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Rosemary’s Baby and the Manson Family Murders
In 1969 Roman Polanski had finally become a success. After a youth devastated by the Holocaust, the loss of his parents, and a mugging that left him on the brink of death, the Polish-born director had moved to Hollywood. He was about to have his first child with his movie-star wife, Sharon Tate; and he had just released the blockbuster film Rosemary’s Baby.
The event that made Roman Polanski famous was a tragedy that shocked the nation. On August 9, 1969, followers of Charles Manson murdered Polanski’s wife and her eight-month-old unborn child along with four close family friends.
Rosemary’s Baby, which recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, stars Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, and Ruth Gorden, who, won an Oscar for her role as the eccentric elderly neighborhood. Charles Grodin made his screen debut as the young obstetrician Dr. Hill. The movie follows Rosemary, a wealthy newlywed, whose life slowly unravels as she discovers she is the focus of a vicious cult of Devil-worshippers.
Although Rosemary’s Baby was released a year before the Manson Family murders occurred, the two events are incredibly similar. Both the movie and the murders happen in the world of show business—Sharon Tate was an actress, Rosemary’s husband is an actor. Both revolve around a beautiful young pregnant woman. Both feature the Devil (the Devil impregnates Rosemary; the Devil was one of Charles Manson’s aliases). Both involve a powerful cult that murders with apparent impunity.
One of the reasons the Manson Family murders shocked the world was the Family’s ability to perform atrocities with no reservations. The acted without hesitation, doubt, or remorse. In Rosemary’s Baby, young Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is at the opposite end of the spectrum, conspicuously unable to act. Rosemary is consumed with so much paralyzing self-doubt and hesitation the viewer is reminded of Hamlet. Unlike Hamlet, Rosemary’s doubt is not sympathetic or noble—or, for that matter, interesting. For the first half an hour Rosemary seems weak. For the second half an hour she appears spineless. Eventually Rosemary’s inaction in the face of overwhelming evidence becomes so acute that she actually stops being a believable character: no one could be this much of a moron.
Here are a few examples. Early in the movie, Rosemary’s husband rapes her while she is passed out drunk. She wakes with scratch marks on her back and no recollection of the previous night’s events.
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Rosemary’s best friend gives her a book as a dying gift. More than a precious souvenir, the book is also a text on witchcraft that will unlock the secrets of the cult that wants Rosemary’s baby. Rosemary’s husband throws the book away. His explanation: “I wasn’t thinking.” Her response again was nothing.
Rosemary is immobilized by uterine cramps for months during her pregnancy. She loses weight and she looks awful. Often she is in so much pain that she can’t get out of bed. Her obstetricians’ advice is to ignore the pain. Rosemary’s friends are horrified and tell her, her obstetricians a “quack”, and she should get a new doctor. Viewers no doubt agree. Rosemary wants to go to a new obstetrician, but her husband forbids it—unbeknownst to Rosemary (but painfully obvious to the audience), both her husband and her obstetrician are members of the Satanic cult. What does Rosemary do? Nothing again.
Towards the movie’s end Rosemary belatedly realizes that her husband has made a deal with the Devil. Finally the times has come for her to act. Unfortunately, all Rosemary can manage to do is move from one dominant male to another. It becomes obvious early in Rosemary’s Baby that Polanski means to do more than to tell a story—he means to teach a lesson. Polanski comes from the school of European surrealism. Rosemary’s Baby is meant, as it seems, as a parable for—and a parody of—Western society in the late twentieth century. The movie details modern alienation, the breakdown and sacrifice of sacred truths like love and family in the face of overwhelming greed and personal ambition, and the ensuing insurmountable paralysis.
Rosemary’s Baby fails in the most basic tenant of the agreement between filmmaker and audience. Early in the film Rosemary stops being a sympathetic character. That’s fine because many great movies do not have sympathetic characters. Rosemary stops being a believable character. This woman has the child of Satan growing inside of her. She’s in exquisite pain, her husband rapes her, her friends are dropping like flies, and her neighbors are Satanic witches who perform rituals at night and feed her poison on daily basis. Rosemary would have to be a grade-A moron no to know what’s going on. Within the first half an hour she realizes that they are all witches.
At any point in the movie all she has to do is step into the street, hail a cab, and say, “Emergency room, please.” Any ER doctor would on the most cursory examination immediately admit her, plus probably send the police to arrest her obstetrician for malpractice and her husband for torture. Why doesn’t Rosemary do this? Maybe she is a grade-A moron. The only other possible explanation is that Polanski has sacrificed the integrity and believably of Rosemary’s character in favor of transmitting his message (modern alienation, man’s inability to act, ensuing paralysis). In a bizarre twist of fate, one year later the message of Rosemary’s Baby will be perfectly suited for discussions on the Manson Family murders which claim Polanski’s wife and unborn child.
Sharon Tate was stabbed to death. Cult members killed her in her living room, with her friends, during a casual evening together. It is a surprising coincidence how strongly the last scene of Rosemary’s Baby foreshadows the Sharon Tate murders. Rosemary picks up a knife, out of no where and enters the neighbors’ apartment. It is evening, during a casual get together in the living room. The young mother, the child, and the cult members are all present.
Rosemary’s Baby was not a good movie. However, it serves as a chilling counterpart to one of histories most publicized mass murders. Rosemary’s Baby, for all its flaws, still manages to convey a message of contemporary alienation and the ease with which we will sacrifice the fundamental sacredness of human life. Ironically, Rosemary’s Baby serves as a good sounding board in our continuing efforts, thirty years later, to understand the brutality and horror of the Manson Family murders. As entertainment it lacks value, but as a twisted real life modern tragedy, in which the artist’s creation is somehow able to return and fulfill its brutal prophecy, Rosemary’s Baby is worth watching.