Mia Farrow & the Netherworld

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby
Mia Farrow was eleven when she first met Frank Sinatra. “Pretty girl,” he said to her father, who returned with: “You stay away from her.” She was two years into the never-ending bed rest of polio, a disease she said marked the end of her childhood.

Eight years later, she accidentally spilled her purse out at Sinatra’s feet. First came the retainer, and then the jars of baby food for her finicky cat. Part of a green donut and photographs of her beloved horse, too. And then, finally, the tampons tumbled out. She later said that she began to love Frank Sinatra right then, that in that moment she felt “a column of light rising inside her, pulling particles from dark dead corners”. There were thirty years between them—she had never heard his songs or seen his movies, but thought he had a beautiful face, “full of pain and somehow familiar”.

“And I was thinking, please forgive me, Frank Sinatra, it’s all my fault, I probably shouldn’t have held hands with you, that was forward of me. I gave the wrong impression, I can’t go to Palm Springs with you, or anywhere else either. I have no idea what I’m doing, I don’t know anything at all, I’ll only disappoint you, I have no pills or diaphragms and no clear idea of what people do since I’ve never done any of it myself, so please let’s just forget the whole thing. I’m sorry about the hand holding.”

-Mia Farrow, What Falls Away

Together they traveled to Las Vegas and Miami and Palm Springs. The crowds always thought Sinatra was singing just for them, but she felt he was singing to her alone. He stayed up into the wee small hours of the morning, drinking with friends on one coast or another. While he slept late into the afternoon, she’d put on a wig and go down to the hotel lobby to watch the people. She cut her waist-length hair herself, with a tiny pair of scissors meant for maintaining fingernails. She cut it to a length of one inch, much to the mortification of the media, the producers of Peyton Place, and her longtime friend Salvador Dali, who referred to the axing as “mythical suicide”. But not Sinatra. He loved her short hair.

He may have supported her shocking new hairstyle, but he did not support her acceptance of the starring role in the film adaptation of Ira Levin’s best-selling book, Rosemary’s Baby. It seemed he wanted her home, somewhere he often wasn’t, on the off-chance that he may sleep in his own bed that evening. He read the script and said he couldn’t picture her in the part. Suddenly she couldn’t picture herself in it either and thought, “I half-hoped he would take the matter out of my hands and just tell me not to do it…” To complicate things, Sinatra wanted her to co-star in The Detective, an upcoming film he was starring in, and feared the two commitments would overlap.

“Roman Polanski, thirty-three years old and internationally respected, was set to direct. It would be my first opportunity to star in a feature film, but more important, to prove myself as an actress. If the project succeeded it might place me in a position where I could choose good projects and roles. My goal was to make just one worthwhile picture a year. Then I would have plenty of time to be a wife and maybe even someday be a mother.”

The opening credits of Rosemary’s Baby are precisely girly—neon pink cursive letters across aerial scenes of Central Park and the many apartment houses of Manhattan. An eerie toy piano plays as Farrow’s voice sings breathless “la la las” on the soundtrack. As she sings her haunted, made-up lullaby, the camera slowly focuses in on The Bramford building.

The Bramford is old world Europe, something ancient, ornate, and heavy. Everything is made of dark, high-lacquered wood that only seems to grow darker as the film progresses. It has impossibly tall ceilings, meticulously-carved woodwork at the eaves and the arches, and a resounding echo in the halls.

Although the interior scenes of the film were all shot on-set in Los Angeles, The Dakota was chosen for all exterior shots of The Bramford building. Since it’s creation in 1884, The Dakota has been an exclusive Manhattan community with residents like Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, and Boris Karloff. John Lennon—who lived there for nearly seven years—was murdered in 1980 just outside its doors.

In the film’s first scene, newlyweds Rosemary (Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) are shown a grand vacancy at The Bramford. The previous owner—an elderly woman with a green thumb named Ms. Gardenia—died only days before in her sleep. How curious that, before her passing, she had somehow managed to move a 9-foot armoire in front of the door of the back closet. Rosemary wonders aloud why she would block off her linens and her vacuum cleaner. The manager suggests that perhaps she was becoming senile.

Hutch, an old family friend of Rosemary’s, informs the couple of the building’s ominous “Black Bramford” legacy.The Trench Sisters had called the Bramford home—a place where they performed “dietary experiments” that included cooking and eating their young relatives. Adrian Marcato, a 19th century witch who claimed to have “conjured up the living devil”, was mobbed and killed just outside the lobby. And then, of course, there is the most recent event: an infant found in the basement, dead and wrapped in newspaper.

In response to Hutch’s horror stories, Rosemary merely replies, “Awful things happen in every apartment house.”

