“Mabel is not crazy, she’s unusual. She’s not crazy, so don’t say she’s crazy.”
I don’t know about you, but I have found myself in the last nine months in certain emotional and mental situations that have made me question my own sanity. There was an afternoon on a Wednesday mid-April in which I didn’t think I could endure the uncertainty and doubted whether I could live up to what was expected of me. Not only was I struggling with a lot of self-doubt, it combined with these extreme fears of COVID and succumbing to the disease. I thought I couldn’t breathe, so I had to lay down on the bed – and tried to calm myself down. I couldn’t. I needed to pace. And when I attempted to do so, the room started spinning around – and I couldn’t find my balance. I immediately thought this was it. Then I started to get very dizzy. After forcing myself to take deep inhalations and lying down, I realized I was having this rush of emotions, feelings and frustrations, and I didn’t know what to do with them. It had made me feel like I literally was going crazy.
“A Woman Under the Influence” (1974) is one of those movies you need to see if you’ve never seen it before. And even if you have, it will have a renewed power given everything that we’ve been undergoing in 2020. The film was written and directed by John Cassavetes – who was the pater familias of independent filmmaking in the United States. The writer, director and actor made and distributed his own films. He made eight of them starring his wife – Gena Rowlands – and of those, in my opinion, “A Woman Under the Influence” is the apex. Peter Falk – who co-stars – put up $500,000 of his own money to get the film made. Even eighteen months after completion Cassavetes couldn’t get anyone to distribute it. Getting rejected by the New York Film Festival, he called Martin Scorsese to see if he could appeal their decision. Marty had his documentary “Italian-American” on the roster and threatened to withdraw it unless they gave a berth to Cassavetes film. The pressure paid off, and the film was critically received. Cassavetes worked the phones himself to book movie theatres for the film. Falk and he would go to college campuses to promote it. Fortunately and deservedly, it went on to garner Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Actress.
I explain to my students that there are two directions in cinema – formalism and realism. In simple terms, the formalistic approach emphasizes design and form. You feel the hand of the director – think Hitchcock. Then, there’s realism – in which mise-en-scene is de-emphasized, and the camera tries to be more objective and is not used to manipulate our perception. Basically, in realism a director avoids extreme angles and stylization – and she/he wants you to forget you’re experiencing a film. According to theorist Andre Bazin, realism is able to show us the ambiguity of life and accordingly, audiences aren’t directed towards an inevitable conclusion – but you are encouraged to evaluate and analyze on your own. Cassavetes navigated in that realm – creating realistic narratives.
The plot follows Mabel and Nick – who are the parents of a working-class family with three children – living in Los Angeles. Nick is the leader of a construction gang working for the city and he and his crew put in long hours. He’s known to leave his home for long shifts – and after – he invites the whole crew over to eat at his house for big meals. He expects his wife, Mabel to go with the flow and look after them. Mabel is a very passionate and expressive mother – who has been trying to please her husband and her parents all her life, and to take care of her duties at home. “I can be anything you want me to be, Nicky. Tell me what you want,” she tells her husband. Some of her behavior has been thought of as erratic. When Nick leaves her stranded during his late-night shifts, she has found solace in the comfort of other men. Mabel is experiencing a nervous breakdown. All the different influences and demands that society has imposed on her are fraying her. She’s coming undone.
And do we witness. In what has got to be one of the greatest performances captured on film, we watch Mabel -electrifyingly portrayed by Gena Rowlands – have an episode in front of us. In cinema verité style the camera documents the falling apart. Notice how Mabel doesn’t seem to have a private life – her bed is in the living room where everything is exposed. Eventually, she is sent to a mental institution – and we behold what life in the household is without her – and how Nick has to deal with the children. There’s where Cassavetes deepens – and starts – without judgement – to reveal Nick’s behavior under pressure. Upon Mabel’s return – the family has to face their true nature. Watch the way Mabel and her father interact.
Peter Falk and the rest of the cast show an intimacy and a naturalness in acting that is unlike you’re used to seeing in other films. The camera lingers in long takes on the performers as we experience them make choices that are so unexpected and react in ways that are so illuminating. Rowlands is a hurricane.
Mabel: “Dad… will you stand up for me?”
George. “Sure.” [he stands up]
Mabel: “No, I don’t mean that. Sit down, Dad. Will you please stand up for me?!!!”
Available to stream on HBO Max, Kanopy and to rent on Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.
