Taking Back ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

Ever since the Australian import “The Babadook” came out last year, I’ve been rethinking “Rosemary’s Baby,” which celebrates its forty-seventh anniversary on June 12. On the surface, a mother and child haunted by a children’s book character has little to do with Roman Polanski’s 1968 opus about a woman who’s been knocked up by the devil. But both are those rare films that herald rather than demonize mommies. From “Psycho” to “Mama” to “Alien,”  motherhood and its associated female biological functions have always loomed as the ultimate horror in American cinema.

Of course, Polanksi’s glamorosa nervosa aesthetics are also not to be undersold, especially when ogled on the biggest screen possible. At a recent Museum of the Moving Image screening of “Rosemary’s Baby,” I was wowed anew by the film’s cocktail of naturalism and psychedelia, its kaleidoscope of bold pastels, mid-century swagger, and swift, iconic imagery. Mia Farrow stars as the titular Rosemary, a wide-eyed, lapsed Catholic married to up-and-coming actor Guy, played by writer/director John Cassavetes. Though already gravelly-voiced in this role, the late Cassavetes was still matinee idol handsome; his Guy is louche incarnate in dirty tennis shoes and wisecracks intended not to rock the boat. And Mia: my goodness. There have been greater screen beauties but none as transcendently pretty as she during this era. With that flaxen Vidal Sassoon cut, that rosy, freckled complexion, those sparrow limbs shooting out from gingham smocks, every molecule of her Rosemary screams “Alice in Dakota-land.” The couple reside in the legendary building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, though it’s unnamed here, and seldom has a New York City residence played such a central role in a film. Rent-controlled, with soaring ceilings, wooden shutters, and huge fireplaces in room after room, it’s apartment porn, plain and simple. But it serves a function, too. It establishes the couple has something to lose besides each other.

When Guy suddenly embraces nosy neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), his career takes an uptick; he scores a coveted role after a colleague is mysteriously blinded. Rosemary and Guy celebrate their good fortune, only there’s the smallest of snags. Unbeknownst to Rosemary, Guy already has promised their unborn child to the satanic cult disguised as next-door nudges. Minnie drugs Rosemary with a “chocolate mouse” dessert, and the coven rapes and impregnates her while she’s passed out. For the rest of the film, under the guise of surrogate parental support, they micromanage her pregnancy – even dispatching Dr. Abe Sapirstein (the growly Ralph Bellamy), a respected ob-gyn who’s secretly a coven member – to naysay her instinct that something’s very wrong with the child she is carrying.

For the real demon of “Rosemary’s Baby” is a post-World War II, Freudian-drenched culture invested in robbing mothers of their authority. Given his checkered past, Polanski seems an unlikely feminist but his films have always demonstrated a sympathy for underestimated women. A Polish Holocaust survivor, he may have deeply resonated with this tale of evil tied up in banal packages. (He personally adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s eponymous novel.) A poster child of the mid-1960s, Rosemary (and Mia) belongs to that lost female generation caught between 1950s housewives and those 1970s libbers wielding speculum mirrors at macrame parties. Though we’re told nothing about her educational or work background, Rosemary is clearly smart, with a detective’s eye for details and a penchant for word play; when given an amulet containing the fictional herb tannis root, she murmurs, “Tannis anyone?” But she speaks in a little-girl singsong, shrinks like the Alice she resembles, and waits on hubby hand and foot, apologizing profusely even when something’s not her fault.  He swats her behind only half-jokingly when she’s slow to make his breakfast; she accepts his pique as her due.

Rosemary’s eagerness to please may pave the road to hell, but it’s also gas-lit by men intent on keeping her ignorant. When she asks Dr. Sapirstein if her pelvic pain is caused by an ectopic pregnancy, he thunders, “I told you not to read books!” Guy goes so far as to throw away one of her books himself, dismissing her instincts as if she’s an errant servant he only occasionally humors. In his mind, she’s so under his thumb that she wouldn’t protest his deal with the devil even if she discovered it. It’s an oversight that goes as far back as Iago and his wife.

Rosemary’s only scene with female contemporaries is the film’s most grounding moment. In the middle of a party, mumu-clad lady friends encircle her, validating her growing concern that something’s really wrong. Guy explodes, calling them all “not very bright bitches,” and claiming that “your [new pixie] haircut is what’s the big mistake.” (When all else fails, distract a woman by disparaging her intelligence and appearance.) By the time she accuses him outright of having joined a coven, he and the doctor chalk it up to “hysteria” – an all-too-familiar Sigmund F. term.

Now, about that cigar….

Rosemary’s plight draws upon an all-too-real 20th century horror show, one in which pregnancy and child-rearing had been wrested from women by condescending men wielding forceps, mothers-little-helpers drugs, and myths of penis envy and puppy dog tails. In a culture in which female intellect and intuition were not only overlooked but actively repressed, her experience was terrifyingly possible. Even today, this film is more than a time capsule. It’s a cautionary tale – one with Ruth Gordon burbling in Noo-Yawkese as she cha-cha-chas with the devil.

This was originally published in Word and Film.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy