‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) Holds Up, Despite Polanski – Retro Review

It always upsets me when I see people my age disparaging The Beatles. I grew up on my parents’ music, and I held very narrow and elitist views about what constituted “good” pop for a really long time. I’m not like that anymore — I’ve had a lot more fun in my life since I opened myself up to enjoying all kinds of music from all kinds of artists born at all kinds of times. But it’s never made any sense to me that people I know can fawn over the latest Harry Styles album without recognizing harmonies and melody lines that could have been plucked right from a Paul McCartney tune. How can you love a descendent more than where it comes from?

And then I watched Rosemary’s Baby (1968) for the first time, in 2020, and I was a little embarrassed about the way I’ve talked about any other good horror movie I’ve ever seen. 

I credit Hereditary (2018) with making me a horror fan. I’d never seen anything like it when I went to see it by myself in theaters (I miss movie theaters. I miss movie theaters so much). It terrified me, and it was also a well-acted, well-established story. It turned every conception I’d had about horror films on its head. It was not cheesy; in fact, for something so high-concept, it was so, so real.

It was also, like, the fifth horror movie I’d ever seen in my whole life. I walked around talking about it like I’d just been born-again, asking everyone I’ve ever known if they’d heard the good news about Ari Aster. Horror is good now, I said, without a concept of horror ever having been good before. 

So much of Hereditary is owed to Rosemary’s Baby. So much of every good horror movie I’ve ever seen is owed to Rosemary’s Baby. And I’m not actually embarrassed about the ways I’ve talked about these other movies, because it’s actually really cool to have the context now. Being able to trace the lineage of my favorite movies to earlier movies is a massive credit to that original source material. 

It’s a massive credit to the material, and, if auteur theory is to be believed, the director. I talked about this when I wrote about Terry Gilliam and Time Bandits, but I think there’s a point where you can no longer separate an artist from their art. This was my first Roman Polanski film, and, while my experience watching was overall positive, it was hard to look past all of the pop lore I know about him. 

Rosemary’s Baby is about a woman slowly losing her entire community to a satanic cult. She is brutally raped in her sleep by Satan, and her husband… covers for Satan, and tells her it’s no big deal, and downplays the rape to a marital necrophiliac fantasy (yikes!). No one believes Rosemary when she tells them what’s going on, but we do, because we’ve seen it all happening to her.

It’s difficult to reconcile this somewhat sympathetic framing alongside Polanski’s own brutal rape allegations. It’s difficult to reconcile the ways Rosemary’s Baby plays with baseless ancient Jewish blood libel conspiracy theories (the doctor’s last name had to be Saperstein?) alongside Polanski’s Jewish heritage and Holocaust survivor status. It’s hard to believe a person could make a movie that condemns himself, but Woody Allen does it all the time. I guess there is a history of troubled people working out that trouble through the art they produce.  

I wonder about tongue-in-cheekness in Rosemary’s Baby. I wonder what it would have been like to watch it in 1968, with none of the context of the 50+ years of movies that came after. My friend and I caught on to Guy’s involvement in the cult relatively early on. When we talked about it after, we figured out that it was because we saw Rosemary and Guy’s relationship as antiquated and old fashioned. Rosemary as lonely housewife to Guy’s struggling actor breadwinner in this big, beautiful apartment seemed unrealistic, and therefore fishy. But — Rosemary’s Baby came out in 1968, and takes place in 1966. 1968 is the year they killed MLK and RFK, the year of massive social upheaval, the year before Woodstock. Wouldn’t Rosemary and Guy’s relationship also have seemed antiquated and unrealistic, and therefore fishy, back then?

There’s no way to know how people experienced this movie when it was new, but it is pretty special that it still works 50 years later, with so many successors, and so much pain and awfulness surrounding its director. 

3 Replies to “‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) Holds Up, Despite Polanski – Retro Review

  1. Cassavettes was so unlikeable, he made me wonder how any woman would want him. Throughout the entire film he never said something nice to her. As written, this film would not get past first drafts. How could an adult woman be so easily manipulated.

    1. You’re kidding, right? Adult women are still being manipulated to this day. I’m 65 and saw Rosemary’s Baby when it came out. Their relationship was eye-rolling then, and it still happens. There’s more awareness now, but it hasn’t ended inequality and misogyny, sadly.

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