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The Devil Inside: Watching Rosemary’s Baby in the Age of #MeToo

Fifty years later, the hard truths, feminist overtones, and inescapable demons embedded in Roman Polanski’s 1968 cult film are more relevant than ever before.

The year 1968 saw the premieres of four films that are now cult classics, each one dancing with doom. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was a black-and-white B movie with a bled-out complexion. Unapologetically gruesome, its story of reanimated corpses who hunt meals of live human flesh rattled adults and left children in tears. Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes envisioned a future in which Homo sapiens, having destroyed its own civilization through nuclear war, is relegated to the bottom rung of a new dominance hierarchy. Gorillas, chimps, and orangutans rule the world. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, after presenting its own ensemble of prehistoric hominids, made a stylish marriage between speed-of-light technology and mankind. The marriage ends in divorce, and the bottom line is: Evolve or die out. The fourth picture, set in a Manhattan apartment building of Victorian vintage, hugged close to the hearth—too close—and is the only one of these four films framed through the eyes of a woman. This was Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

Fifty years later, Romero’s zombies have their own maggoty territory in television’s lineup of horror, while Planet of the Apes is a film franchise re-invigorated by motion-capture recording (the last eight years have seen the “Rise of,” the “Dawn of,” and the “War for”). Another matter entirely is 2001: A Space Odyssey. This sci-fi mind-bend, which launched a thousand questions—and a thousand super-analytical answers—remains visually mandarin and magisterial, a monolith of a movie. Rosemary’s Baby is different from these.

Its story of a young couple in 1960s New York City unspools like a soap opera, with the pedestrian pace of the everyday. Only instead of the angry upsets that propel your average soap—adultery, rivalry, long-lost relatives popping up out of nowhere—the upsets in Rosemary’s Baby amount to little more than neighborly nosiness, nagging afterthoughts, strange smells, and small catches of coincidence. It’s all easily explained away, and yet it all accumulates into something unthinkable—demonic. Rosemary may not have known what to expect of her first pregnancy, but she creepingly realizes it isn’t this. “Rosemary gave birth to a cloven-hoofed infant,” wrote the film critic Pauline Kael, thumbnailing the plot, “her actor-husband having mated her with Satan in exchange for a Broadway hit.” For the record, we never see a cloven hoof, or even the baby, though we do hear it crying in its crib.

In 1968 it was hard to know exactly what to call this movie. Horror, yes. Richard Sylbert, the production designer of Rosemary’s Baby, called it “the greatest horror film without any horror in it.” But it’s also a psychological thriller, percolating with paranoia. “Gynecological Gothic” is how Penelope Gilliatt, film critic of The New Yorker, described it. The critic Stanley Kauffmann thought the movie began as a “hip comedy with mystery overtones” that then morphed into “a mystery with comic overtones.”

“It’s a more powerful film the more you get away from characterizing it in a genre,” says Owen Gleiberman, chief film critic at Variety. “It doesn’t play like a horror film. Rosemary’s Baby is its own unique category of Gothic new-Hollywood metropolis banality-of-evil nightmare.”

Fifty years on, Rosemary’s Baby still hovers queasily beyond definition. It touches the quick of the deepest feminist conundrums yet never utters a polemical word, not even a sigh. Which may be why, in 2018, it is the most culturally relevant of these four classics.

The movie was based on a novel of the same name by Ira Levin, and even before its publication in 1967 the book’s galley was circulating in Hollywood. Levin was a gifted storyteller whose first novel—1953’s A Kiss Before Dying, about a handsome sociopath who will kill to marry money—had already been made into a film starring Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward (in 1991 it was remade with Matt Dillon). Levin would go on to write a total of seven novels, including 1972’s The Stepford Wives (body-snatching in suburbia) and 1976’s The Boys from Brazil (let’s clone Hitler), as well as the 1978 play Deathtrap, a Tilt-A-Whirl of twists and turns that to this day holds the record (1,793 performances) for the longest-running comedy-thriller on Broadway.

