Darkness in the Late Career of Ruth Gordon
Since we’ve been doing so much Halloween posting, and the big day is tomorrow, I thought I’d devote a little post to some of the darker films that categorized her later work:
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The entire explanation for why Gordon wound up in the genre at all lies in Roman Polanski’s groundbreaking horror film. In fact, for me personally, the most horrifying moment in the movie is that betrayal (sorry! spoilers unavoidable!) when we learn that dotty, eccentric, lovable, “harmless” old Ruth Gordon is part of the Satanic coven that’s been using Mia Farrow’s womb as a devil farm. We had been hanging on to Gordon’s soothing presence throughout the movie as a last shred of possibility that the evil we’re fearing won’t come true. It does anyway. After this film (and a couple of wacky ones that preceded it) the writing was on the wall — the old gal was game; she’d do just about any crazy thing.
Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice (1969)
A psycho-biddy horror film by Robert Aldrich, who’d also been responsible for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). This film more closely resembles the former. Gordon plays a housekeeper who takes a job at the home of a widow played by Geraldine Page…a home where the housekeepers don’t seem to live very long.
Harold and Maude (1971)
True, Harold (Bud Cort) is by far the darker of the two, what with his fake suicides and his driving around in a hearse. By contrast, his lover Maude is all sunshine and roses. But then…she is sixty years his senior. And when we say senior, we mean senior.
Isn’t it Shocking? (1973)
An ABC TV movie of the week, in which town sheriff Alan Alda (!) must investigate the mysterious deaths (electrically induced heart attacks, actually) of all the town’s senior citizens. Gordon is one of the town old folks, along with Will Geer, Lloyd Nolan, and Edmund O’Brien.
The Great Houdini (1976)
Gordon played Houdini’s mom in the ABC tv movie bio-pic starring Paul Michael Glaser (a.k.a “Starsky”). You can’t tell the Houdini story without ghosts (fake ones, anyway), seances, and lots of dwelling on death, which this picture has plenty of.
Look What Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976)
Gordon was the only one from the original cast to return for this sequel, presented as an ABC TV movie. (Although it indeed has an all-star cast). It unfolds in unholy chapters over the span of several decades, much like The Omen sequels would later do, and like all such sequels is a lesser entity than the original, but still must be watched.
Don’t Go to Sleep (1982)
The ghost of a dead child comes back to haunt (and worse) her entire family, conveniently waiting until they move out to a spooky house in the country. Gordon plays the grandma, killed when she is frightened by the sight of an iguana.