Culture

Why 'Rosemary's Baby' Still Matters 47 Years Later

Mia Farrow in 'Rosemary's Baby'/Image © 1968 Paramount Pictures

Ever since the "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, an Australian import about a mother and child haunted by a children's book character has little to do with Roman Polanski's 1968 opus about a Vidal Sassoon pixie cut, a dream New York City apartment, and a woman who's been knocked up by the devil (in that order, yes). But both are those rare films that embrace rather than demonize mommies. From "Psycho" to "Mama," motherhood - and all associated female biological functions - has always loomed as the ultimate horror in American cinema.

Of course, Polanksi's glamorosa nervosa aesthetics are 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, swelling violins and swift, iconic imagery (nuns and bloody meat, anyone?) - not to mention Mia Farrow at her absolute loveliest. She 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, the late Cassavetes was still matinee idol handsome; his Guy was louche incarnate in dirty tennis shoes and wisecracks not intended to rock the boat. And Mia: my goodness. There have been greater screen beauties but none as transcendently pretty as she was during this era. With flaxen hair, rosy complexion, and sparrow limbs shooting out from gingham smocks, every molecule of her Rosemary screams "Alice in Dakotaland." Indeed, the couple resides in The Dakota, a legendary building on Manhattan's Upper West Side, though it's unnamed here. Rarely 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. And it serves a function, too. It establishes that this couple has something to lose besides each other.

When Guy suddenly finds nosy neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) less of a nuisance, his career takes an uptick just as a rival is mysteriously blinded. To celebrate his good fortune, Rosemary and Guy decide to begin their family, only there's the smallest of snags. Unbeknownst to Rosemary, Guy already has promised their unborn child to what turns out to be the satanic cult next door. Minnie drugs Rosemary with a "chocolate mousse" 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 (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.

Of course, 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 especially resonated with this story of evil tied up in banal packages. (He also 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. (Goddess bless them.) Though we're told nothing about her educational or work background, Rosemary is clearly bright, 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. (When she won't wake to make his breakfast, he swats her behind only half-jokingly.)

Rosemary's female eagerness to please may pave the road to hell, but when she does speak up, she's 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 thought you weren't going to read books!" Guy goes so far as to throw away her books himself, and he dismisses her suspicions as if she's an errant servant whom he only occasionally humors. He acts as if she's so under his thumb that she wouldn't protest his deal with the devil even if she discovers it.

Rosemary's only scene with female friends is the most grounding moment in the film. In the middle of a party, mumu-clad ladies circle her, endorsing rather than denying her growing sense that something's really wrong. Naturally, 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 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 horror show, one in which pregnancy and child-rearing had been wrested from women and claimed by condescending men with forceps, mothers-little-helpers drugs, and myths of penis envy and puppy dog tails. In a culture in which female intellect and intuition was not only overlooked but actively repressed, her experience was actually terrifyingly possible. Even today, this film is more than a time capsule. It's a cautionary tale - albeit one with a neon-clad Ruth Gordon burbling in Noo-Yawkese as she cha-cha-chas with the devil.