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The Renewed Relevance of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

A horror classic calls to mind current troubling trends.
October 31, 2022
The Renewed Relevance of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’
(Photo credit: MovieStillsDB)

Even though Rosemary’s Baby premiered in 1968, Roman Polanski’s masterpiece is frighteningly relevant today following the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade this year. Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow)’s fate—like many pregnant women then, before, and presently—is at the mercy of those who see her womb solely as a vessel for their own ambitions. And as much as she fights for her bodily autonomy, she is ultimately powerless against the dark forces that want to control her and the baby inside her.

The first time we see Rosemary, she and her actor husband are meeting a real estate agent outside “The Bramford,” an imposing gothic building on Central park West in New York City. She wears a pristine white dress and is full of guileless, childlike wonder about the vast, tenebrous apartment. She is enraptured by the myriad improvements she would make, like a little girl peering into a store window at a beautiful dollhouse, despite the fact that the woman who previously owned the apartment died suddenly under highly suspicious circumstances.

Her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), is decidedly less effusive. In contrast to Rosemary’s openness and innocence, Polanski establishes who Guy is immediately: cynical, selfish, and aggrieved. In other words, a typical actor. When the real estate agent asks Guy what he might have seen him in, Guy’s response makes clear that although he’s doing TV and commercials he’s not where he wants to be in his career; these jobs, in his opinion, are far beneath him.

Cassevetes and Polanski have no interest in making Guy likable. Guy is charming, but he’s also crude and egotistical, cracking inappropriate jokes and slapping Rosemary on the ass when the real estate agent isn’t looking. He dominates her, and there is little tenderness between them. He treats her as if she’s a pretty thing he owns—a pampered and silly kid. Rosemary laughs off and plays into his treatment of her. She wears babydoll dresses with Peter Pan collars and even walks with the gait of a child. She is perceptive, capable, and organized, but she subsumes herself into Guy’s moods and needs, sublimating her own.

When Guy walks through the door, dejected and sulky because he lost a lead theater role to another actor, Rosemary runs into the kitchen to make him a sandwich and pour him a beer. She tells him their elderly neighbors, the Castevets —whose young houseguest, Terry, jumped out their window and killed herself directly outside the Bramford two days earlier—invited them to dinner that night and she accepted because they’re grieving. Guy sulks but eventually agrees to accompany her.

Guy’s mood improves significantly when dinner conversation turns to him and his career. Over a meal Rosemary can barely eat, Roman compliments Guy’s acting: “You have a most interesting inner quality, Guy. It should take you a long way indeed, provided of course that you get those initial breaks.” Guy is flattered and energized by Roman’s praise. Other than pointedly insulting the Pope and her religion, Guy, Roman, and Minnie leave Rosemary out of the conversation entirely. The only thing Minnie seems to care about is how many kids she wants to have.

The next day, Guy is offered the dream job he lost out on—the original actor who booked it has suddenly gone blind. Later, Rosemary tells her friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) that Guy has been inundated with other job offers after the play’s run. She makes excuses for his inattention and self-absorption but is clearly upset and lonely.

When she returns home, her apartment is filled with red roses. Guy apologizes profusely for his self-absorption and then abruptly says, “Let’s have a baby. Alright?” He’s even circled the dates to try on a calendar. Rosemary is overjoyed at his sudden attention. In the background, we hear the slow drip, drip, drip of a leaky kitchen faucet.

The newlyweds settle in for a romantic first night of baby-making. “Here goes nothing!” Guy declares. Rosemary is wearing a long, blood-red pantsuit as they sit by a fire. Minnie rings their doorbell but to Rosemary’s great relief Guy intercepts her and she doesn’t interrupt their evening. He comes back into the living room with chocolate mousse Minnie has prepared for them. Rosemary dislikes its chalky undertaste. Guy orders her to finish it. Rosemary is baffled by Guy’s anger but she gives in and has a few more bites.

Minutes later, she feels violently dizzy. She falls over and Guy carries her into the bedroom.

Rosemary has a nightmare. She is floating on a mattress in the ocean. Then she’s on a yacht, a cocktail party in progress but the other people on the boat aren’t in focus. The captain is charting a mysterious course. The captain turns into Hutch, looking at Rosemary with concern and sadness. He’s kicked off the boat with his maps and charts, warning of a typhoon. Guy strips Rosemary of her clothes, leaving her naked. She is below deck on a bare mattress. Covered in scaffolding is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A ram’s skull replaces her vision of The Hand of God. Her elderly neighbors and Guy, who are also naked, gather round the bed in shadows. Guy insists that Rosemary is conscious and Minnie, in a deeper and sterner voice than we’ve previously heard, admonishes Guy that the chocolate mousse has rendered Rosemary “practically dead.” They chant, they mark Rosemary’s stomach with lines and numbers in blood and we see a black talon run its long, pointed fingers down her belly. Rosemary sees its red, burning eyes staring into hers. She screams, “This is no dream! This is really happening!”

A month later, Rosemary is pregnant.

