Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
Thanks to his 2009 arrest and the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Roman Polanski’s 35-year-old crime remains a hot-button topic. Sides are not only divided on his actions – those who want him convicted battling those who think it’s not “rape rape” – but on his art, too. Time has yet to dull the memory of his actions, leading many to question whether his crime should keep us from patronizing his films. It’s a fair question, naturally, but one that is also at odds with an exploration of the blur between reality and fiction, especially with his first Oscar-winning film and horror classic, Rosemary’s Baby.
The horror isn’t so much about the menace of darkness, no matter what the poster’s carriage silhouette and hazy view of Mia Farrow’s supine face suggest. The horror of Polanski’s American debut rests in the intersection of absurdity and reality – the ways in which, ironically, a fictional coven of powerful satanist witches can be both thematically and directly linked to real life. There is no comfortable barrier between fiction and reality, allowing no fictional safeguard for the viewer. The film is in a limbo of past and present messes, a chaotic world that’s not only prescient about the challenges facing today’s women, but also about the inner workings and questions steeped in the Polanski controversy and decades-old conspiracy theories.
Patriarchal Control of the Female Body
Rosemary is the male puppet whose bright innocence cannot ward off the darkness that seeks to manipulate her. She enters the frame clad head to toe in white, quickly setting out to do the same to her apartment, her obsession with colorless surroundings a reflection of her easily manipulated psyche as much as it is a symbol of her purity and innocence. She dutifully follows trends and her husband’s guidance, so much so that she falls to her knees, hypnotized, if he appears on the television screen.
Her womanhood is in the control of men, her body the vessel for a distinctly male agenda. Rosemary’s desire for children is granted only when her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) has privately parleyed with neighbor Roman (Sidney Blackmer). His power is so comprehensive that Rosemary actually allows him to be in control of her body. At first, it’s minor; he explains which days she’s fertile and seems to manage her menstrual cycle. When it comes time to conceive, however, his control grows to extreme proportions. Rosemary wakes up with scratches and he jovially apologies for having sharp nails, equating their non-consensual sex with necrophilia he partook in to not miss “baby night.” Of course, his actual manipulation of her body wasn’t the rape, but in handing over control of her form for his own personal gain. He sacrificed his innocent wife to Satan to become a star.
The nonchalance Guy reveals as he manipulates Rosemary bears an eerie resemblance to today’s struggle over control of the female body. The film came in the ‘60s, as second-wave feminism descended on the social landscape, a mere five years before Roe vs. Wade. Today, Rosemary’s Baby plays like the horrific parallel of the current climate, the cautionary tale of what could happen to a woman in men’s hands, perfectly outlining the absurdity and danger of a woman completely controlled by a man. This is repeated in the dynamic of the old world versus the young. Though a woman, Rosemary is infantilized, her mature struggles trapped within an increasingly adolescent visage as the old, mature neighbors next door orbit around her.
This isn’t coincidental. Rosemary’s Baby is quite methodical on its removal of female agency. Rosemary’s taught by her evil obstetrician: “Don’t read books. Don’t listen to your friends either. No two pregnancies are ever alike.” There is just the vaguest hint of truth, of “doctor knows best” advice, to soften the clear fact that Rosemary is being isolated from guidance, support and women. When she finally sees her female friends, who are alarmed at her lost weight and sickly pallor, she begins to realize that something’s wrong, quickly eliciting Guy’s vitriolic rant about “those bitches.” Female friendship is seen as the enemy, save for the old-world, loyal followers eager to act out man’s will.
The patriarchy is an oppressive force in Rosemary’s life, in large and offhand moments. When Guy takes Rosemary’s book of witchcraft and hides it out of reach, he places it upon a copy of the clearly displayed spine: “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” When Rosemary grasps at outside help, she’s quickly outed to the men she’s blatantly scared of as they threaten to institutionalize her. This power even reaches beyond physicality into her psyche. Her motherly instincts are used to manipulate her into caring for her evil son.
Unlike many scary films where the horror is in some monstrous, evil form, the monstrous players are out-eviled by the grotesque nature of man. The fact that the men in her life are devil worshippers is overshadowed by the evil of their dominance. Her isolation speaks louder than any spells or wrongdoings. Her helplessness is deafening, and the ramifications of her acquiescence are scary.
Roman, Rosemary and Reality
This reading, of course, is also problematic because it is filtered through Roman Polanski. In From Reverence to Rape, Molly Haskell asks: “To what extent, if any, does Polanski ‘expose’ (that is, criticize) the plight of woman as victim and to what extent capitalize, in fetishistic fashion, on the eroticism of her passivity?” She concludes: “In Polanski’s tortured, paranoid universe, the woman, simply by being susceptible of ‘impregnation’ by something outside her, is a potential carrier of evil. His blonde heroines all become instruments of the devil and fulfill his fears of evil, just as the lobotomized actresses he chooses to play them fulfill his ideas of women. Polanski is a perfect example of the artist whose vision of women is not formed according to what he sees, but conversely, whose women are chosen as they conform to his preconceptions.”
Polanski is the filter rather than the creator of this story – the film is a faithful adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel – but it’s impossible, especially in this case, to separate the creator and his piece of art. The web with which Rosemary’s Baby links and plays with reality stretches at the bounds of coincidence. On one level, there is the troubled man and his own dangerous impulses. Rosemary’s Baby is practically a non-satanic blueprint of the “unlawful sex” and victimization in 1977. On the next level, the film quite closely mirrored the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, just one year later.
Such a short time after the film, Charles Manson sent his cult followers to a home where they killed the very pregnant Tate – who Polanski had wanted to play Rosemary. A version of his art had become reality, a real-life curse (of sorts) for taking the job, and a real-life benefit since the film brought him his first international and Academy acclaim. The intricacies unravel from there, making the Lincoln/Kennedy coincidence seem simple. The Manson Murders were instigated by the cult leader’s “Helter Skelter,” a term deriving from the famous Beatles song. Avoiding many of The Beatles/satanism/Polanski conspiracies, John Lennon lived and died at the Dakota, which served as Rosemary’s apartment building. Lennon also thinks he got stoned at “Doris Day’s house,” and her son Terry Melcher was the resident of 10050 Cielo Drive before Tate and Polanski (and is said to be the reason the house was targeted). To bring it full circle, Farrow flew to New Delhi after the film, met the Beatles, where songs for the White Album were written, which became one of Manson’s obsessions.
Conspiracies and coincidences aside, even Farrow’s life played out like a less dire version of Rosemary’s. The actress was barely 20 when she married Frank Sinatra, a marriage where old and new worlds collided. He was against her involvement in the film, and rather than accept marital disagreement, he punished her, famously sending divorce papers to the film set.
Rosemary’s Baby Today
Some links are tenuous, and others are surprising, but all lead to this strange and messy world where the fear of a fictional, satanic cult is made tangible by the many real-world connections and reflections that spiral out of it. At every turn, there is a link, a nervous system connecting multiple worlds to one solitary film. It isn’t just a work of art that holds up beautifully almost 45 years later; Rosemary’s Baby is a living entity that makes the darkness real and dangerous – a film relevant for both its insight and influence.