Motherhood can be a joyous thing; the miracle of birth, a child the result of a bond between two people. Watching the child grow and discover life can be heartwarming and reaffirming. Then again, the idea of a live organism, another person growing inside you, just might be a bit unsettling and disturbing as you watch your body change, and who knows what the child will be like. He/she could turn out to be a bright, upstanding member of the community. Then again, your little precious could turn out be another Al Capone or Jeffrey Dahmer or even worse.
Many films have focused on the dark side of motherhood: Psycho, Mildred Pierce, Mommie Dearest and most recently the current movie Tully. There are plenty of other films with motherhood gone wrong. Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate is one of the best bad mothers. On the other side of the fence are mothers who love too much; they are self-sacrificing and end up with a daughter like Veda in Mildred Pierce.
And then there is Rosemary’s Baby.
Ira Levin’s novel, Rosemary’s Baby, was a major bestseller back in 1967 and became an extraordinarily popular film by Roman Polanski in 1968. Read the book, see the movie, they were interchangeable at dinner conversations everywhere. Like most products that become a phenomenon, timing and luck play an essential role in its success. Levin’s novel struck some a cord with the public that was hungry for something dark. During that same period, the mid- 1960’s, there was the “God is Dead” faction, a theological movement that surfaced in some academic circles and became a national controversy after a cover story in Time magazine.
Low budget horror producer/director William Castle brought the novel to the attention of Robert Evans at Paramount. Castle wanted not only to produce but direct the film. Evans agreed to buy it and keep Castle on but only as a producer. Evans wanted a class production, not a cheap B horror film. Castle was known for his artless low level, though entertaining productions like House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, Macabre, and Homicidal. Evans instead presented the novel’s proofs to Roman Polanski, a director he admired for his work in Knife in the Water and Repulsion. Polanski would write the screenplay sticking very close to the novel.
For the all-important role of mother Rosemary, Polanski, at first, wanted a more full-bodied woman than the elfish Mia Farrow. Jane Fonda and Tuesday Weld were names that came into play. Farrow, at the time, was best known for the TV prime time soap opera, Peyton Place, and her marriage to Frank Sinatra instead got the job. It was a fortunate choice. Farrow’s waif-like little girl innocent look, part of which came naturally, and part the way Polanski dressed her up, contributes enormously. It offsets the dark mood that surrounds Rosemary throughout the film. John Cassavetes was selected for the role of Guy Woodhouse, in love with his wife, but with stronger desires to be a successful actor than either a good husband or father.
Polanski opens the film with a long panning shot of the New York City skyline settling on the foreboding Bramford Apartments, in real New York City life, The Dakota. Like D.W. Griffith pioneered in so many of his early films, Polanski closes the film with a reverse panning shot moving away from the Bramford across the City skyline. The plot is a future mother’s living hell, literally and figuratively. Rosemary’s world quickly turns into a nightmarish downward free fall. After moving into the new apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her unemployed actor husband Guy, the couple set out to start a family and have a baby. The bright sunny atmosphere soon darkens as their elderly new neighbors, the Castevet’s take an interest in the new young neighbors. Suddenly, Guy’s struggling acting career begins to get a break when a rival actor for a part in a play mysteriously goes blind (Tony Curtis, his voice heard only on the phone). Odd noises are heard coming from the Castevet’s next door apartment, and a young pretty tenant Rosemary befriends unexpectedly commits suicide.
Rosemary is impregnated after a hallucinatory nightmarish dream, raped by the devil aboard JFK’s yacht. Was it a dream? Did it really happen? Some weeks later Rosemary, pregnant and under the care of Dr. Saperstein (Ralph Bellamy) a demonic obstetrician who despite the future mother losing weight, having abdominal pain and cravings for raw meat, informs her that there is nothing wrong. It’s all normal. Rosemary’s suspicions grow, somethings wrong, but it is too little too late. She is soon in the throes of a rough labor. When she awakens, the baby is not there. She is told the infant died. Days later she hears a baby crying next door at the Castevet’s. Soon our new mother will be face to face with a coven of devil worshippers praying to a newborn child, her child, the son of Satan. They urge her to come and see the baby who’s crying. Rosemary’s hesitant. However, her motherly instinct is strong, it’s her child, and it wins out as the film ends with Rosemary rocking the cradle of her newborn child.
Rosemary’s Baby can be viewed as just a great horror film, but it can also be read as a mother’s worst nightmare. Betrayed by her husband selling her out for a successful acting career, arranging to have her impregnated by the devil, forcing her to be left in the hands of a demonic doctor and some very devilish neighbors. The fear of rape, an unwanted pregnancy, and the fear of an abnormal deformed childbirth are also filtered into the storyline. Rosemary becomes isolated, trapped with no family or friends to confide in or help her.
The supporting cast all add to the evil atmosphere: Ralph Bellamy is perfectly devilish at Dr. Saperstein, and Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as the next door neighbors who look as sweet and eccentric as they do scary. Elisha Cook Jr. has a small part, as does former Playboy Playmate of the Year (1968), Angela Dorian, who plays Rosemary’s friendly neighbor, Terry Gionoffrio, who soon meets an untimely “suicidal” death. Polanski had an inside joke about Dorian. In one scene, Rosemary tells her she looks like the actress Victoria Vetri. Vetri was Dorian’s real name, one that she would eventually take back.
Rosemary’s Baby was greeted with mostly rave reviews from critics, and a large public willing to wait in long lines at theaters to see the newborn child. “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby” became a common chant. The film was part of the New Hollywood that began to emerge in 1967 with The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. The youth audience had discovered the film. Rosemary’s Baby became another notch on the belt that killed the production code with its nudity and triumph of evil over goodness.
The film also ignited the popularity of horror films with satanic and/or occult themes. It is questionable as to whether films like The Exorcist, The Omen, Don’t Look Now, The Other and many other lesser rip-offs would have made it to the screen if not for the monumental success of Ira Levin’s book and the Polanski film.
Since the film was made, a real-life incident, the 1980 shooting death of John Lennon in front of The Dakota subconsciously has added another level of eerie darkness to the film.