Ideas

Can we save Rosemary's Baby?

It's a horror classic from the 1960s that still unnerves us. It’s influenced generations of filmmakers. It's part of the exclusive Criterion Collection of world cinema. And it turns 50 this year. But director Roman Polanski is a convicted rapist. Film experts and cultural historians explore good and evil in Rosemary's Baby, discover eerie parallels between 1968 and 2018, and debate the movie's surprising treatment of women, all to answer the question: can we save Rosemary’s Baby?
Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby", 1968. (Paul Slade/Paris Match via Getty Images)

It's a horror classic from the 1960s that still unnerves us. It's influenced generations of filmmakers. It's part of the exclusive Criterion Collection of world cinema. And it turns 50 this year. But director Roman Polanski is a convicted rapist. Film experts and cultural historians explore good and evil in Rosemary's Baby, discover eerie parallels between 1968 and 2018, and debate the movie's surprising treatment of women, all to answer the question: can we save Rosemary's Baby?

**This episode originally aired March 15, 2018.

Pop culture anniversaries are a chance to celebrate memorable work, and introduce it to a new generation. But with one upcoming movie birthday, things are more complicated. 

This June marked a half-century since the release of Rosemary's Baby. A tense psychological thriller centred on a pregnant young woman (Mia Farrow) in a web of satanic conspiracy, it broke artful new ground for horror films in 1968 – a genre which previously had little respect from critics. It's influenced our own generation's filmmakers, including Jordan Peele, who cited it as an inspiration for his Oscar-winning horror movie, Get Out.  

Still, Rosemary's Baby has a troubled legacy because of its director. Polish-French filmmaker Roman Polanski — now 84, working and living in Paris — has been lauded as a cinematic auteur for much of his long career, despite a criminal conviction for drugging and raping a 13 year-old in 1977. He fled California that year before sentencing, and is still considered a fugitive. Four more allegations of assaults on girls and young women have surfaced since 2010. These are not proven, and are contested by Polanski's lawyers. But in this era of Hollywood's reckoning with sexual assault and harassment, Polanski is a figure whose films have been tainted as never before.

Mia Farrow in the graveyard during the filming of "Rosemary's Baby". (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

So is it possible to celebrate Rosemary's Baby this year?  Most film observers are of two minds. Programmer Kiva Reardon says she would not want the film screened outside a classroom. Slate's Aisha Harris feels that the movie is worth seeing, but that mention must be made of Roman Polanski's history. She also points to the collective nature of moviemaking as a way to distribute the ownership of the project beyond its director. 

Academic Virginia Wright Wexman points to the fact that Polanski was given the film as his first Hollywood assignment, and essentially made a shooting script straight from the sharp, satirical novel by Ira Levin. Producer Robert Evans was the person who assembled a highly sophisticated production team including cinematographer William Fraker and set designer Richard Sylbert. And then there's the cast. As writer Jason Zinoman argues: "Who's to say this is not a Mia Farrow movie? Rosemary's Baby is central to the career of Mia Farrow." He says that for him Rosemary's Baby should not be excised from our cultural memory.

A film also belongs to its audience, who have a major role to play in finding meaning. There  are many interpretations of what we see on the screen in Rosemary's Baby. Historian W. Scott Poole calls it a "feminist nightmare." Kiva Reardon sees Rosemary's patronizing treatment by doctors, as well as her rape and exploitation orchestrated by her husband (played by John Cassavetes) as mirroring the ways that women's bodies were viewed, feared, and controlled in the 1960s, perhaps even today. Rosemary's maternal ambivalence — though larger than life in the film — is akin to a taboo that women grapple with today, Reardon says.

"Strange as this may seem, it's more comforting to think that there's an all powerful prince of darkness behind such actions. It seems odd that to imagine a prince of darkness would be comforting, but maybe it is more comforting than to imagine a human being and an ideology being responsible for these sorts of actions.- Scott Poole

Satan in America author Scott Poole has studied the devil as a metaphor in U.S. history, and uses Rosemary's Baby in the classroom to talk about the 1960s, and particularly 1968, a year of turmoil that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and young people rising up and rioting over the American government's lying about American success in the Vietnam war. But Poole thinks that Satan has been present since the colonial days of American history — a convenient foil for a society that does not want to admit to its man-made evils.

It's indisputable that Rosemary's Baby is a rich and fascinating film. Yet few feel unconflicted about the issues it presents this anniversary year around art and artist. And with the gender reckoning happening in many entertainment industries, it may just foreshadow the way we grapple with many more works — from music to movies — in times ahead.

Guests in this episode:

  • Aisha Harris is a culture writer and editor for Slate, and hosts the Represent podcast
  • Jason Zinoman is a culture writer for the New York Times, and is the author of books including Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror (Penguin).
  • Virginia Wright Wexman is an author and professor emerita of English and Art at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  
  • W. Scott Poole is a Professor of History at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. He is also a journalist, and author of the books Satan in America, Monsters in America, and the forthcoming Wasteland: The Great War and the Roots of Horror (Counterpoint Press).
  • Kiva Reardon is a writer, programmer, and founding editor of cléo, a journal of film and feminism. 


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**This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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