• The Witch Upstairs: Patsy Kelly in Rosemary’s Baby

    By Michael Koresky

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    In Rosemary’s Baby, one of the first exclamations that Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon) makes on hearing the news that her young neighbor Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is expecting a little bundle of joy is “I can’t wait to tell Laura-Louise!” Earlier, before we even met Minnie, we overheard Gordon’s indelible squawk seeping through our heroine’s bedroom wall as she obscurely yelled at her husband, “Please don’t tell me what Laura-Louise said, because I’m not interested!”

    So who is Laura-Louise, anyway? As any avid Rosemary’s Baby fan knows, she is an essential ingredient in the film, even if used in very small doses. Surely you remember her. She’s the nosy and nearsighted middle-aged woman in Coke-bottle glasses, with a mass of disheveled gray hair on her head and a slight limp when she duckwalks past the camera. Like Rosemary and Minnie, she lives in the Bramford, “up on twelve.” We know nothing of her past, so she exists only as a fixture of the present, a hobgoblin perched in the corner of many a frame. It’s clear that, being a witch, she’s got a mean streak, but her most aggressive act of retribution—which comes in the film’s famous final scene—is as benign as can be. Angry after being taken off cradle-rocking duties, Laura-Louise sticks out her tongue at Rosemary. It’s a gesture of hilarious, ordinary childishness; the tongue’s not forked or anything.

    Laura-Louise is quite a creation. In his novel, Ira Levin dispatches with her introduction in three adjectives: “short, plump, and smiling.” In the movie, the brilliant Patsy Kelly fills in the rest. A Brooklyn-born Hollywood golden-ager who tickled audiences in a series of early-sound-era Hal Roach Studios Vitaphone shorts with her fellow comedian Thelma Todd, Kelly stole scenes in more than twenty features from the mid-1930s to 1943. Known as a consummate ad-libber, the vaudeville-trained Kelly issued oddly nasal yet throaty vocal stylings that sound like a salty mix of Edward G. Robinson and Kristen Wiig’s “Target Lady.” Her physical trademark was a stoop-shouldered, loose-limbed gracelessness that belied a certain agility—she had studied dance as a teenager, because her mother hoped it would knock the tomboy out of her. Kelly had a knack for creating eccentric women incapable of taking guff, whether a wisecracking maid (Top Flat), sassy shopgirl (There Goes My Heart), or squabbling wife (Pigskin Parade). She was even brasher offscreen: Kelly is widely acknowledged today as one of Hollywood’s most unabashedly candid figures, an uncloseted lesbian in an era when admittance of homosexuality was practically unheard of. (Later in life, Kelly revealed she had had a long affair with the legendary Tallulah Bankhead, whose personal assistant she’d been.) Naturally, her outspokenness doomed her career. As Hollywood columnist Lee Graham would write, “Hollywood wouldn’t forgive that she went around with mannish women, wore slacks in public, cursed and swore, and told off-color jokes at lesbian bars and clubs. They figured she was a scandal waiting to happen.” As a result, she was cast in no films from 1943 to 1960, and found only scattered parts thereafter.

    She was fifty-eight when she appeared in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and gave a new generation of viewers a taste of her expertly oddball comic mannerisms. Kelly is on-screen for less than five minutes total, but Roman Polanski’s screwy work of horror is unthinkable without her. Laura-Louise is a sort of slightly buffoonish mascot for the film, a banal demon. When not helping to plan the forcible insemination of a woman by Satan, she scans Reader’s Digest with a magnifying glass or oohs and aahs over a new couch. You might expect one of the devil’s babysitters to be made of sterner stuff, but Laura-Louise is quite jumpy—like when she clutches at her heart after being startled awake by Rosemary, whom she’s supposed to be guarding. And it's her hysterical shriek on seeing the kitchen knife wielded by the young mother that breaks the silence of the final scene. She’s also especially great in the brief cutaway shots that give the film so much of its unique texture, thanks to her expressive features and animated delivery—see her fingers curling into talons when she delightedly tells Rosemary to gander at her newborn son’s presumably monstrous feet.

    But it’s probably Laura-Louise’s most mundane moments that stick the hardest. She reminds us she’s an old pro at scene-stealing in her first moments on-screen. Here, Laura-Louise’s only evil is intrusiveness. Minnie has brought her over to Rosemary’s apartment, as uninvited as herself, and the two biddies take out their knitting and needlepoint and get comfortable on the younger woman’s couch—an unwanted sewing circle.

