The world is full of people who will go to any length to control women. It was true when my grandmother, as a young woman with a father who greeted every boyfriend with a shotgun, went off to join a convent of Hungarian nuns just so she could get away. (She promptly quit, moved away without telling him, and some time later invited him to her wedding to a Chinese man. This is the origin story of our Cuban and Chinese family’s Hungarian chicken salad recipe.)
It is true today, as legions of anti-reproductive rights groups besiege legislatures and harangue them into revoking a woman’s right to health care access, as private schools force young women to advertise when they are menstruating and Southern Baptists have started to lose patience with the elders who argue a wife should respond to her husband beating the shit out of her by being submissive.
And it was true in 1968 when Rosemary’s Baby debuted, telling a story of paranoia and body horror that for all of the above reasons is still too damn real.
The best horror gets at something deep and digs in its hooks, but gradually. In that regard, it’s easy to see why Rosemary’s Baby is still essential viewing 50 years later.
A Timeless Paranoia
Minnie: “Are you pregnant?”Rosemary: “Well, no, not yet. I hope to be, as soon as we’re settled.”Minnie: “Wonderful, well, you’re young and healthy, you ought to have lots of children!”
The Woodhouses, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her handsome new husband Guy (John Cassavetes) move into a high-rise apartment in New York. They are the quintessential young yuppie couple, fresh-faced and naïve and just entering adulthood. Their neighbors, the odd Castevets, Minnie and Roman (played respectively by a delightfully eccentric Ruth Gordon and a suspiciously avuncular Sidney Blackmer) ply them with kindness and concern. Guy’s fledgling acting career isn’t much to speak of, and Rosemary wants a family.
It isn’t long before Rosemary finds herself trusting the Castevets too much. In the novel on which the movie is based by Ira Levin, the sickening twist of the plot is kept under wraps until the very end of the story. That just isn’t how writer/director Roman Polanski—and we’ll get to him—wanted to play it. It is clear, right from the get-go, that when Rosemary awakens from being drugged by Minnie’s “chocolate mouse,” that she’s been impregnated by none other than Satan. We’re watching the utter inevitability of her situation play out, aware of how hopeless it is all the time.
Rosemary’s Baby debuted at a consequential time in the women’s lib movement and also during major post-war tension about the nuclear family and the backlash against how much it locked women into a situation where they were expected to subordinate their bodies and their ambitions entirely to a man’s whims. The prior year saw the national conference of Students for a Democratic Society issue a report that, in essence, described the relationship of men to women in much the same way colonial powers had toward the people they oppressed. Women’s liberation groups like Boston’s Bread and Roses formed, and the same year the film came out, activists protested the Miss America pageant. It was clear both that a new, post-Suffragette chapter in feminism was being written and that the comfy, all-but-assumed path a women should take—basically, to make herself the helpmate of a man and yoke all her hopes and dreams to his convenience—was being questioned.
Rosemary’s Baby is a story of a woman being gaslighted, a quarter-century removed from Ingrid Bergman’s turn as a woman being made to question her own mental state in the feature the popularized the term.
A Creeping, Crawling Film
Rosemary: “I know that sounds crazy, you’re probably saying, ‘Oh my god, this poor girl has really flipped’ but I haven’t flipped, I swear by all the saints I haven’t.”
The movie works so well for two reasons: Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon. Farrow is as believably innocent and overwhelmed as we need her to be to stay engaged, and Gordon is such a hilarious old motor-mouthed busybody that her sinister turn is blackly comic.
Before Rosemary begins to suspect that anything is truly amiss, she is consumed by paranoia about the health of her baby—worrying over troublesome doctor’s checkups (including one where her OBGYN just up and lights a cigarette—this is the ’60s after all). This fear that she’s doing something wrong, that she’s being an unfit or frail mother even before she’s delivered her child, becomes the sinister leverage that Minnie and Roman and her husband use to get her into a pattern of isolation and self-doubt.
The little details here are the most unsettling, and Polanski lets Farrow’s face do all the heavy lifting. Just watch the scene, late in the film, where Rosemary has become convinced there’s some plot to abscond with her child. Desperate to escape and sure she’s being tracked, she makes a call from a phone booth to a doctor she thinks she can trust. The only thing dated about this scene is the phone booth: Everything from the short haircut that signals her character’s modernity to the bothersome act of calling up a doctor’s office, to the disinterested skepticism with which her desperate concerns are met, may as well be happening in 2018. The only change the inevitable reboot would need to make to the shot-for-shot here is to give her a smartphone.
Ebert called it a film that creeps and crawls. It truly does, but at the very end, it also punches the gut. Rosemary might be horrified at the thing she’s given birth to, but she’s been so ground down by it all, so conditioned to want to be a selfless caregiver, that she falls right under the spell of involuntary motherhood. It’s a tough watch.
Minnie: “He chose you out of all the world, out of all the women in the whole world he chose you, he arranged things because he wanted you to be the mother of his only living son!”
I’ve heard the occasional person pop up to say that Rosemary’s Baby would not have been nearly as remembered if it hadn’t been for the Tate and LaBianca murders that occurred in August of 1969, the year after the film was released. Polanski’s wife, actress Sharon Tate, was among those killed, and the trial transfixed the nation and, as I’ve written, became a Hollywood obsession. The Satanic bent of Manson’s cult and Polanski’s connection to the murders has forged some sinister connection in the minds of obsessives. I think saying this is a primary reason the movie is remembered is unfair to the movie. I also think it misses the way more interesting meta-text of Polanski being a rapist who pled guilty to charges he assaulted a 13-year-old girl but then proceeded to just up and flee the country before he could be sentenced. He was only arrested in connection with the charges against him in 2009 after 31 years on the lam, even as the entire world knew precisely what he had admitted to doing.
Then, in case you thought there was a happy ending to all this, a laundry list of celebrities that will be very hard for you to read—Natalie Portman, Wes Anderson, Ethan Cohen, Harrison Ford and Monica Bellucci among them—signed a petition that got him off the hook. A fifth person has since come forward to accuse him of raping her as a minor. This is not a Harvey Weinstein situation, where none of the sordid details had been made public until suddenly they were. Polanski’s alleged crimes against young women are older than I am, he has pled guilty to some of them in a court of law, and nobody cares to haul him in to face justice.
If we’re playing Six Degrees of #MeToo Separation with the movie, we might also mention that Mia Farrow was married to Woody Allen and is the mother of Ronan Farrow, who probably didn’t get into the business of teaming up with other reporters to expose the rampant sexual abuse of Hollywood because of his cheery childhood. Mia Farrow’s suffering as her marriage publicly imploded because of the alleged actions of her husband has been well-publicized, and recall so eerily the stacked deck facing her character in Rosemary’s Baby that the film retroactively takes on an even darker dimension.
It’s ironic to me that Polanski will probably never face the allegations against him, yet his cinematic legacy includes one of the most clear statements on the oppression of women: Behind the grinning doctors and the urbane men and the cheerful little old ladies who are so happy to hoist you up on a pedestal so you can be the ideal glowing mother is a Satanic plot to ensure who really controls the hand that rocks the cradle.
Kenneth Lowe shall redeem the despised and wreak vengeance in the name of the burned and the tortured. Check him out on Twitter and visit his blog.