Written and Directed by John Cassavetes
Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Fred Draper, Matthew Cassel, Lady Rowlands, Katherine Cassavetes and Matthew Labyorteaux
Gena Rowlands on “A Woman Under the Influence”
“That was my favorite movie. I loved doing that movie. I loved it because I loved working with Peter Falk, I loved the mix of comedy in it, that was sort of real comedy…I also liked the fact that in that film, I was a little wacko, but my husband understood that and he loved me, and it didn’t bother him that I was as strange as I could be. When I have this terrible breakdown and have to go away for a while, leave him and my children, oh—that’s a hard scene. We’re showing a hard moment in a person’s life, a terribly hard moment. Then she comes back and they try to make it easy for her as possible. It’s just so good, all the scenes…” (rogerebert.com)
Bringing “A Woman Under the Influence” to the Screen
The genesis of “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974) began when director John Cassavetes’ wife, actress Gena Rowlands, told him she wanted to do a play about the difficulties women were facing at that time. As Marshall Fine wrote in his biography of John Cassavetes, “Accidental Genius,” “One day he handed Rowlands a play he had written and said, ‘See what you think.’ Rowlands recalled, ‘I couldn’t believe John wrote it. I don’t mean to be sexist because I don’t really believe that women can’t write for men and vice versa. But I really couldn’t believe that a man would understand this particular problem.'” What Cassavetes had written was so intense and emotional that Rowlands knew she couldn’t bear performing in such a play eight times a week and told him that if she did, “I’d have to be hospitalized.” So Cassavetes decided he would make it into a film. “I only knew one thing about women when we started: that it was a difficult time for today’s woman to be left alone while somebody goes out and lives. I know when I was not working and Gena was working for me – because I was really in trouble in this business – I stayed home and took care of the baby and I was a pretty good housewife and all that. But I didn’t have really the same reactions as a woman would have, mainly because I didn’t have to think into the future of when I’d get older or when my attractiveness would fade or when the kids would grow up or when the baby would cease to cling to you. All those things are more interesting than what they’re making movies out of.” No one seemed to agree with him when he approached Hollywood money men with the idea. He was told, “No one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame.”
Without studio financing, Cassavetes decided to break the fundamental rule in filmmaking, “never use your own money”. Instead, he mortgaged his house and approached friends and family to help him. Gena Rowlands remembered, “We didn’t have the money to do it, but we had a lot of friends, all actors and interested in the project. So they all helped us. And we just did it.” One of these friends was actor Peter Falk, who was starring in his hit television series Columbo. Falk read the script and believed in it so much he turned down a role in Day of the Dolphin (1973) and put up half a million dollars of his own money. The cast included Rowlands’ and Cassavetes’ mothers, their son Nick, their daughter, Xan, and Matthew Cassel, son of actor Seymour Cassel and Cassavetes’ godson. The crew was a hodge-podge of professionals and students from the American Film Institute, where Cassavetes was serving as the AFI’s first “filmmaker in residence” for their Center for Advanced Film Studies. The AFI was where Cassavetes ended up doing most of his editing as composer Bo Harwood remembered, “John wouldn’t leave. He said, ‘My movie’s not done’. We were there for two years. It was like a bunch of bank robbers had taken over this eighteen-acre estate.” Unable to find studio space to shoot, the scenes in Longhetti’s home were filmed in a slightly run-down house on Taft Avenue, just off Hollywood Boulevard. As there was no budget for hair and makeup, Rowlands simply did her own, and with only one copy of her costumes (unthinkable in a Hollywood production), the clothes were sent to an overnight dry cleaners after each shoot. (tcm.com)
Promoting “A Woman Under the Influence”
After production and editing wrapped up, Cassavetes couldn’t find a distributor for the film so he ended up calling theater owners across the country trying to get them to run the film. “Everyone who makes a movie is at the major distributor’s mercy. We’re distributing “Woman” ourselves because the studios have had no interest in it. And if they did come to us, we wouldn’t sell it cheaply because we’ve taken our risks and expect to be paid well for it. After all, who the hell are they? Unless they finance the productions, they’re a bunch of agents who go out and book theaters. That’s what it really boils down to.” As Jeff Lipsky, a college student hired by Cassavetes to help distribute the film, said “It was the first time in the history of motion pictures that an independent film was distributed without the use of a nationwide system of sub-distributors.” “A Woman Under the Influence” was booked into small theaters, even at college campuses where Cassavetes and Falk would appear to talk about the film. It eventually made it to the New York Film Festival where it caught the attention of film critics like Joseph Gelmis of Newsday, who wrote that it was “an emotional blockbuster that should touch a nerve in every family that shelters an adult who’s never grown up.” Rex Reed called it “shatteringly profound and disturbing in ways movies seldom affect their audiences”. As Marshall Fine wrote in his biography of John Cassavetes, “Actor Richard Dreyfuss was appearing on The Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia, during a week when Peter Falk was Douglas’ co-host to promote Woman. As they chatted on camera, Douglas asked Dreyfuss if he had seen “A Woman Under the Influence.” Rather than simply say, ‘Yes and I thought it was great’, the voluble actor launched into a description of the film: ‘It was the most incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie. I went crazy. I went home and vomited.’ At which point Falk piped up, ‘It’s also funny. It’s a funny movie.’ …When the show went to commercial, Falk picked up a nearby phone and called Cassavetes: ‘This kid, he’s telling everyone how terribly dark and scary the movie is,’ Falk said. And on the other end of the phone, Dreyfuss heard Cassavetes laughing, telling Falk ‘He can say what he wants.’ In fact, it worked to the film’s advantage. Suddenly everyone wanted to see the film that made Richard Dreyfuss sick, to see if it would happen to them, too.” (tcm.com)
John Cameron Mitchell on the Impact of “A Woman Under the Influence”
“I was 28 and had just moved to New York when I first saw this in 1990. I’d seen other Cassavetes films and I always felt a sort of derangement of the senses when I saw his work, but this affected me the most. For me it’s his strongest film, and it infuriated me. I thought: do I really need to see all of that? Do I really need to go that deep into a person’s psyche? It’s a story of a lower-middle-class family in LA and explores what a woman is supposed to be in our society. Peter Falk plays the husband and Gena Rowlands (who was married to Cassavetes) plays his wife, Mabel. She is trying so hard to be the perfect wife, perfect mother, perfect lover that her mind starts to fracture. It doesn’t seem like there’s a plot, just this continuing question of “Is she going to make it?” The film feels like a documentary – like I’m looking at things that people would prefer to keep private. In some ways our Hollywood sensibility has softened our defences. We cut away from the uncomfortable scene at a point so you don’t look at something too long. And while Cassavetes isn’t rubbing your nose in this film, he is holding your head so you have to stare at something you’re not used to.
I don’t know if he’s the “best” director of those I admire, but he remains my favourite. And this is still probably my favourite film. It forces a kind of empathy on the viewer that they’re not used to experiencing, by its detail, its truth and by its hope at the end. His compassion for his darkest characters is incredibly inspiring. Whenever I see films that make me feel like I’m closed off from the world, I try to see his films and get that empathy back. When I left the theatre I spent the whole day haunted. It made me look at the world in a different way: seeing the details, seeing the people differently. The whole film is like a giant window into another person’s soul and it doesn’t close after you see it. Gena Rowlands’s performance is the greatest performance I’ve ever seen on film. As a director it’s a deal breaker for me if the actor isn’t good, or as real as possible, and that comes from watching this film. To me, an actor will always be a partner rather than a pawn. Cassavetes always wanted to be surprised by his actors. He’d keep them off balance and tell them not to stay on book but to paraphrase and improvise. He was an actor’s best friend, and that’s what I learned from him. I’ll always be an actor’s director. (theguardian.com)
About Writer and Director John Cassavetes
Cassavetes was the son of Greek immigrants. He grew up on Long Island, New York. He studied English at Mohawk College and Colgate University before becoming an acting student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, from which he graduated in 1950. He began his acting career in earnest with a small role in the motion picture “Taxi” (1953) and an appearance on television the next year in an episode of “Omnibus.” By the end of 1955, he had acted in many live television shows. In 1956 Cassavetes appeared in “Crime in the Streets,” Don Siegel’s drama about juvenile delinquency. That year he also began teaching a Method acting class. In 1957 Cassavetes starred alongside Sidney Poitier in Martin Ritt’s “Edge of the City,” a high-profile role that helped him land the lead as the eponymous private eye in the television series “Johnny Staccato” (1959–60). Cassavetes’s low-budget directorial debut, “Shadows” (1959), was financed partly by some $20,000 sent to the fledgling filmmaker after he made an appeal for donations during an appearance on a radio program. Made over a period of about two and a half years and shot on 16-mm film stock, this semi-improvised downbeat slice of cinema verité focused on three African American siblings. The older brother, a jazz musician (played by Hugh Hurd), encounters greater racial discrimination than his lighter-complected younger sister (who dates white men) and brother. Shadows’s jazz score was composed by Charles Mingus. The film was first shown to a few audiences in November 1958 and was exhibited again about a year later after the addition of some new scenes and re-editing. When Cassavetes could not find an American distributor for the film, he entered it in the 1960 Venice Film Festival, where it won the Critics Award. After it finally received distribution in the United States in 1961, critics were effusive in their praise of “Shadows,” which is generally acknowledged to have inaugurated the American independent filmmaking movement. Fresh from the success of “Shadows,” Casssavetes signed with Paramount to produce and direct “Too Late Blues” (1961), another downbeat film about a jazz musician, this time with teen singing idol Bobby Darin as the leader of a jazz combo waiting for its big break…Paramount gave Cassavetes a multi film contract, which he subsequently broke in the interest of gaining greater creative autonomy.