Stephen King has called Levin “the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel,” and Truman Capote compared Rosemary’s Baby to Henry James’s feverish The Turn of the Screw (a hint, perhaps, that Levin’s story actually does turn on a screw—the sexual kind). Its meticulous plotting is integrated with pacing that seems offhand and natural. But more than that, Levin’s ability to defy formula, to combine genres, leaves the reader feeling a pervasive imbalance. Add to this Levin’s pitch-perfect ear for titles that are semantically symbolic—“Stepford Wife,” for instance, is now a term for any domestic partner programmed into plastic, smiling submission—and you have writing made for the movies. With hardly a line that can’t be found in the book, the screenplay Polanski fashioned from Rosemary’s Baby is an utterly faithful film adaptation.

What brews in this title? A slew of contradictions. Levin, who has written that he was “standing the story of Mary and Jesus on its head,” chose the name Rosemary, an elaboration on Mary, the Holy Mother. The name is also redolent of flower-power purity, thanks to Simon & Garfunkel’s 1966 version of the medieval ballad “Scarborough Fair,” with its botanical refrain, “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.” Levin set the novel in 1965-66 and made the due date of Rosemary’s pregnancy the month of June—06–66—”the number of the beast,” as foretold in the Book of Revelation. In that same year, Time magazine unsettled America with its April 8 cover story “Is God Dead?” Later that month, in San Francisco, Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan, declaring that 1966 was “The Year One”—words Levin used verbatim in his novel. (LaVey would later be falsely credited with working as a consultant on the film Rosemary’s Baby.) Cults of all kinds found fertile ground in this period, including the “Family,” formed in the late 60s by the monstrous Charles Manson, who alternately envisioned himself as Christ or the Devil. This was the cult that would murder Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, along with four others, in 1969.

“Having observed that the most suspenseful part of a horror story is before, not after, the horror appears,” Levin wrote in the 2003 New American Library edition of Rosemary’s Baby, “I was struck one day by the thought . . . that a fetus could be an effective horror if the reader knew it was growing into something malignly different from the baby expected. Nine whole months of anticipation, with the horror inside the heroine!”

William Castle, the genial producer and director of low-budget movies, wanted to prove that he was up to an A-list film, and here was his opportunity to do it. According to the new book This Is No Dream: Making Rosemary’s Baby, an insightful study of the film written by James Munn (with photographs by Bob Willoughby), Castle, as well as suspense master Alfred Hitchcock, was given the chance to option the screen rights to Rosemary’s Baby. When Hitchcock passed on the project, Castle mortgaged his house and bought the rights for $100,000, plus another $50,000 if the novel hit the best-seller lists. (It did, with readers snapping up 2.5 million copies before the movie’s release.)

Meanwhile, the young Robert Evans, a former actor who was new to producing, had teamed up with Paramount and was “looking for the unexpected,” he has said, “something that sounded new.” Hearing of Castle’s purchase, he swooped in. They negotiated a deal to make the film together, and though Castle was gunning to direct, Evans and Paramount chief Charlie Bluhdorn pushed for Polanski, an emerging talent whose success with the tensile Repulsion and the bizarre Cul-de-Sac suggested he could handle the sustained uncertainty, the atmospheric layers, of Levin’s book.

Polanski started reading Rosemary’s Baby, and at first it looked to him, he said, like “a kitchen melodrama, you know, for television.” But he kept going, couldn’t stop, finished in hours, hooked. He could see the cinematic potential. And as Munn points out in his book, Castle was soon swayed by the director’s potential, telling Bluhdorn, “Charlie, you were right, Roman Polanski is the only one who can direct Rosemary’s Baby.”

