cinema. The story goes that people in the audience actually leaned to try and get a better look around that corner. It perfectly encapsulates the sinister goings-on happening right out of Rosemary’s field of vision that are shaping her world. So why change it when you’ve been given such magic to work with? Perhaps that undermines the idea of “adapting” a source, but it seems to me a smart writer knows when to get out of the way of genius.

Related Post
Ruth Gordon, Best Supporting Actress 

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Reader Comments (13)

I rewatched it a year or less ago after 10 years or more. Brilliant. Obviously.

What have you done to him? What have you done to his eyes, YOU MANIACS!

I assume that's in the book too.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

The only part of Rosemary's Baby that let me down was the ending. Am I the only one who thought it was more silly than scary that (SPOILER ALERT, I guess..) the child really *was* the spawn of satan?

I recently realized that three of the films I'm madly in love with end with -ion suffix: Lost in Translation, Adaptation. and Repulsion (how about that as your third R?).

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJan

i wish i loved any movie enough to watch it every single year. I'm just not good with the rewatching ;) or maybe my love is too diffuse and spreads out over too many movies?

love this piece -- thanks JA. I've only seen ROSEMARY'S BABY once actually and I've been meaning to watch it again because i thought it was just great. I think i saw it for the first time like 10 years ago. would *love* to see it on the big screen though and that still hasn't happened.

October 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Repulsion has always been a close one, Jan! That and Antonia Bird's Ravenous, both of which disturb me thoroughly every time I do see them. But neither makes my heart go quite as pitter-patter as Rosemary and Rear Window do. I always want to love Repulsion with my whole heart, but it refuses me. Icy bitch! ;)

Nat it's always a constant struggle for me to get back to old movies I've seen before when there is such an unending pile-up of new new new and it's only gotten worse and worse with time as access to movies has gotten easier and easier over the past couple of years. I literally have hundreds of DVDs in my house that I have never watched, and that even before we get into the fact that you can watch anything online instantly now, pretty much. The list has whittled down and down for movies I get around to watching over and over again.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJA

I've read 4 or 5 of Ira Levin's books. Like you, I saw the movie and thought, hey why not read the book? I'm always amazed at how skinny the books are. So compact for so much style and story. And the same guy wrote both Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives? Levin did write a sequel to Rosemary's Baby about 30 years later, but I found it disappointing. But then, hard to top that one.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteradri

adri I almost mentioned Levin's book Son of Rosemary but couldn't really find the proper place for it since it would've resulted in me being forced to scream a thousand vile curses. It's terrible, terrible, unmentionable, and it must just be forgotten. I wrote up some (spoilery) thoughts on it awhile back. It makes me so angry!!!

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJA

Love this post! Rosemary's Baby is also one of my favorite films. I read the book a couple of years ago as well and was also struck by how similar it is to the film. Although, if I remember correctly, isn't the end slightly more drawn out in the book? I remember thinking that Polanski made the right decision to condense the last few pages. Bravo! One of the best endings (and beginnings, and middle) of a film, ever.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPHIL

I just felt sad about Son of Rosemary that Levin's last work should be so awful and unworthy of him. I assumed he did it for the money, to support him in his old age, and I tried not to begrudge it to him. I guess some writers have a fecund period, and then it's over. Although with the skill, technique, and imagination he showed in A Kiss Before Dying, This Perfect Day, Deathtrap (the play), as well as Stepford and Rosemary, I'm surprised that the well dried up.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Rosemary's Baby and Rear Window have always been my #1 and #2 favorites, respectively. #3 is always changing. So, clearly, I love this post.

October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlexa

Unequivocally my favorite horror film, and one of my top ten favorite films in general. The story, the performances, the dialouge (as you so nicely mentioned), and of course the directing all hit the right note with me. Good storytelling is something sadly lacking from recent horror films, tossing aside development to rush to the scares.

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