Battle of Master Work: Round One – Roman Polanski
At the Donnybrook Writing Academy, we saturate our minds with only the most refined and quality of items. Our high standards could never be achieved by a rogue individual; but as a group, we’ve raised the level of the collective taste. Given our stature, I see no reason not to form The Committee for Determination of Master Works. This committee’s sole purpose is to expose the best and brightest from the best and brightest who are past their prime (whether that be living, deceased, or simply burnt-out).
The first examination will determine the Master Works of one Roman Polanski. Despite his Academy award for Best Director only four short years ago, his choice to play a supporting role in the King of Hacks Brett Ratner’s “Rush Hour 3″ has removed him from his once established credibility. Besides, winning an Oscar for a holocaust film is about as hard a peeling an orange.
This committee of one has sifted through the Polanski library to nominate “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” as the two films that will be thrown into the steel cage of doom to battle. The committee will painstakingly examine every important aspect of the film, and in the end will determine the definite Master Work of Roman Polanski.
“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
Starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes
Adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski from the novel by Ira Levin
Director of Photography William A. Fraker
Starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway
Written by Robert Towne and Roman Polanski
Director of Photography John A. Alonzo
The promotional art for a film has become a nearly-forgotten aspect of cinema, but when the posters are as artistic as these two, it’s easy to remember their importance. The one sheet for “Rosemary’s Baby” hints at the terror the film thrives on. The placement of the silhouetted baby carriage on jagged cliffs of darkness set an uneasy tone for the viewer that is only enhanced by the ghostly horizontal profile of Mia Farrow. If taglines are the thesis statements of films, the tagline on this poster is a thesis statement worthy of a doctorate at MIT.
“Chinatown”’s poster isn’t as iconographic as “Rosemary’s Baby,” but this poster does just as much to set the tone for the film as the other. The painting is the perfect homage to the noir films that influenced the movie. The portraits of Nicholson and Dunaway do more than just provide the images to go with their faces; they represent the journey of each character in the film: foreshadowing the Gittes path from the shadows of ignorance to the light of reality, and Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, who has gotten lost in the clouds of corruption that surround her life.
“Chinatown” – Both films establish the mood even before the first frame of celluloid crosses the screen, but “Chinatown” inches ahead by being the perfect poster for a neo-noir film.
Both films have memorable performances that jump off the screen to slap the audience in the face, but directing has more to do than just prodding the actors in the direction they have to go.
In “Rosemary’s Baby,” the fluidity of every shot screams ‘Master Work.’ The spectator always has a fly-on-the-wall view of the action. The film feels like it is the predecessor for high concept high production value mockumentaries that have taken this independent film world by storm. If “Chinatown” is considered neo-noir, then “Rosemary’s Baby” has to be considered neo-mockumentary; a reexamining of a genre before it had been explored.
“Chinatown” is perfectly developed. It balances a sense of reality with an insightful look at the Film Noir era of the 1940s. The world of the film spirals out of control at the same rate that Jake Gittes loses his grasp on his comfortable life as a public P.I. The technical tightness of the first act is contrasted by a more free-wheeling third act.
Draw – This whole process is to determine which film can be called Master Work; the Committee would look pretty foolish if the directing category went to the film that didn’t garner the title of Master Work.
Polanski adapted “Rosemary’s Baby,” and he was slavishly adamant about being loyal to the Ira Levin novel. Polanski was also adamant that Robert Towne rewrite the “Chinatown” script to include the bleak ending. In the end, he was equally responsible for each version of the completed script.
In “Rosemary’s Baby,” everything is set up precisely. There is no action or scene that isn’t foreshadowed before, which allows for the tension between sanity and instability to be tighter. In Towne’s defense, he is to be given credit for crafting a noir yarn that could easily be mistaken for the best story in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series.
“Rosemary’s Baby” – The committee-of-one is still sour over Towne’s butchering of John Fante’s “Ask the Dust,” and thus refuses to honor him in any way.
Jack Nicholson vs. Mia Farrow. The King of Crazy vs. Woody Allen’s wife’s mom. On paper this looks as simple as a yo-yo with an elastic string, but the silver screen tells another story.
Despite being in more Woody Allen films than I have fingers, Mia Farrow’s role of a lifetime was as Rosemary. Here she brings a lot to an already meaty role. On one level she’s naïve and sympathetic, and her motives are never questioned, but on closer examination she also conveys the potential that she’s a complete nut. She has the emotional weight to accompany her physical decline as she increasingly gets more pregnant.
Nicholson is fairly composed in this film, and Gittes’ public disgracing buys the character a moral revival. Nicholson handles the crossing of interior paths with one hundred percent professionalism and subtlety.
The supporting actors are where the genius of the films lie. Faye Dunaway is the beautiful anti-femme fatal that is the source of all the madness of the film. Polanski was able to get two great performances out of fellow directors John Cassavetes and John Houston. Yet Houston steals the show in “Chinatown” as the above-the-law father/grandfather. In “Rosemary’s Baby,” the young Charles Grodin and a pre-Harold and Maude Ruth Gordon bring a lot to the bit parts they play.
“Rosemary’s Baby” – This is what happens when you cast veteran actors regardless of their lack of sex appeal. (take note MTV Films)
A money shot is harder to find in the introspective character thriller than in the technically complete cinematography of “Chinatown.” Yet, if the committee must choose a scene for contention, I would choose the shot in the devil rape dream sequence where the glimpse of the not-human hand is scratching Rosemary’s side. This shot might have to be chalked up to the editing, but the shot sends chills down my spine ten times out of ten.
Now “Chinatown” is full of shots that will blow the mind of anyone who appreciates film. Whether it be the shot of Gittes taking a surveillance photo with the action reflected on the lens of the camera, or the reverse zoom during a stake-out on a boat, the money shots in this film are a notch above the rest of the Polanski catalogue. What makes these shots all the more poignant is when they don’t appear. The film is front loaded with all the pretty shots to mirror Gittes’s plush life as the ’40s version of paparazzi, and when things begin to fall apart for him, all the technical stimulation of the first act is abandoned for the grime of “Chinatown.”
“Chinatown” – As soon as the words “money” and “shot” were put together, there was no doubt in the Committee’s mind that “Chinatown” wouldn’t walk away with this category.
Legendary Story Associated with Production:
“Chinatown” boasted of heated arguments between Polanski and both of his leads, which lead to the alleged smashing of Jack Nicholson’s television he used to watched Lakers games on, and Polanski pulling chunks of Dunaway’s hair out where she refused to take direction.
Then on the set of “Rosemary’s Baby,” Frank Sinatra made demands that his newlywed wife quit the film and return to California. When Mrs. Farrow-Sinatra declined and locked Ol’ Blue Eyes out of her trailer, Frank had no choice but issue divorce papers to the lovely Mia.
“Rosemary’s Baby” – I’m a sucker for outrageous and irrational behavior by megastars. When Frank stands tall and does it his way, we all win.
The votes have been tallied, and the results are that “Rosemary’s Baby” is Roman Polanski’s Master Work. His certificate is in the mail, and the Committee can only hope he receives it the day after he returns to his Italian Villa after a long European press tour for “Rush Hour 3″ and considers making some more quality films.