Performances

The Witch Upstairs: Patsy Kelly in Rosemary’s Baby

On Film / Features — Jul 3, 2013

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.