Roman Polanski, despite his extremely complicated relationship with women in his personal life, advocates for women in Rosemary’s Baby. Every man in Rosemary’s orbit, save the unfortunate Hutch, betrays her. “Guy” seems to be deliberately a generic name representing all men. It may be 2022, but we might as well be in 1968. The male authority figures use her and her body as a pawn. Her uterus is not her own, it is merely a receptacle. When Rosemary worries the intense pains she’s having might be an ectopic pregnancy, Dr. Sapperstein admonishes her: “‘Ectopic?’ I thought I told you not to read books, Rosemary.” Everyone dismisses her first-trimester agony. They tell her it’s perfectly normal to feel and look like you’re dying.

The only man in her life who cares about her—the avuncular Hutch—is disposed of efficiently by Guy and Roman as soon as they realize he is undermining their dark plans for Rosemary.

Even Dr. Hill, the doctor Rosemary’s friend suggested, fails her in the end, writing off her desperation to save herself and her baby as prepartum hysteria and delivering her back into the clutches of the coven. In fact, both the good and evil doctors are brusque and condescending. As if women’s concerns are an annoyance, rather than fundamental to their job.

And most egregiously, Guy, the man who should love and care about Rosemary the most, literally sells her body and his soul to the Devil for a job. Yes, Minnie and Roman Castavet are the conduits to Satan, but without Guy’s enthusiastic help their Satanic plot would never come to fruition. Minnie can smell vulnerability, and she sees Rosemary’s trusting nature as pliable and Guy’s fragile ego as his fatal flaw: They are the perfect marks. In a sublime indictment of Hollywood, Guy’s initial dream of living at The Bramford so he can be walking distance to the theater transforms at the end of the movie into booking a TV or film job and moving to a mansion in Beverly Hills. Honestly, I know some actors who would make the same deal with the Devil if given the choice.

Having been pregnant twice, I can tell you that it is a bizarre experience. I was not carrying Satan’s spawn—although with my now teenage son, it sometimes feels that way—and I was overjoyed both times. But my body was not my own. I was exhausted, my body stretched to seemingly impossible limits, I was literally weighted down with the enormous responsibility. Everything I did had the potential to harm my babies. Don’t eat soft cheese! No deli meat! Eat fish to grow the baby’s brain, but not too much fish or you’ll poison the baby! Do exercises but too much exercise or you’ll go into premature labor! Don’t drink anything or your baby might have fetal alcohol syndrome!

As an actor, being pregnant meant I was unemployable, as if I had a disability. It was impossible to separate myself as a person from my identity as a pregnant woman. It was like my pre-pregnant self was invisible. Strangers all of a sudden had the right to comment on my growing belly and to touch it without asking permission. My in-laws treated me with more reverence once they knew I had male babies who would carry on their family name. I felt guilty about having any doubts about my future duties and how I would be expected to behave once the baby was outside of my body. Even when I went to an Animal Collective concert, some attendees looked at me like I was a buzzkill, a sober reminder of maturity and duty they were trying to stave off for a few hours. I was still me, but in other people’s eyes, I had disappeared into my role as a symbol.

And I had the benefit of advanced medical technology. Imagine being pregnant in 1968 before amniocentesis, before ultrasound, before sonogram photos! Even with those advantages, carrying a baby was vaguely ominous. How did I know I was going to love this stranger inside me? The one who was waking me up at night, making me nauseous, kicking me and rolling around my belly like a ghostly anaconda. The idea of this creature emerging from my body, then people demanding, “Here is a complete stranger. You are now expected to love it more than anything in the world and utterly devote yourself to it for the rest of your life,” was overwhelming.

And even more importantly, imagine not having the choice of whether you wanted/were able to have this baby? The overturning of Roe v. Wade has grabbed one of the most important decisions out of the hands of women and put it into the hands of politicians, usually male. Rosemary’s peril in 1968 is now many of ours. We viscerally feel her terror and legitimate paranoia that dark forces are out to get her. Throughout Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary is in suffocating locations. We rarely see her outside. The Castevet’s apartment and both doctors’ offices are windowless. The Bramford itself (except for Rosemary’s apartment that she renovated herself in cheerful yellows and whites) is claustrophobic. Having spent some time in the real “Bramford” (the Dakota) as a child, I can tell you that its foreboding depiction is accurate. Even when Rosemary attempts to run away from the coven, she encases herself in a telephone booth while an imposing figure of a man who may or may not be malevolent waits for her outside.

Rosemary’s baby is a graphic, symbolic depiction of what women again face regarding their unwanted or dangerous pregnancies: Her baby is the product of rape, supernatural though it may be, and she is reduced to a symbol, a dark and twisted Madonna. The life of the mother is devalued to the point of inconsequence. As is the baby once it comes out of her womb. We are just a token to the people who want to control our bodies and make us pawns in their political and societal plans. It doesn’t matter if we can afford to raise a kid properly, or if our life is in peril. In fact, that is the point: to keep us disenfranchised, to make us powerless. Just like Rosemary. The disembodied lullaby Rosemary sings throughout the movie is ominous, mournful and discordant, and actually ushers in a terrifying nightmare.

Zandy Hartig

Zandy Hartig is an actor, writer and painter. She lives in a loud but happy house in Los Angeles with her two sons, two dogs, and a rabbit.