EDWARD CLARK'S "FOLLY"
The address, One West 72nd Street, may not register with many who live outside the city of New York, but the name of the building at the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West is more familiar. The Dakota, a famed luxury co-op on the Upper West Side, has been home to many high profile luminaries, served as the setting for one of Roman Polanski's best known films, and was the site of an infamous murder in 1980.
Posh apartment houses designed expressly for the well-heeled were rare in New York in 1880, when construction of the Dakota began. Apartment housing at that time and place was mainly associated with tenements and lower class living, but in the late 1860s the Stuyvesant building opened. It attracted the reasonably well-to-do in droves and soon more such residences were in the works.
|The Dakota by Richard Britell|
|Dakota railing detail|
|Leonard Bernstein's piano in his Dakota apartment|
|Robert Ryan in his home at the Dakota (later|
purchased by John Lennon and Yoko Ono)
|John and Sean Lennon in their Dakota kitchen|
As with many structures of gothic appearance, the Dakota weathered rumors of supernatural incidents and ghost stories. Movie critic and Dakota resident Rex Reed recalled that a doorman warned him early on to expect to see Boris Karloff's ghost. Strange and unexplained events were witnessed below ground, in the basement and, for a brief period, a so-called "Phantom of the Dakota" vandalized the building and spooked its inhabitants. But it was only with the release of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), set and partially shot at the Dakota, that the building's reputation for quirkiness and opulence took on a decidedly dark facet. With the deadly 1980 shooting of John Lennon at the building's front gate, the incomprehensible and horrifying became real.
|Long-time Dakota resident Lauren Bacall at home in 2011|
When Roman Polanski walked into the office of newly appointed Paramount Pictures production head Bob Evans for the first time in 1967, he thought he was there to discuss directing Downhill Racer, the project Evans touted when he asked for the meeting. Instead, Evans quickly admitted that, knowing Polanski loved to ski, he'd used the project, the story of a U.S. Olympic team skier, as a lure. What Evans really wanted to talk with Polanski about was directing a film adaptation of Ira Levin's soon-to-be-published horror thriller, Rosemary's Baby. Evans gave him the printer's galley proofs to take home and look over. In a sitting, Polanski read through Levin's chilling tale of a contemporary Manhattan couple who move into a fabled apartment building - with terrifying consequences. He quickly agreed to direct.
|Bob Evans and Roman Polanski|
In the meantime, Rosemary's Baby was published and became a #1 best-seller. The National Observer called the book "the best chiller to come down the gooseflesh trail in many a moonless night." Even the New York Times review was a rave and anticipation for the film adaptation ran high.
|Tuesday Weld and Robert Redford|
Polanski originally planned to cast the lead roles with actors who possessed the All-American good looks and energy depicted in Levin's book, and favored Tuesday Weld for Rosemary and Robert Redford as her husband, Guy. When Bob Evans suggested Mia Farrow, the director at first thought her too waif-like and ethereal for the title role. But after meeting and discussing the role with her he hired her without so much as a screen test. Robert Redford became unavailable and Warren Beatty turned down the role of Guy, so Polanski turned to John Cassavetes, an intense, charismatic actor who was also making a name for himself as an independent filmmaker. The hand-picked supporting cast included Hollywood troupers Ralph Bellamy, Patsy Kelly and Elisha Cook, Jr., as well as stage and screen veterans Maurice Evans, Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon. Uncredited in the role Polanski characterized as "the real star of the picture," the Bramford apartment building, was the Dakota. Exteriors were shot on-site and Richard Sylbert, Polanski's production designer, scrupulously recreated the Dakota's interiors (off-limits to movie-makers) in Hollywood. Rosemary's Baby would begin and end with aerial views of the imposing structure.
|"Bramford"/Dakota interior sketch by Richard Sylbert|
Production was underway for only a week when Charles Bluhdorn, Paramount's new owner, began to have second thoughts about Polanski, whose focus on artistic values and fine details he viewed as unreasonable perfectionism. One day while on the studio lot Polanski ran into filmmaking legend Otto Preminger. Dejected, he told the older director there was talk he was going to be replaced on Rosemary's Baby. Preminger asked if the studio was happy with the rushes and when Polanski told him it was, he said: "Roman, remember this: You can go over budget as much as you like, provided the rushes are good. They only replace a director when the dailies are lousy." What Bob Evans saw in Polanski's dailies was an "ominous sense of fright" - and it thrilled him; he told Paramount, "If he goes, I go." Both stayed.
|Mia Farrow and Roman Polanski on the set|
|Costumes by Anthea Sylbert|
Polanski later said the story line of Rosemary's Baby had posed one problem for him, it conflicted with his own worldview. He didn't believe in Satan. So he decided, "for credibility's sake," to add an element of ambiguity suggesting the possibility that Rosemary's imagination was the source of her fears. With careful camera placement and the use of special lenses, Polanski presented the story through Rosemary's eyes. Drawn into Rosemary's point of view, the audience easily relates to her confusion, feelings of vulnerability and increasing fright. Like Rosemary, the viewer is aware of lurking danger but wavers between believing what she begins to suspect is happening or accepting the rational explanations offered by others.
|Mia Farrow and Ralph Bellamy (Dr. Saperstein)|
While Rosemary remains constant as a naive and mostly defenseless young wife, those who inhabit her shrinking world are more enigmatic - from her ambitious actor husband and intrusive neighbors to her wise and kindly old doctor. Ironically, some of the characters who are revealed to be most wicked are also the most comically grotesque. In keeping with Polanski's brand of humor, the film is laced with darkly comic moments:
- Rosemary and Guy dine at the home of her friend Hutch (Maurice Evans). As Hutch carves a lamb at table, he relates the ghoulish history of the Bramford - which included a pair of sisters who, it was later charged, devoured children...
|Rosemary and Guy meet The Castavets|
- The aftermath of a shocking suicide introduces the Castevets, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer), a pair of elderly oddballs who arrive on scene decked out as if fresh from the vaudeville stage.
- Rosemary sees her baby for the first time and, uncomprehending, shrieks, "What have you done to its eyes?" Roman Castevet crows happily, "He has his father's eyes!"
Considered a genre-transcending classic today, Rosemary's Baby remains a landmark of modern horror, as capable of jangling nerves and inducing chills as it was in its infancy 45 years ago.
Life at the Dakota by Stephen Birmingham, Syracuse University Press (1979/1996)
Roman by Polanksi, William Morrow & Co. (1984)
The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans, Hyperion (1994)