The Woodhouses decide to fill the vacancy at The Bramford, and soon after, we see Rosemary decorating the apartment with a handkerchief tied around her head. She paints all that dark wood bright white and she is happy. She hangs wallpaper and curtains and revels with giddy pride at the previously blocked off linen closet that she has made over with gingham contact paper. We see fabrics and colors that match the 60’s swing dresses she wears, sweet flowers of yellow and white. There is yellow everywhere. She even has a yellow buttercream oven, a yellow buttercream kitchen table, a yellow buttercream refrigerator. The textured (and hideous) throw pillows on the olive couch hint at the color palette of the upcoming decade, all goldenrods and avocados.

“The sixties were in full bloom. Roman was humming, ‘If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,’ and I painted the walls of my dressing room with rainbows, flowers, and butterflies. When I was done painting, they brought in a ping-pong table and I pestered everybody to come play with me.”

As Farrow settled into her days on the set, The Woodhouses began to settle into their cream-colored apartment. Five closets on the park. One wonders how many millions the apartment would go for today, and thinks that Guy must have been doing alright with his Yamaha commercial, even before he made that deal with the devil.

Much like Mia Farrow at the time, Guy Woodhouse is an actor on the edge of notoriety. As Rosemary likes to repeat to each new person she meets, “he was in Luther and Nobody Loves an Albatross, and lots of television commercials”. (Guy claims it’s the latter that has “all the artistic thrills”, and I still can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or earnest.) Rosemary recites these same lines to the Castevets, the elderly couple that lives next door. The Woodhouse apartment and the Castevet apartment used to all be one large space, so it’s easy for Guy and Rosemary to hear the couple’s constant bickering through the bedroom wall. (“Roman, when you come back, don’t forget the root beer!”)

Shortly after they meet, the Castevets invite the Woodhouses over for dinner. Guy and Rosemary promise one another that they won’t make a habit of spending time with the Castevets—they will be polite and attend just this one evening.

Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) seems like anyone’s well-traveled and world-wise grandfather, perhaps with more regal an air. He claims he has been everywhere in the world. “Name a place,” he says, “I’ve been there.” One is impressed that he can actually name five different cities in Alaska, let alone that he’s been to every single one of them.

Minnie Castevet (a perfect Ruth Gordon) wears colorful dresses with netted hats, and nearly every piece of jewelry she owns, all at once. She entertains frequently, moving around the room like a spaz, her crystal and bakelite bangles clapping together. Her hair is that amazing accidental lavender-tinted gray, a sculpted puff of cotton candy on top of her head. She hails cabs by frantically blowing into the piercing metal whistle that hangs from one of her bracelets. Rosemary says that Minnie must be the nosiest person she’s ever met, a title readily earned by her constant interrogations: Where is Rosemary going? Who is she having over? How much does this furniture cost?

But how odd that, when they visit the Castevet’s apartment for dinner, all of the photographs and paintings appear to have been taken down, leaving only barren nailheads and dusty outlines of frames on the walls. And what strange sounds emerge in the evening, as if a group of people were all somehow chanting in unison.

Not long after settling into their new home, Guy and Rosemary begin trying to have a baby, which makes Rosemary incandescently happy. “Baby Night” has been marked on her calendar for optimal conception. The couple sits down for a romantic dinner, but the evening is ultimately derailed by the intrusion of Minnie Castevet, who shows up at the door with what she calls a “Chocolate Mouse”— homemade chocolate mousse that Rosemary feels has a chalky undertaste. Shortly after dessert, Rosemary passes out, an event which Guy later credits to her mixing wine with cocktails. While she’s passed out, Rosemary has vivid dreams of sailing, the Pope, and… darker things.

“…One day I found myself—me from convent school, who prayed with outstretched arms in the predawn light—tied to the four corners of a bed, ringed by elderly, chanting witches. The Pope brought over his big ring for me to kiss, while a perfect stranger with bad skin and vertical pupils was grinding away on top of me. I didn’t dare think. After finishing that scene, the actor climbed off me and said politely, in all seriousness, ‘Miss Farrow, I just want to say, it’s a real pleasure to have worked with you.’”

Around this same time, Guy gets his breakthrough role at the expense of another actor’s tragic misfortune. Soon, Guy is distant, working late hours and carrying his temper around on a short fuse. Rosemary tells her husband that they need to talk about why he can’t even look at her anymore, but he dismisses her concerns with a laugh. And when she becomes pregnant, it seems as if even Rosemary is able to forget the distance, at least for a little while.

Predictably, Minnie over-involves herself with the pregnancy, arriving at different intervals throughout the day, with a vitamin drink or a square of mystery cake in hand, expecting Rosemary to down it in the doorway and hand back the empty dishes. The drink is gray, peppered with black and blue, remnants of things unknown. God knows what’s in any of Minnie’s offerings; Rosemary eventually starts dumping them down the sink where they belong. The Castevets soon insist that the couple make an appointment with an acquaintance of theirs, Dr. Sapperstein, claiming he is the best doctor in New York City. Guy agrees that it makes sense for the baby, and Rosemary ultimately abandons her own trusted doctor and places herself in Sapperstein’s hands.

