Like all the best movie posters, the one for 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby doesn’t depict a scene from the film. We see the silhouette of a pram on harsh, rocky terrain, set against a sickly green background. Mia Farrow’s upturned face looms behind it, as though the titular mom were lying supine: mindscape as landscape, her nose obliquely rhyming with the Paramount logo in the corner. “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby,” commands the tagline. But prayer won’t help the tot in question. In the most literal reading of the film, he’s been a lost cause since conception—the product of Rosemary’s rape by “someone inhuman,” namely, the devil.
Might the slogan also reflect a wish for the success of the audacious enterprise itself? The film announced the American arrival, from Kraków by way of Paris and London, of director Roman Polanski, then thirty-four years old. His chilling way with suspense had been on display in European films like Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965); his most recent picture, The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), was a lavish feast of gags and scares. New to the U.S., he nevertheless brought to Rosemary’s Baby a superb ear for dialogue. With a fearless Farrow (also breaking out, stepping from the soap opera Peyton Place into the role of a career), he located the real dread at the heart of its lunatic premise: that of a woman trapped within a prescribed role. A box-office smash in tune with both the domestic vernacular and the darker elements of the counterculture—occultist Aleister Crowley was on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the year before—it paved the way for other satanically tinged blockbusters, in particular The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). (One urban legend, falsely memorialized in several books and online, insists that Church of Satan bigwig Anton LaVey not only served as “technical consultant” on Rosemary’s Baby but donned the hairy devil suit for the rape scene as well.) But Polanski’s carefully orchestrated ambiguities make it an effective psychological thriller beyond—or despite—its inexorable demon-spawn plot.
The brash film was also one of the first projects to be developed by Robert Evans as the new vice president in charge of production at Paramount Pictures. Evans had already had a colorful career. Born in New York in 1930, he was working for his brother’s women’s-wear company (Evan Picone) when he was discovered poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel by actress Norma Shearer (and later again, at a New York club, by Darryl Zanuck), and enjoyed a brief career as a leading man. Realistic about his limits as a thespian, however, Evans shifted to producing, albeit the hard way: When he took on the Paramount job, he says in the documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture (based on his autobiography), the studio was in ninth place (out of nine) among Hollywood studios. He had early hits with film adaptations of two Neil Simon plays (Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple); still, Evans describes himself as sifting through scripts, “looking for the unexpected . . . something that sounded new and what we were going to be about.” Then he found Ira Levin’s yet-to-be-published novel, via the horror producer-director William Castle, who had optioned it. (Hitchcock had passed on the option.)
Rosemary’s Baby would change Paramount’s direction, and was an opening salvo of the New Hollywood. This was a market-driven, creatively fecund reaction to changing demographics as well as the more daring cinema emerging from Europe—of which Polanski was one of the budding auteurs. He and Evans became Hollywood forces to be reckoned with, Evans going on to develop, among other seminal films of the late sixties and early seventies, True Grit, Love Story, Harold and Maude, The Godfather, and, with Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne, Chinatown (1974).
Paramount’s rebirth, then, was marked by the story of a monstrous birth. Evans had nixed Castle as director, instead pursuing Polanski, whose black-and-white Repulsion had also tracked an alarmingly isolated woman down the rabbit hole of madness. Luring him to Hollywood under the pretense of making Downhill Racer (Polanski was a ski buff), Evans instead gave him the galleys of Levin’s novel. “At first, I thought they’d made a mistake,” Polanski recalled in 1969, “because it seemed like a syrupy Doris Day number, but [I] decided to read a bit more to see how it comes together at the end . . . At four o’clock, I was still lying on my bed, surrounded by pages from the manuscript. I just couldn’t stop.” Polanski signed later that day, presumably after a nap.
It was the first time in his career that he adapted a book instead of writing an original story, and his screenplay would be nominated for an Academy Award. It helped, of course, that the source material came from a master—a writer whom Stephen King has called “the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel.” In his long and varied career, Levin (1929–2007) hit it big with books (A Kiss Before Dying, his 1953 debut, published when he was twenty-three, won the Edgar Award for best first novel) and plays (the long-running Deathtrap, 1978), not to mention the odd lyric for Barbra Streisand (“He Touched Me”). Several of Levin’s other books have served as sources for movies, most iconically The Stepford Wives and The Boys from Brazil, so he knew whereof he spoke when stating that “the film of Rosemary’s Baby is the single most faithful adaptation of a novel ever to come out of Hollywood.” Myriad details from the novel, such as the Time cover bearing the stumper “Is God Dead?” are meticulously reproduced in the film, as are color schemes and “whole chunks” of dialogue. It’s ironic that such a satisfying novel contains hints that a good, faithful film version would render it redundant.
Bookended by aerial shots of Manhattan and a demented, wordless lullaby, the film unfolds as a malevolent fairy tale of New York. (Moral: Don’t get too close to your neighbors—let alone drink their smoothies.) Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, transplants from Omaha and Baltimore, respectively, are a young couple with social and artistic aspirations. Guy (a tightly wound John Cassavetes) is a frustrated actor relegated to small theater roles; his biggest break to date has been a television spot for Yamaha motorcycles. Rosemary is bright where he’s brooding, a blonde pixie mixing elbows-out gawkiness with a posh elocution at once absurd and adorable. She’s the picture-perfect homemaker and every inch the supportive wife. “He’s been in Luther and Nobody Loves an Albatross, and a lot of television plays and commercials,” she tells anyone who inquires. When unit 7E opens up in the legendary Bramford, she convinces Guy to move, despite the building’s disintegrating hallways and the apartment’s unsettling traces of the late former tenant, Mrs. Gardenia.
The Bramford, according to Rosemary’s friend Hutch (Maurice Evans), is a haunted house of sorts, its history filled with gruesome doings. The Woodhouses dismiss his warnings (he is, after all, a writer of boys’ adventure books), but soon enough, a fresh tragedy darkens Black Bramford again. (Though the Bramford’s rooms were staged on the Paramount lot, the exteriors were “played” by the Dakota on Central Park West and Seventy-second Street, the fantastically Gothic 1880s pile that would later become John Lennon’s last home.) The elderly but spry Castevets, Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie (Ruth Gordon) have long occupied the adjoining apartment. One of the great jokes of the film is that the Castevets are almost literally the “neighbors from hell,” though at first Rosemary thinks their main vice is simply extreme nosiness. The seventy-one-year-old Gordon plays Minnie (a misnomer if ever there was one) with maximum New York jabberjawsomeness, a comic delight even as she undermines Rosemary’s sanity.
Polanski enhances the tensions and ironies inherent in Levin’s creation. The movie begins with a lie. Guy and Rosemary visit the Bramford for the first time, and the managing agent (Elisha Cook Jr.) asks Guy if he’s a doctor. “Yes,” he says instinctively, before his wife chimes in with a correction: “He’s an actor.” That moment of doctor/actor confusion is Polanski’s addition, a seemingly trivial exchange that in fact cuts to the heart of this unsettling entertainment. Once Rosemary is ensconced in the Bramford, both doctors and actors will betray her—use her body, destroy her soul.
Guy’s sudden desire to have a child takes Rosemary happily by surprise. But as her painful pregnancy progresses, and Guy’s fortunes rise, she detects the outlines of a Faustian pact involving Guy, the Castevets, and her current, duplicitous obstetrician—“all of them witches.” Guy is “suddenly very hot.” Is he a good actor? We only see his ambition. At one point, having secured a role he initially lost, Guy is seen rehearsing a monologue in the living room, manipulating a pair of crutches. The performance is overblown, even faintly ridiculous. (“If you wanna be stupid, be nonviolent stupid. I’m in love with no one, especially not your fat wife. I’m a hopeless cripple . . .”) But it doesn’t matter. For Guy, the only performance that counts is the one in which he plays a caring husband, a successful actor—the one in which he is not in cahoots with the overbearing Castevets down the hall. He’s an actor, and Rosemary is his most important audience.
