Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby" (1968)

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Mia Farrow
Film: Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Actress category (1968):
-Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) *WINNER
-Barbara Streisand (Funny Girl) *WINNER
-Patricia Neal (The Subject Was Roses)
-Vanessa Redgrave (Isadora)
-Joanne Woodward (Rachel, Rachel)

There are few films as considered crucial to 60's horror cinema as that of director Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. While the story was simple - a woman is impregnated with the spawn of Satan - the lingering impact that each minute held helped solidify the director as a promising new voice to English language cinema. It also helped to launch the trend of films about demonic possession that included other high points like The Omen and The Exorcist. Still, it is a film that has withstood the test of time by remaining a strong example of how horror can be psychological by playing up the inevitable doom that lies ahead. I may personally not consider it among Polanski's best, but the film still manages to embrace a melancholic tone and embody the fears of the time so excellently that it's hard to deny its power for the time.

Of course, a large portion of the credit needs to be given to Mia Farrow. One could even argue that her pixie haircut is an iconic attribute of this film. Still, it is her timid, boyish demeanor that makes Rosemary a unique character. After moving into a new apartment with her husband (John Cassavettes), things begin to happen that are out of the ordinary. She becomes impregnated, worried that she is carrying the demon child. While Farrow has an  unnatural beauty, she somehow embodies the average woman's struggle because of this. What do you do when you have the mother of unwanted pregnancy? It can be seen in her eyes and her timid figure as she shivers and nervously looks for answers to an unanswerable question. This is why the finale, as predictable as it is, has an unnerving impact. You buy into the fear because Farrow's insecurity rings true at every turn.

Which brings me to an equally predictable trivia fact if you're a resident of The Runner-Ups' weekly output. Farrow did not receive a nomination for her work. In fact, she has never even been nominated over the course of a storied career that also includes an amazing performance in The Purple Rose of Cairo (among other Woody Allen movies). She is nowadays an actress unfortunately likely known more for her controversial private life than her rich body of work. Yet I do feel like she deserves some credit for her incredible work where it counts, especially when it comes to one of her most iconic works, as well as for a genre that has very few Oscar-caliber titles to its credit. Considering that the film wasn't entirely shut out of the ceremony (two nominations, including one for Best Supporting Actress Ruth Gordon), it continues to become more baffling.

It is true that this happened during the year of the famous tie between legend Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) and newcomer Barbara Streisand (Funny Girl). That alone should suggest how competitive of a year it was. Even then, one could play the legacy card and honestly ask the question as to how much of an impact the remaining three nominees had on cinema. Yes, it is always difficult to predict this. However, Rosemary's Baby is a film that left a mark that can be seen in the immediate launch of demon possession movies as well as helping to launch Polanski's career. It played into fear of women being insecure about their environments and maybe was more telling of the time than even the most politically active dramas released in the late 60's. 

It could also be that horror has and may always be considered taboo in a way that prohibits it from regularly showing up at The Oscars. This is after all a movie about a woman acting hysterical. We've seen it plenty of times before and since. What makes her so special? True, Gordon got deserved credit for her work, but what about the star of the show? Without her, there would be no Rosemary's Baby. In fact, it's hard to see anyone else playing Rosemary. Farrow had a vulnerability to her appearance that made her simply staring and contemplating life into something far more complex. It's the type of performance that asks a lot of the viewer, resulting in a satisfying mystery for the audience to answer how they would play out the situation. Polanski's direction may be dour, but Farrow's grief manages to be balanced between hysterical and rational in ways that could easily fall into camp. It's the type of performance that would be taken for granted, and frankly did in this circumstance.

In the echelon of iconic performances, it's intriguing to see which ones haven't been Oscar-nominated. While there are those like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or Linda Blair in The Exorcist that receive due credit, there are tons like Farrow that never get their respect. It could be that it was a crowded year, which has put down the best of them. It could be that it's a film more acclaimed for its story than its acting, which is a ludicrous concept that only makes sense when you consider its Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. Maybe it was that horror remains a taboo genre, and one that doesn't often get respect. Maybe it's the quieted nuance that makes her role seem thankless. It's not entirely clear why she was singled out other than that she doesn't meet the normal "prestige" performance persona that most of the other candidates had this year. Maybe it was just a divisive movie as it was. Who knows.

However, there's something peculiar when you come across iconic performers that have not been nominated once in a multiple decades career. It comes across as a tragedy at times, especially with many claiming that the nominees were snubbed just because they didn't win. Frankly, to be nominated is itself an honor that isn't bestowed upon everyone. Anyone who has read The Runner-Ups weekly will be more than aware of that. In fact, it's something that I'm sure most of us took for granted. I'm sure many of us just assumed that Rosemary's Baby racked up a handful of nominations - not necessarily any wins. It is an important film that changed American cinema in subtle ways. It's impossible to see that film without thinking of Farrow's excellent performance. Even her haircut feels immediately recognizable. That's how impressive her work in the film is. It's a shame that she'll probably never receive due credit for a compelling career while Polanski has more than enough credit. It seems unfair. But then again, we're likely to always talk about her performance in Rosemary's Baby. Maybe that's more than enough sometimes. Maybe.

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