Monday, October 28, 2013

RUTH GORDON in "ROSEMARY'S BABY" - Doing the Devil's Biddy-ing

                Some movies just get everything right.  Ira Levin’s supernatural best-seller  was a highly effective page-turner.  But once  Hollywood  got its paws on the property , there was no reason to think it would turn out to be anything but another paint-by-number horror flick,  formulaic and disposable. And word of art-house director Roman Polanski’s  involvement didn’t necessarily  inspire optimism in 1968. Because the rancid odour of his horror-comedy fiasco “The Fearless Vampire Killers ...” was still very much in the air.  As things turned out, though,  Polanski not only bonded  with the material but elevated it. Integrating and harmonizing every technical element to create a remarkably sustained atmosphere, horror seep-seep- seeping into the everyday  The finished film landed a much-deserved  Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay.  But if ever a picture was tightly organized  for  taut, prolonged suspense and  maximum audience investment, this is it. It’s still hard to believe there was no nomination for editing. 
                And of course the casting was superb.  I’ll never understand Mia Farrow’s absence from the list of Best Actress nominees that year. It’s a star-making turn in a critically lauded box-office smash. She’s in virtually every scene – and brilliant from start to finish. An absolute rallying point for audience interest and sympathy.  It’s stunning to watch Farrow expertly manage and unmanage her character’s growing hysteria.  Everybody was talking about it in ‘68. And yet no Oscar nomination?  Farrow even won the Golden Globe that year. Still, the lack of Academy recognition detracts not a whit from her accomplishment here. The  creation of an iconic movie heroine, memorably vulnerable and infinitely tenacious. It’s terrific work!
                But the supporting cast is spot-on too. No one more so than Ruth Gordon as Rosemary’s flamboyant  neighbour  Minnie Castavet.  Over seventy when she filmed “Rosemary”, Gordon had , till then, made very few films. She was, however, a show-business insider, with an awesome resume that dated back over half a century. Aside from a long career as a top-tier stage actress (with an impressive range - a celebrated  Nora in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”, she’d also mowed ‘em dead on Broadway with her uniquely off-kilter comedy style).  But that wasn’t all. Gordon was a successful playwright too. “Years Ago” - about her own beginnings in the theater - was filmed  (charmingly) by George Cukor  as “The Actress” . Starring Jean Simmons , (good  -if nothing like Gordon -but then,who was?) and Spencer Tracy, sensational as her father.  When Gordon  married  writer/director Garson Kanin  it solidified her status as a high-profiler  in Hollywood. Among other things, the two co-wrote a couple of the celebrated Tracy-Hepburn films.  Ruth Gordon was respected and well-liked within the Hollywood community. And when she turned up onscreen – for the first time in decades – in 1965, she’d accumulated so much good will within the industry , she wound up with a surprise Oscar nomination  for her small role in “Inside Daisy Clover”.  Even  though the picture was one of the 60’s prime stinkers.  Reviews were savage (though Gordon was generally spared) and the picture was a notorious box-office disaster.  Maybe Academy voters felt this might be their last chance to honor Gordon’s unique art.  It wasn’t. “Rosemary’s Baby” gave her the screen showcase she’d never had. And she ran with it. Or, rather, sashayed. Becoming, for the next several years at least, an honest-to-goodness movie star with vehicles tailored to her own delightfully specific characteristics.
                The voice was certainly one of the key elements in Ruth Gordon’s singularity. And she definitely uses it to full and fabulous effect in “Rosemary’s Baby”. That not-quite-placeable accent (sort of Boston by way of the Bronx).  Eloquently  uncouth.  The expression “laid on with trowel” is usually meant as criticism.  But when Gordon spreads her words around, she makes that trowel a precision instrument. Gordon delivers Minnie’s dialogue (and there’s lots of it) in a manner that can perhaps  be described as pointedly matter-of-fact.  She’ll keep knocking on your door till she gets an answer.  We first hear the voice through Rosemary’s bedroom wall . “Roman, bring me some root beer when ya come!” Then she’s briefly talked about  (by Terry {a terrific Angela Dorian aka Victoria Vetri} in the unsettling laundry room scene). 
Our first actual sighting is pretty unforgettable, as she and hubby loom into view on the sidewalk,  garishly inappropriate visitants at a curbside death scene. Minnie’s in one of her crackpot coloring book get-ups, a saucy pile of (what? Duck feathers?) on her head.  Beside her – even in red trousers and pink jacket – Roman seems subdued  by comparison. But then, the picture continually has us speculating about how these mismatched salt and pepper shakers ever got together in the first place. Roman, with his fulsome urbanity and Minnie , forever the crass tenement  parrot.  When asked to describe Minnie, the first word that occurs to Rosemary is ‘nosy”.  And Ruth Gordon certainly seizes on that quality. It’s a marvellously invasive piece of  work ; she raises snooping to symphonic levels. Forever barging , oozing through doors, prying, sneaking in plain sight, touching things that aren’t hers.  She moves in a series of presumptuous lunges, really putting those shoulders into her performance.  Yet  jaunty, always  jaunty. That word is hard to avoid when describing Gordon’s Minnie. Certainly it’s a word that fits her speech patterns like a glove. A Ruth Gordon spesh-ee-ality,  just like Minnie’s chocolate mouse.  There’s simply no one like her. And she’s brilliant at keeping up  a steady stream of inane/insane comments.  As she focuses her real  attention everywhere else.  Constantly reconnoitering, endlessly sizing up every aspect of Rosemary’s life and surroundings. Calculating, calculating, calculating.  She stops just short of whipping out a tape measure. That’s the key to Gordon’s Minnie. That dog-eared banter of hers is always a smokescreen to cover her real agenda. The phrase “the banality of evil” inevitably comes to mind. And yet, as insistently insipid as Minnie’s chit-chat is, there’s nothing banal about the artistry Gordon employs to make it all memorable.  Everything Minnie says is an entertainingly sinister bit of misdirection. And she’s so good at insinuating herself where she’s not invited that we feel real relief and admiration – even amazement – when Rosemary actually manages to bar Minnie  from  her party – the one that’s “very special have to be under 60 to get in”.
                “Rosemary” was, of course, a massive hit. And  Gordon’s performance was an out-of-left field smash with the public. Aside from an Oscar, it got her a whole new screen career as an unlikely but much admired leading lady – her late-in-the-day movie stardom  a direct result  of that cinematic home-run in “Rosemary’s Baby”. It’s certainly work that stands up.  Once you’ve seen this performance, somewhere in your mind, Minnie’s going to keep on poking, prodding and prowling. Forever. And I’m good with that.   

For more on Ruth Gordon’s work in “Rosemary’s Baby” (and the other nominated performances from 1968), make sure you check out the next Supporting Actress Smackdown (October 30th) at As always, it's sure to be fun.

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