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Rosemary’s Baby: Chris and KB Chat About the Film

As a preamble for costume designer Kristin Burke’s upcoming analysis of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), here is an (edited) chat we had about the film, US/UK insults, rude knitting and the Virgin Mary. It’s worth a read.

Kristin Burke: So what I thought was interesting about your review was that it focused on fashion – I think that the film was terribly fashionable, especially for the time. At first glance, the meaning, the purpose of the costumes was lost for me in terms of its fashion. And you really addressed it in talking about Mary Quant.

Chris Laverty: You’re right; I did see it as a fashion movie, at least on the surface. The white thing really stuck out for me though, that Rosemary was supposed to be so pure – not sexy at all.

KB: Yes, she was definitely a “good girl”, and the white was used to forward that notion. But how creepy when she veers into red?

Chris: The red was the first “costume” I really noticed, if you get what I mean. I think I liked the character more as she became more interesting with her clothes. At first I found her sweet, then just alien to me – in terms of her reactions to Guy especially. You mention in your review how odd it must be for a younger audience and I totally agree.

KB: It’s horrifying and fascinating, the “suffering housewife”. I am so glad I live in 2010, not 1965. I mean, that is a lot of bullsh*t to put up with. Guy is what we would call these days a d*uche.

Chris: Guy – really well played by John – but what a, well, ‘w**ker’ we would call him. Such a coward too!

KB: Hahah. You say potato, I say D*uche. Re: being a coward – Yes, I think so.

Chris: That’s the only part of the film I found hard to take, that he screwed her over so easily. I mean, his own wife!

KB: Seriously – he threw her to the demons without a second thought. It makes me wonder. Was there feminist outcry (when the film came out)? I can’t find any evidence. And sadder still, for Roman Polanski (the director) to lose his pregnant wife a year later at the hands of the Manson clan.

Chris: Yeah, in the context it has extra resonance. For ‘light’ relief though, what did you think of the Castevets? I loved Ruth’s performance when she gently probes Rosemary about her conversations with Victoria Vetri’s character in the laundry room. Subtle, in clever contrast to her outrageous costumes.

KB: Yes – Ruth Gordon is just genius in this role. It’s comic relief for sure, and the costumes help to tell her story – the garish patterns, the makeup, the jingle-jangle of her charm bracelet. And her friend, Laura Louise, with the thick coke-bottle glasses and horrible printed shirts – when they whip out their knitting at Rosemary’s house, I nearly fell over – too funny!

Chris: The knitting! How rude!

KB: I also loved when she tried to wipe the knife mark out of the wood floor after Rosemary drops it in the final scenes. That was such a great character note!

Chris: What do you think the idea was with her and Roman/Sidney’s costumes? Why did Anthea go so OTT with their look do you think?

KB: Well, I think it was really about making them look harmless. It succeeded, for sure. Additionally, those quirky costumes added some much-needed levity. Though I will agree that they are over the top, people sometimes dress like that… especially if they are bananas in the head, and so it seems right to me. I know that’s not scientific, but the over-the-top nature of their costumes seemed in a sense, naturalistic. Weird, though, that Minnie wears a white coat when she picks up Rosemary from the Time/Life building. Like she’s her savior.

Chris: I think that’s it actually, that they put you off guard. I see old couples round my way dressed at least in the same ballpark (check out my Americanism!). They just look sweet and unthreatening, like THEY need protecting. So much polyester on them though, my goodness…

KB: The smell!

Chris: Have to mention Rosemary’s style today. The furry slippers, quilted dressing gowns – so funny how these have largely become the preserve of the elderly, at least here in the UK. At the time so stylish of course.

KB: We don’t even see that here in the US anymore. Funny in the end, though, how she mutates into this like Virgin Mary model, the blue and white, fabrics that drape like a painting… to see her carrying that big knife, looking innocent, gamine, possessed, all at the same time. I wish she had used the knife on the baby, frankly. That’s your 2010 ending.

Chris: Did that Virgin Mary thing hit you like a bolt? I didn’t see it at first, but now you say it, it’s so obviously there. Not a coincidence on the part of Anthea and Roman Polanksi, surely? Being in the business, do you think this was intentional?

KB: Well, if it wasn’t intentional, then it was divinely handed down. Hahah. When I designed Running Scared, I used the Virgin Mary as the design/color inspiration for Vera Farmiga’s character Teresa. It’s not uncommon to work from a place of common visual reference – the collective unconscious, really, of our experience. When you are doing a movie about religion (as this one ultimately is) it would behoove you to pull from those images in order to push the audience toward feeling compassion… or rooting for a character. Does that make sense? In short, YES, I think it was on purpose, but we’d have to ask Anthea/Roman Polanski to be sure.

Chris: I see. It must be tough to figure out how hard to push an audience with such influences, just to nudge them there. Costume design is a bit like editing at times, I think, that it is not necessarily supposed to be noticed and that some of the best work isn’t. I could be off there, that’s just a personal opinion.

KB: No, I totally agree with you. We do our best work when we silently, insidiously influence the audience. The big flashy hoo-hah costumes are not always the most effective at telling the story.

Chris: By the way, I read somewhere that this was one of Anthea’s toughest challenges because of the recent period setting.

KB: Hm, I can imagine. Style changed so rapidly in that period. From year to year, there were major changes in silhouette, attitude, and “look”. In 1968, clothing had greater meaning, in terms of its ability to categorize people, than it does now. These days, a person can wear just about anything – recycled clothes, brand new fashion, a tracksuit, jeans, – whatever and wherever, anything goes. It was not like that in 1968, and I am sure that Anthea had her hands full trying to keep the film on track, especially when working with Mia Farrow (then Mrs. Frank Sinatra), who was quite fashion forward.

Chris: Ah, yes, the infamous Farrow/Sinatra divorce story. Her look in the film seemed very fashionable. Cheaper to be fashionable now with the likes of H&M and Primark and, of course, it was getting that way in the 60’s for a bit, but still she looks very “on trend” for the wife of a struggling actor. God forbid she would have her own income!

KB: Right. Her clothes weren’t what I would call “expensive”, but she did have a good range of options. And thank goodness there were some repeats among the changes. But yes, on an actors’ salary, it’s hard to believe they could live so high on the hog. As for the design of those costumes, though… to do all that at such a young age? Let’s hear it for Anthea Sylbert!

Chris: Her career went off in a different direction, did it not? Am I right in saying she is no longer even part of the Guild? Amazing varied career really.

KB: She’s not in the Guild. But I see on imdB that she went on to do some producing and writing. Looks like her last credit was about 10 years ago. She’s probably retired, living on an island and laughing at the rest of us who still have to work, hahah.

Chris: Fair play to her! Thanks for the chat!

KB: Thank you, Chris, and have a great New Year’s celebration!! Thanks AGAIN!!!

© 2010 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.