As suggested by its opening camera pan across a New York City skyline set to the sound of a woman singing dreamily, Rosemary’s Baby is a dark lullaby about domesticity and maternity, and 50 years after its June 12, 1968, theatrical debut, it has lost none of its disquieting power. The story of a couple beset by the nefarious forces dwelling in their Manhattan apartment building, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s 1967 bestseller generates slow-burn suspense from its accumulation of unsetting details, which coalesce to create a horrifying portrait of marital — and societal — misogyny. A masterful thriller that electrified audiences upon its release (and earned Ruth Gordon a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in the process), it remains an enduring classic — as well as an intensely timely one, given that it’s the very sort of nightmare against which #MeToo is fighting.
The sad irony, of course, is that Polanski’s unforgivable personal behavior and treatment of females remains a flashpoint. A decade after the release of Rosemary’s Baby, the filmmaker notoriously fled the U.S. after reneging on a 1978 plea deal in a statutory-rape case involving a 13-year-old girl. He remains a fugitive, and earlier this year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, cleaning house in the wake of the #MeToo movement, expelled him as a member, citing the lingering case. Polanski in turn blasted #MeToo as “collective hysteria.”
Meanwhile, the film’s star, Mia Farrow, is a key figure in the movement. Her longtime relationship with Woody Allen collapsed following his affair with (and eventual marriage to) her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, and Farrow later accused Allen of molesting their own adopted daughter, Dylan. One of her sons with Allen, Ronan Farrow, remains an outspoken critic of his father and helped expose the monstrous behavior of Harvey Weinstein, which triggered the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
While it’s impossible to consider the art without its artists, Rosemary’s Baby is undeniably a masterpiece with a powerful resonance.
The film concerns Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary Woodhouse (Farrow), a husband and wife who relocate to the Bramford, this despite the fact that their friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) has warned them about the residence’s infamous reputation for cannibalism and witchcraft. Guy and Rosemary are starting the next phase of their stereotypical union, and a moving-in montage underlines the domestic normalcy of their situation, with Rosemary bringing cheerful colors and light to their new place (whose former inhabitant passed away at the age of 89). As a young homemaker and an older actor primarily known for television commercials (such as the Yamaha motorcycle TV spot Rosemary watches while getting the apartment into shape), they resemble, in appearance and social standing, countless other on-the-rise New Yorkers.
Polanski further emphasizes their conventionality by having them discover that their bedroom walls are so paper-thin that they can hear their neighbors, and then by having said elderly next-door residents Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) become nosy would-be acquaintances. “We get friendly with an old couple like that, we’ll never get rid of them,” says Guy. That’s precisely what happens, as Polanski establishes familiar circumstances so he can then exploit them for maximum unease. Before long, the Castevets are giving Rosemary the same good-luck charm they’d previously gifted to Terry (Angela Dorian), a homeless drug addict they’d taken in (and who jumped to her death in an apparent suicide), as well as buttering up Guy with praise for his thespian skills — gestures that get them a little too close for comfort for Rosemary, who soon finds the Castevets (and Guy’s fondness for them) off-putting.
Apologizing (not for the last time) for acting too self-centered, Guy agrees to have a baby with Rosemary, and it’s at that point that Rosemary’s victimization truly begins. Her abuse comes, most literally, in the form of her rape by Satan, which is facilitated by Minnie’s drugged chocolate mousse (and Guy’s complicity in serving it to her). Rosemary is thus preyed upon by not only the devil himself, but also by her husband (Guy) and surrogate parental figures (the Castevets). When a pregnancy ensues, Minnie convinces her to see Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), who’s also in on the conspiracy. Later on, a fearful Rosemary sees her own physician, Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin), who ignores her claims of mistreatment and sends her back into the predatory arms of Guy, the Castevets, and Sapirstein.
Focused on a powerless (and physically slight) female who’s marginalized, assaulted, and controlled in equal measure, Rosemary’s Baby soon becomes a terrifying tale about misogyny’s many guises. As the thing growing in her womb makes her sicker and sicker, her face so ashen that friends can’t help but remark upon it, Rosemary is made to feel crazy as well as helpless. That’s most evident when, after getting into an argument with Guy over her description of Sapirstein as “that nut,” she makes sure to assuage her husband that she’s not going to have an abortion — an option that, it’s clear, she doesn’t have the right to choose, even if she wanted.
Between her demonic sexual violation, her unholy pregnancy, and the mysterious vitamins and “tannis root” drinks that Sapirstein has Minnie feed her, Rosemary is a woman at the mercy of others, and Rosemary’s Baby consequently functions as a chilling snapshot of the female body and psyche under attack. Though it’s the cultists (led by the Castevets) who are directly to blame, the film pointedly fingers Guy as responsible for Rosemary’s persecution. A vain blowhard whose abuse is accompanied by dismissals of Rosemary’s anxieties as “prepartum crazies” and “some kind of hysteria,” Guy is the epitome of sexist male oppression. All the while, the director (denoting danger through use of the color red) stages his action in doorways and passageways — which, in the end, lead to womblike darkness, and then the light of a malevolent new world — to stress that Rosemary’s very being is being besieged.
Rosemary’s Baby is ultimately an empathetic genre study of feminine subjugation and ruin — and, as a result, a harrowing depiction of the paradigms that feminist movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp are presently striving to dismantle. That’s never more apparent than during its finale, in which Rosemary, confronted with her hellspawn, overcomes her horror and embraces her traditional role as its mother. Forced to care for her monster child, Rosemary suffers one final cruelty and, in doing so, becomes the poster child for women who’ve been denied their agency and freedom — and had their maternal instincts turned against them — by those they most care for, and by society at large. Half a century later, that makes it as relevant as ever.
The 50th anniversary version of Rosemary’s Baby will be available on digital on Oct. 17.
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