Indeed, nearly everybody but Rosemary is acting. Or are they? It’s a perfectly paranoid view of the world: if there are “plots against people” (as Rosemary frantically explains to a seemingly sympathetic doctor), then everyone else is in fact performing, and you are an audience of one. The Woodhouses first encounter the Castevets amid chaos in front of the Bramford. On the sidewalk is the lifeless body of Terry, whom Rosemary has recently met in the laundry room; she was a houseguest of the Castevets’, who treated her like the daughter—or granddaughter—they never had. (“They picked me up off the sidewalk, literally,” she tells Rosemary, alluding to a dissolute past.) The Castevets’ manner of dress is theatrical—Roman in a pink pin-striped suit and red bow tie, Minnie with a fluffy thing on her head, like she’s been dipped in coconut. They are convincingly distraught upon learning that Terry has killed herself: “That’s not possible. That’ s a mistake,” blurts out Minnie in a typical flood of sentences. (Gordon’s force-of-nature line readings are designed to steamroll any objections Rosemary might have.) The Castevets inhabit so expertly their role as the eccentric old couple that, in the coming days, Rosemary doesn’t even register how swiftly they’ve overcome their grief, how quietly they’ve set the trap for her.
Terry is what Rosemary seems doomed to become, the victim of a plot. When they first meet, Rosemary mistakes her for Victoria Vetri, the actress. That Terry is, in fact, played by Vetri (credited by her modeling name, Angela Dorian) makes her a character trapped by performances. It’s a particularly vertiginous departure from the book (where Rosemary pegs Terry as a Piper Laurie look-alike): a character, played by an actress, who denies that she is that actress. It’s a level of acting even Guy Woodhouse couldn’t survive.
In a story teeming with uncanny associations, the most pertinent stems from the odd but literally perfect name of Roman Castevet, every letter of which is crucial. Indeed, Polanski says he later asked Levin whether the choice of first name was perhaps an acknowledgment of a kinship with Repulsion. Levin denied it, but the case for the unconscious is, if not too strong to deny, too curious to ignore. (Levin seems to be pointing not only to the book’s future director but also to its male lead—lining up the two combustible artists in his imagination.)
Polanski’s first choice for Rosemary was Tuesday Weld; several actors, including Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson, were considered for Guy before Polanski suggested Cassavetes. But while Polanski and Farrow grew close on the set, Cassavetes, whose own film Faces would come out the same year as Rosemary’s Baby, tangled repeatedly with the director. Farrow recounts in her 1997 autobiography that as the climactic sequence in the Castevets’ apartment was being prepared, “John became openly critical of Roman, who yelled, ‘John, shut up!’ and they moved toward each other,” the threat of physical violence in the air. Gordon’s “consummate professionalism” put a stop to it, but the ill will lingered long after the film was released. Polanski would later dismiss Cassavetes’ work as a director and even his complex performance, full of fidgets like a poker player’s tells: “He knows how to play himself best.” Cassavetes repaid the compliment: “You can’t dispute the fact that he’s an artist, but yet you have to say Rosemary’s Baby is not art.”
Such overt antagonism makes for good press, but it also masks a truth at the core of the film. The tension gives it purpose and power. At the start of the movie, when the Bramford’s agent reflexively assures Guy that TV is where the money is, he responds with sarcasm: “And the artistic thrills, too!” Yet Rosemary’s Baby is the best possible artistic thriller, a landmark horror film that resonates because the jolts are tied to human experience. It’s alive (to quote Rosemary, quoting Frankenstein)—an indelible portrait of the domestic female in extremis, a victim of society, of authority, of her spouse, of her body itself. (As I write this in summer 2012, Us Weekly quotes an anonymous source close to a high-caliber celebrity divorce: “Every move she made and everything she did was controlled . . . She felt like she was in Rosemary’s Baby.”) We’re treated to a wild ride through the realm of paranoia—a downhill race, as it were, teeming with funky herbs, spine-tingling anagrams, and naked old people. Levin ultimately shows us Rosemary’s baby (“A tail! The buds of his horns!”), in a crib decked in black taffeta, the money shot we’ve been heading for all along.
In his most perverse decision, Polanski never lets us see the demonic newborn, yet otherwise locks us into the same endgame, with Rosemary in the heart of the coven that rationally can’t exist. The effect is profoundly unnerving. “What have you done to its eyes?” Rosemary screams upon seeing her child. But it’s her eyes that have been changed, somewhere along the way—hers and ours.
Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days (2008) and the literary editor at Amazon Publishing. His writing on film has appeared in Cinema Scope, The Believer, Moving Image Source, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. He lives in New York.