Released on June 12th 1968, Roman Polanski’s horror masterpiece celebrates its 50th anniversary. Today, Rosemary’s Baby still stands as one of the most influential films of all time, horror or otherwise. With an incredibly strong cast and based on the bestselling novel by Ira Levin, Roman Polanski created an incredible film that is still regarded as one of the greats. The film dealt with themes revolutionary for the time; witchcraft, satanism, a mother’s love, and paranoia. It all started with Rosemary’s Baby.
The Story of Rosemary
Rosemary’s Baby opens in 1965 with the young couple of Rosemary and her actor husband Guy Woodhouse looking for a new apartment. They decide on The Bramford; a massive gothic, dark apartment building in Manhattan associated with witches and murder in its past. But those are just all stories right? Nothing to be worried about.
While living at the Bramford, Guy and Rosemary become close with their neighbors the Castevets. Guy gets close to them in particular. As his career starts taking off he decides it is time for him and Rosemary to start a family. In one of the most shocking scenes in horror history, Rosemary finds herself being raped by the Devil while in a weird drug-induced dream-like state. We find out that the Castevets are not what they seem, and Guy has joined their witch coven. The coven’s goal is to bring the son of Satan into the world, and at the end of the day, it’s up to Rosemary to decide if she wants to be his mother or not.
A Celebrated Film
When Rosemary’s Baby opened in theaters critics praised the film. In particular, the performances of Mia Farrow as Rosemary and Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet gained much praise. Roger Ebert even said he considered their performances two of the finest by actresses that year. Additionally, critics applauded Roman Polanski in his American directorial debut. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars stating that “The best thing that can be said about the film, I think, is that it works. Polanski has taken a most difficult situation and made it believable, right up to the end. In this sense, he even outdoes Hitchcock.”
After the reviews came the awards. Mia Farrow was nominated for Best Actress at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. Ruth Gordon won the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The film was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards, as well as Best Screenplay and Best Original Score at the Golden Globes.
A Faithful Adaptation
One of the real strengths of Polanski’s film is that it remained so faithful to the source material. Polanski was extremely meticulous about making sure the film telling the same story as the book. He even consulted Ira Levin, the novel’s author, on details such as the type and color of dress Rosemary was wearing in a scene. He even asked Levin what particular issue of The New Yorker was the one in which Guy found the shirt he mentions. It maybe one line of dialogue in an over two hour film, but each line was important to Polanski. The Criterion Collection provides great insight into Ira Levin’s thoughts on the film in the essay “‘Stuck with Satan’: Ira Levin on the Origins of Rosemary’s Baby”. It’s a great read and really shows Levin’s gratitude for the faithfulness of the film. As Levin describes:
It was not only Polanski’s first Hollywood film but also the first one he made based on someone else’s material; I’m not sure he realized he had the right to make changes. His understated directorial style perfectly complemented the style of the book, and the casting couldn’t have been better.
The end result was of course, one of the most faithful film adaptations of all time.
Rosemary’s Baby, both the novel and film, really are a product of their time. Coming out of the 1960s, two topics were under heavy discussion: God and Feminism. And boy does this story play off both. The 1950s and 1960s saw the sexual revolution, the spread of communism, an increase in science and exploration, and with that, an increase in atheism.
In 1966, Time Magazine published their controversial issue “Is God Dead?”, which we see Rosemary pick up in Dr. Sapirstein’s office. The growing lack of faith in America is seen in Rosemary who herself says she was raised a Catholic but now she doesn’t know. This, paired with the Pope’s impending visit to New York City in 1966, and Roman Castevet’s comments on the Pope fit so well with what was going on at the time. The story reflects the feelings of the time, but the religious themes of Rosemary’s Baby are still relevant today.
The other big central theme of Rosemary’s Baby is femininity, motherhood, and feminism. From Rosemary’s rebellious Vidal Sassoon pixie cut, which her husband hates, to her choice on how the care of her unborn child should be handled, it all centers on being a woman in 1960. Rosemary is a fighter. She solves the mystery herself, she is observant, rebellious, and strong willed. Much like Levin’s other work, The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby focuses on how men control women and the horror in it.
In both novel’s there is indeed real horror, women replaced by perfect robot versions of themselves in The Stepford Wives, and in Rosemary’s Baby rape and being impregnated with the son of Satan by a coven of witches. These things are true fictional horror, but the groundwork for these stories is the misogenistic oppression of women. In a way, some may argue that Levin’s works are even more socially relevant today.
I think the real staying power of Rosemary’s Baby is that it isn’t really dated. Many horror films are clearly films of their time. The effects, the themes, the acting, you can just say that is such an 80s film or a 90s film. But Rosemary’s Baby isn’t really like that. The film provides a sort of slow paranoid horror with moments of shock that could only have been brought to the screen like that by Roman Polanski. He was so meticulous, and the casting was so great that the film becomes believable in a way. And for that reason, it is definitely one of the greats.