Independent producer Stanley Kramer then signed Cassavetes to direct “A Child Is Waiting” (1963), an earnest drama written by Abby Mann…After Kramer took the film out of Cassavetes’s hands and re-edited it as a sentimental “social problem” film, Cassavetes broke with Hollywood to pursue filmmaking his own way. He was determined to make motion pictures grounded in character development that would depict real-life situations with real-world consequences. He also was committed to involving the cast and crew in an organic improvisatory process. No matter how dark his subject matter, he was also not beyond punctuating the proceedings with humour. “Faces,” which Cassavetes wrote in 1965 and shot in black and white in 1966, starred John Marley and Lynn Carlin as a husband and wife facing a split after 14 years of marriage. Both have one-night stands, the husband with a prostitute (played by Cassavetes’s wife, Gena Rowlands) and the wife with a hippie (Seymour Cassel). Originally six hours long, the film was painstakingly edited down over the next two years to slightly more than two hours and released in 1968 to rave reviews. Cassavetes received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay, and Carlin and Cassel were nominated as best supporting actors. Cassavetes had helped finance “Faces” by acting in films such as Robert Aldrich’s World War II drama “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor, and Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968). As a director, Cassavetes was a master at dramatizing marital problems. For “Husbands” (1970), his first colour 35-mm effort, he assembled his first high-profile cast…
The modest commercial success of “Husbands” helped Cassavetes secure a deal with Universal to make “Minnie and Moskowitz” (1971). More hopeful and romantic than any of his other films, “Minnie and Moskowitz” was Cassavetes’s version of a screwball comedy…After this lighter fare, Cassavetes returned to psychodrama with “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974), a harrowing, unrelievedly raw portrait of a Los Angeles housewife’s nervous breakdown. Although the story was originally intended as a stage vehicle for Rowlands, it was brought to the screen instead by Cassavetes’s newly formed Faces International production company. Falk was appropriately detestable as the brutish husband, and Rowlands’s majestic portrayal of the tortured woman at the centre of the film earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress… “A Woman Under the Influence” was still his biggest hit up to that point. Moreover, it earned Cassavetes his only Academy Award nomination for best director. It seemed as if Cassavetes had beaten the system: he was making deeply personal movies entirely on his own terms and still winning the admiration of the industry on which he had turned his back… “Gloria” (1980), made for Columbia rather than Faces International, featured yet another superb effort by Rowlands as a former prostitute who goes on the lam with an eight-year-old boy after his family is killed by the mobsters who employed his dad as an accountant…Cassavetes’s most significant turns as an actor in the late 1970s came in Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky” (1976) and Brian De Palma’s “The Fury” (1978). In 1982 he and Rowlands played the leads in Paul Mazursky’s 1982 “Tempest,” the first time they had acted together in a picture not directed by Cassavetes. They then starred together in Cassavetes’s moving and unusual love story “Love Streams” (1984) as a brother and sister who lead wildly differing lifestyles but who care deeply about each other. Cassavetes’s final project was the little-seen mainstream comedy “Big Trouble” (1985), in which Alan Arkin starred as an insurance salesman who becomes involved in a scheme to fake the death of another man (Falk)…He died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 59. (britannica.com)