In a delightful act of rebellion, Rosemary plans a holiday party for their old friends, or their “young friends” as she tells Guy, the ones they used to see before they met the Castevets. She says this party will be special because you have to be under sixty to get in. He objects to her planning a party in her condition. She continues with the plans, despite the fact that she looks like a hollowed-out summer squash.

Mia Farrow weighed ninety-eight pounds when shooting began on the film. Roman told her to lose weight for the pregnancy-pain scenes, and she did it. I imagine Farrow, on the balcony of a posh Palm Springs hotel, Sinatra seated across from her eating bacon and reading the paper, and her picking at an open grapefruit, dead-eyed. Polanski also had her “absentmindedly walk across the street in moving traffic, not looking left or right” at one point, following behind her with a hand-held camera, because nobody else on the crew was willing to do so.

In her memoir, Mia Farrow wrote that filming was going well, but that “Frank was baffled and outraged by the pace.” His expectation was that she would keep her commitment to The Detective, even if it meant walking out on Rosemary’s Baby before the film was complete.

“The ultimatum was clear. But if I left Rosemary’s Baby, certainly my career would be finished. I thought of the months and long days and countless takes and everyone trying so hard. I thought of the people whose trust I’d earned, and I thought of my own work, which for the first time in my life might have some value. To lose Frank was unthinkable, but I didn’t believe he would leave me. I also realized that in this decision I would define myself. If I walked out on this project, in time even he would see that I had done a less than honorable thing, and he would respect me less.”

The papers came without warning or a single mention of the word divorce. Sinatra’s lawyer served them to her on the set. She quickly signed the papers without reading them. She was devastated, but applied herself to the remainder of the movie with a “fervor usually reserved for prayer”. She spent most weekends after that with Roman and his beautiful wife, Sharon Tate, an actress who, like Farrow, seemed to be hovering on the verge of success.

Rosemary’s exposure to the dark plot unraveling around her comes not from the black alleyways of the occult but from simple parlor manners. The darkness is let into her life by a desire to be accommodating and sweet, to be perceived as polite. She would never risk making or taking offense, and it is only behind closed doors that she mocks her neighbors, and quiets her husband when he is laughing too loudly at their expense. The terror of the plot is rooted in modern times, in a cosmopolitan apartment building. The villains blend-in seamlessly with little effort and little suspicion from others, rendered practically harmless by their elderly stature and setting.

The new horror of the age lay not in the obvious gruesome monster or the known dangers of the past, but rather in the smallness of everyday modern life, hidden just barely out of sight in suburban homes and apartment houses, in linen closets covered with heavy furniture. It’s not about wondering what’s happening deep in the woods in the middle of the night, but instead obsessing about what’s happening in the building across the street, how deep the blackness of a soul can be, and what it is capable of doing for fame or money or some bizarre fulfillment of itself that we struggle to understand. It’s a type of fear that acts as a precursor to some of the strangest truths of today, all those endless newscasts filled with bewildered neighbors, chanting in unison: “This is a nice, quiet street” or “Never in a million years would I have suspected them”.

It’s the same dark horror that punctuated the very end of the sixties with a bleeding black mark. Sharon Tate—Roman Polanski’s eight-month pregnant wife—and a handful of others, murdered by the Manson Family, at the behest of their deranged leader, just one year after the release of Rosemary’s Baby.

In her memoir, Mia Farrow paints an intimate portrait of what she remembers of her past. She comes across as honest and self-aware, idealistic and hopeful. But mostly she comes across as warm. She is the type of person who romanticizes things, and is crushed when they fall short. These are the easiest people to love.

Perhaps it was the times, or her delicate features, or her sweetness, but when I read the book, I saw Farrow treated mostly like a doll, lovely but helpless as people picked her up, rearranged her porcelain arms and legs, and put her back down again. She is remarkably kind to her offenders.

“Every time in my life when the commonplace has veered into the netherworld, it is as if I am watching television and I can’t change the channel.”

The last scene of the film reveals all to be worse than Rosemary had ever allowed herself to imagine. The scene is horrific not in its revelation—which the audience has expected for some time—but rather in how quickly after the reveal the world begins to return to its mundane ways: a room full of sharply-dressed elderly people, quietly having drinks and talking about this or that, unthreatened by Rosemary, crying in a chair in the corner. She lets the fear wash over her completely, she cries in her hands and spits in her husband’s face.

But how quickly that fear is replaced by something else entirely, something inherent and maternal, deep in her bones. Her pale slight wrist begins to rock the black bassinet at a rhythmic pace, one that only a mother would know.