17 comments

  • By Jeff Neilson
    July 03, 2013
    01:07 PM

    Fascinating. Part of the brilliance of Rosemary's Baby is the amazing slew of character actors who portray the various members of the coven. I've always loved Patsy's performance, including her description of her period in this clip.
    Reply
  • By Patrick
    July 03, 2013
    02:13 PM

    Patsy is wonderful. Her character is the kind you can't help hate but would never do without.
    Reply
  • By Philip
    July 03, 2013
    03:41 PM

    This movie is so creepy. Quietly horrific.
    Reply
  • By Cinemacannon
    July 03, 2013
    07:08 PM

    Another great Patsy Kelly role...The Naked Kiss!
    Reply
  • By Sidney
    July 03, 2013
    09:51 PM

    What an amazing essay of a very underrated performer. She only had limited screen time in the film, but you still felt her presence: hysterical and subtle. Also, she had brilliant comic timing.
    Reply
  • By Susan Gates
    July 05, 2013
    10:34 AM

    What great writing! Thank you for telling Patsy Kelly's story. Now I want to see the film again.
    Reply
  • By Austin DeRaedt
    July 06, 2013
    03:36 PM

    She is pretty funny in her role
    Reply
  • By Gord
    July 06, 2013
    04:57 PM

    "It’s clear that, being a witch, she’s got a mean streak" - that's not fair what about Glinda the Good Witch! ::: Yes she was great in this role and another essential, unnerving presence to this film. Who do we have to thank for having the guts and/or insight to help break that awful embargo and give this job? Seventeen years without film work. What a shame.
    Reply
  • By David G Cercone 2
    July 07, 2013
    07:22 AM

    What a proud and unabashed Lesbian she was in a time when it was literally unthinkable to be! A Hero surely! :) And what a comic star turn she delivers in this peerless film too boot!
    Reply
  • By Mark Chamberlain
    July 10, 2013
    01:53 AM

    Wonderful article on one amazing lady. The casting on that film was pretty much to the nail and still remains for me to be one of the best horror films around.
    Reply
  • By Rob
    July 30, 2013
    05:46 PM

    Who could forget her hilarious turns in FREAKY FRIDAY and THE NORTH AVENUE IRREGULARS? I loved her as a kid before I even knew who she was.
    Reply
  • By Tim G
    July 30, 2013
    05:47 PM

    I just love how she nonchalantly sits down on Rosemary's book, a gesture more horrifying to me than anything Minnie Castavet does in the film.
    Reply
  • By Michael K.
    July 30, 2013
    06:10 PM

    Plus she gets to deliver one of the film's best lines: "Ah, shut up with your 'Oh Gods!' or we'll kill you, milk or no milk."
    Reply
  • By Andrew H
    July 31, 2013
    11:19 PM

    Let's not forget Patsy Kelley's run on Broadway where she did not receive the cold shoulder of Hollywood as mentioned above. She played Debbie Reynolds' mother in Irene in 1973/1974 and Pauline in the 1971/1973 production of No, No, Nanette. She was the major comic relief in both shows and was nominated for best featured actress in a musical for Irene and she won for best featured actress for her work in No, No, Nanette.
    Reply
  • By Lgwolf
    August 03, 2013
    02:05 AM

    I was at a small dinner party once and said something that made everyone laugh. Everyone except one. And when I looked over at the person who wasn't laughing, without anyone else seeing it, they made a jealous, angry face and stuck their tongue out at me. I was stunned because NOONE else saw it and I said, "I've just been lauralouised!" One person at the party got it. It is now part of my vernacular and I never explain what it means. That's why it is so great to see an entire article about it!
    Reply
  • By JamesBrummel
    November 13, 2013
    04:10 PM

    she's portrayed as a bit of a buffoon, but I found her the scariest of the bunch. Histrionic Narcissist, a clumsy adult child full of rage and capable of great violence -- the films only mention of violence is her "we'll kill you milk or no milk", delivered with a snarl. She's the type that would dump boiling water on someone while they sleep. Love when she sits on Rosemary's book!
    Reply
  • By Greta G.
    July 23, 2014
    11:04 AM

    She was cast as the housekeeper in "Please Don't Eat The Daisies." Her droll delivery of her lines to the little rascals in the house ("…the next time you eat tomatoes in bed you can pick the seeds out of the sheets yourself.") was a welcome addition to Doris Day and the group of well cast characters -- with the exception of the phone-in performance of David Niven, who retained his British accent while playing a New Yorker. Notable was the veterinarian they met when they moved to the suburbs who was asked by one of their sons, "Are you a man or a woman?" to which she replied, "I'm a vet so that makes me neither." It was such an outrageous line for 1959 that I now wonder if the actress wasn't a friend of Patsy's and they had a good laugh over inserting it in the dialogue. I've never seen her in the type of role she plays in "Rosemary's Baby" and now I mourn all the roles she may have made great. Like Thelma Ritter and other great character actors, she's a "natural," scene stealer, unlike others who are busy doing everything but eating the scenery.
    Reply