When it came to casting, Polanski needed guidance. The character Rosemary Woodhouse is a lapsed Catholic from Omaha, and Polanski saw her as a corn-fed all-American girl—specifically, Tuesday Weld. Evans, Castle, and Levin all wanted Mia Farrow. Introduced to American audiences in 1964—as virginal Allison MacKenzie in the prime-time television soap Peyton Place—Farrow saw her profile rise in 1966 when she married Frank Sinatra, who was 29 years older. They were a puzzling pair—the beatific waif and the Vegas big shot. Sinatra was dubious about Farrow’s taking the role. Polanski feared she’d be too “ethereal.” But Evans, as Munn reports, was right on the money when he said that Farrow’s fragility would give the picture “real magic.” Her milkmaid gentleness, her Twiggy body, her large unblinking blue eyes—Mia is the movie’s soul. She’s like a filament, the incandescent Everygirl in a Black Sabbath situation.

The trouble begins when young marrieds Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes—intense, ambitious, typecast) move into the Bramford, a lordly landmark building with an unsavory history of witchcraft (the gabled, fabled Dakota at West 72nd Street was used for exterior shots). Guy is feeling the approach of his sell-by date as an actor, and Rosemary is aching to start a family. Two birds are killed with one stone when the Woodhouses meet the tenants whose apartment abuts theirs, an eccentric older couple named Roman and Minnie Castevet (played with smooth, sly wit by Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon, both veterans of the stage). Guy connects with the Castevets—ministers for Mephistopheles—and within a few days a rival actor goes blind and Guy inherits a lead role. Now he’s ready to make a baby.

Except it’s not Guy who makes it. Rosemary is drugged, then carried into the Castevet living room. In a doozy of a dark erotic dream, Rosemary sees herself surrounded by a chanting coven while a scaly creature ritually rapes her. “This is no dream,” a semi-conscious Rosemary cries midway through, “this is really happening.” But the next morning, despite scratch marks on her body, she’s convinced it was just a bad dream. Apologizing for his “ragged” nails, Guy says he didn’t want to miss “baby night” and had sex with her while she slept. (Marital rape was still legal in those days.)

As the opening credits roll, Rosemary’s Baby looks like it’s going to be a traditional “woman’s movie.” The typeface used for the credits is the kind of hoity-toity cursive writing—in hot pink, no less—one might see on a Tiffany & Co. shower invitation. Indeed, 1959’s three-gals-in-the-big-city flick, The Best of Everything, in which Robert Evans played a cad, opens with similarly pink and cursive credits. Rosemary’s Baby, however, is no soap. It re-interprets the Faust legend with a twist: in exchange for stardom Guy sells his wife, not his soul, to the Devil. It also recalls Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), the shudderingly modern 1913 work by Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky. “A biological ballet,” it was called at the time—a metaphor for regeneration. Le Sacre du Printemps sees a chosen maiden sacrificed to a pagan god, thus ensuring the future of the tribe.

Last month, when Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, posed with her newborn third child, Prince Louis Arthur Charles, the red dress she wore, with its white lace collar, inspired a cascade of tweets noting the remarkable similarity—obviously unintended—to the dress worn by a pregnant Rosemary during the party scene. The Twitterverse kerfuffle came and went in a flash. But the movie is embedded in viewers’ collective unconscious.

Rosemary’s Baby is resonant,” says the film critic Molly Haskell, author of the book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, “because it plays on something that’s so human, which is the fear of a monster child. That’s always there and it’s primal. It’s a very well-done film, very controlled and beautifully shot and elegant. The cast is wonderful. What’s so interesting about looking at movies again—you’re different and they’re different.

“The thing that I kept thinking,” Haskell says of watching Rosemary’s Baby in 2018, was that “if she had known what she was carrying would she have aborted it?” And would audiences have supported such an act, or condemned it?

It isn’t devil worship or the invocation of Satan that troubles the viewer, it’s that a man barters his wife’s body.

Rosemary doesn’t know what she is carrying. Realizing that forces are lined up against her and that it has to do with her pregnancy, she thinks the coven wants the child for blood ceremonies. She doesn’t know that her womb has been co-opted.

“I feel like the movie was always about the condition of being female in our world,” says Gleiberman. “It’s one of the great movies made from a woman’s point of view. It shows us fears about pregnancy and trust and the body that no other movie does. And yet I’ve never seen it in ideological terms—as a feminist movie or anything like that. It’s swirling around with all this stuff from the late 60s. The death of God, the rise of Satan, you can’t trust your neighbors, and women rejecting their traditional roles, or in this case their traditional roles rejecting them, with Rosemary literally experiencing pregnancy as a kind of invasion. It’s the last great Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made.”

Released on June 12, 1968, Rosemary’s Baby was a “blockbuster,” Evans has said, opening “to the biggest business Paramount had done in years.” Polanski, with his first studio picture, had proved himself in Hollywood. And Mia Farrow, whom Sinatra divorced because she wouldn’t walk off the set when filming ran five weeks longer than expected (talk about standing up to patriarchy!), skyrocketed to stardom overnight. While there was pushback from religious groups—especially Catholic organizations—who branded the subject of devil worship “blasphemous,” the movie was a must-see.

As for the critics, those who wanted standard horror-film frights and tropes often missed the subterranean themes. Andrew Sarris, writing in The Village Voice, understood exactly what was going on: “Two universal fears run through Rosemary’s Baby, the fear of pregnancy, particularly as it consumes personality, and the fear of a deformed offspring with all the attendant moral and emotional complications . . . . By dealing obliquely with these fears, the book and the movie penetrate deeper into the subconscious of the audience.” Today it isn’t devil worship or the invocation of Satan that troubles the viewer, it’s that a man barters his wife’s body, and that her destiny has been ruthlessly appropriated and perverted.

“I think it’s a great movie. And I don’t think I’ve done another,” Mia Farrow said in a 2012 interview for the Criterion Collection. “I know I didn’t get another role as fine, that asked as much of me. And I know I’ve never worked with a director that was as precise with me . . . . It was the happiest work experience, the most fulfilling, that I’ve ever had.” (Farrow declined to comment for this story.)

In these heated times, some might find it odd to hear that Farrow lavished such praise on Polanski, who, some 40 years ago, famously fled the country after pleading guilty to having had sex with a minor. (The director, who recently referred to the #MeToo movement as a form of “mass hysteria that occurs in society from time to time,” was ejected from the Motion Picture Academy in early May; his lawyer has threatened to sue.) It’s also hard not to hear in Farrow’s comments an implicit jab at her former longtime partner Woody Allen, who directed her in 13 films. Or to avoid thinking back to Allen’s love affair with one of her daughters, Soon-Yi (now his wife), not to mention the accusations of sexual abuse of Dylan, Allen and Farrow’s much younger daughter—allegations Allen has long denied. Perhaps there is yet another genre, if unintended, inside Rosemary’s Baby: the allegory. Sometimes our nightmares come not from the outside but from under our own roof.

Jordan Peele, the writer and director of the 2017 hit Get Out, rates Rosemary’s Baby as “probably my favorite film.” (In 2014, he ingeniously tweeted its entire story in emojis.) In fact, he looked to Levin and Polanski for the tonal template of Get Out, channeling that feeling of foreboding in an idyllic setting, that sense of something stolen. Just as Get Out is a film about race, Rosemary’s Baby, Peele has said, is “a film about gender; it’s about men making decisions about women’s bodies behind their backs.”

Likewise, the divisive question that rips through the television series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s vision of a country that turns fertile young women into broodmares, also haunts Rosemary’s Baby. To whom does a womb belong—the woman, the Church, or the state?

In the movie’s last scene Rosemary has found her way into the Castevet apartment, where a crib dressed in black organza has pride of place and a christening party is in progress. She carries a kitchen knife and is ready to kill to get her baby back. The room falls silent as she looks into the crib, only to cry, “What have you done to his eyes?” Roman blandly answers: “He has his father’s eyes.” Golden-yellow, with vertical black slits for pupils. Backing away, appalled, Rosemary screams, “No. It can’t be!” She drops the knife and is left to weep while the witches chat. Then the creature cries. The primal pull, irrational, irreducible, draws Rosemary forward. During 25 seconds of quiet brilliance, Farrow pours her gaze into the crib, softness coming over her, a shadow of a smile, acceptance. This is the horror of the movie. And also its complicated power.

31 May, 2018 Laura Jacobs