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John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands were independent cinema’s first power couple.
John Cassavetes is known today as the godfather of American independent film, a first-of-his-kind screenwriter, director, editor, actor, playwright who managed to make movies entirely on his own terms and has since inspired two generations of filmmakers. In his own day, however, he couldn’t catch a break – unappreciated and unseen by most of the public, sometimes castigated by critics. But what contemporaries didn’t understand about Cassavetes’s movies may actually have been his whole message. What can he teach us about authenticity and the ways in which we confront and avoid our own emotions? How do human beings really behave and interact with one another? If Cassavetes is the father of American Independent Cinema, then it is his wife and lifelong muse Gena Rowlands who is the icon behind this movement; and never was this more fully showcased than in their 1974 collaboration, A Woman Under the Influence.
When Gena Rowlands expressed to her husband that she wanted him to write her a part about the difficulties that contemporary women had to face in the early ’70s, John Cassavetes wrote her a script so emotionally profound and exhausting that Rowlands immediately recognized it would be too much for her to perform it eight times a week on stage in New York. “I’ll be dead in two weeks if I play this role on stage every night,” she told her husband. Cassavetes turned his play into a screenplay for the big screen, but A Woman Under the Influence was too much for Hollywood studios and producers to stomach. “No one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged woman,” insisted detractors. Luckily enough, both for Cassavetes and for all of us in the audience, the filmmaking couple had a lot of friends who fell in love with the powerful script and who were willing to chip in and even perform in the project. Peter Falk (Columbo!) provided half a million dollars out of his own pocket just so he could watch his friend’s bold vision turn into a film. Cassavetes himself mortgaged his house. The crew consisted of both professionals and students from the American Film Institute, where Cassavetes worked as the first filmmaker in residence. They shot inside their own home, in Los Angeles, and the familiarity the ensemble cast share adds to the depth of reality that we witness when we watch this work.
Rowlands did her own hair and makeup, Cassavetes and Rowland’s mothers were cast as the on-screen mothers, the roles of the children were filled by friends’ kids, the budget was extremely tight, but the production had huge heart, and one hell of a talent behind the camera.
Even after shooting wrapped, Cassavetes’s trouble with the film was far from over. Unable to find a distributor, he called theater owners himself, asking them to run the film. It was one of the very first cases where an independent film was distributed without the use of distributors or even sub-distributors. It was Cassavetes’ passion project, and he was prepared to do whatever it took to share it with the world. Unexpected help came from actor Richard Dreyfuss, of all people. Appearing on The Mike Douglas Show with his friend Peter Falk, he said he saw Cassavetes’s “incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie,” and after the experience, he “went home and vomited,” and people rushed to see what made the actor so sick. It’s hard to find better words to describe the rollercoaster of feelings you get when you watch it. Dreyfuss wasn’t wrong.
Cassavetes is the most important American independent filmmaker. His Shadows, shot in 16 mm on an invisible budget and involving regular people in unforced situations, arrived at the same time as the French New Wave movement and offered a similar rebellious freedom in America: not the formality of studio productions but the spontaneity of life happening right now. Ironically, it was by starring (as an actor) in such mainstream films as Rosemary’s Baby and The Fury that Cassavetes raised the money to make his own films at all. He was a big believer in “anti-commercial cinema,” an overall idea that films don’t have to be sold to the public to be good. Cassavetes’s trademark became “slice of life”-type stories for the screen.
PERSONALITY IS PLOT in a John Cassavetes film.
Gena Rowlands, born June 1930 in Wisconsin, knew from childhood that she wanted to be an actress. She headed to New York City to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she would meet future husband John Cassavetes, and they married in 1954. Their marriage lasted for the rest of Cassavetes’ life, when Cassavetes died in 1989. The core of Rowland’s best on-screen work stemmed from their 10-film partnership, and she was a woman who truly understood the importance of the muse within a collaboration with auteur.
In 1982, renowned playwright Tennessee Williams, in conversation with critic James Grissom, had a lot to say about Gena Rowlands.
“We have to be witnesses to each other – all of us – but particularly among artists. I know that people understand and respect the concept of loyalty among friends and lovers, peers and comrades. I believe in loyalty toward those who have given so much to our lives without the benefit of social or sexual intercourse – artists who have endowed us with their souls.
We must be loyal to them. Show them respect. Spread the word. Be a witness.
I’ll give you a list, and the first name on that list is Gena Rowlands.”
Much like Marlon Brando, Rowlands just existed on screen…as though she and the character were one. The acting seams were never visible in a Rowlands performance, and perhaps this is no better illustrated than her performance as Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence.
Choreographer Pina Bausch once famously said, “I’m not interested in how people move but what moves them.” I’ve found that the works resulting from the Cassavetes/Rowlands partnership echo a similar sentiment, existing in a world of his own creation – one that unapologetically explored not only what it means to be human and to love but also how that feels. “We need love like food, water and air, and we don’t know how to get it, and that’s our struggle,” said Cassavetes. His onscreen relationships expressed the great labors of love, the enduring plight of everyday human existence, and the explosive, head-on collision that comes when lives intertwine. But for Cassavetes, one of his greatest and most complex roles was as husband to Gena Rowlands, the woman who became not only the soul and muse of his work, but the physical embodiment of that overwhelming emotion he wished to express himself.
Often when watching Rowlands onscreen, I find myself reduced to tears, totally exhausted just observing anything she does. Whether it be pulling a long drag from a cigarette, descending a staircase, hopping around on one foot in red socks, or just holding a telephone, her presence is wildly raw and electric, and even the most subtle movements are filled with palpable emotional resonance and profound vulnerability. Above being simply an actor, Rowlands is a very athletic performer – trained, tortured, well-studied, and entirely devoted to her craft, the characters she steps into, and a fearless commitment to honesty in storytelling. And in playing fragile housewife and mother Mabel, audiences – and Cassavetes himself – understood for the first time just how powerful she could really be.
Their partnership changed the cinema landscape forever.
Because his work felt so fresh, it was assumed that Cassavetes was an improvisational filmmaker. Not true. He was the writer of his films, but because he based their narratives on his own emotional experiences and because his actors were family or friends, his cinematic world felt spontaneous. There was never the arc of a plot but the terror of total free fall. He knew that in life, one does not often improvise but rather plays a character who has been carefully rehearsed for a lifetime. His films remind me of improvised jazz players.
Much of Cassavetes’ work does look like a free-for-all, but this spontaneity only comes after deep structure has been built. The same can be said about great jazz ensembles. They’re so well-studied and tight within their unit due to the invisible work the players have put in to build the foundation… Then, and only then, can an ensemble thrive together and make it appear as though it’s a free-flowing form of jazz, a completely effortless performance, guided by instinctual choice; and while A Woman Under the Influence feels heavily improvised – it’s actually tightly scripted. Cassavetes did resist overplanning, though. He felt that “overplanning interferes with the natural fluidity of the actors.”
What strikes me is how long Cassavetes holds a scene in A Woman Under the Influence. When another director may have moved on because a scene has delivered upon its promise, and it’s time to move onto the next – Cassavetes chooses to keep his camera on his subjects, allowing us to spend time with these characters and get to know them in a deeply organic way.
This way of shooting can produce discomfort for some audiences, and I think that’s why his work was often so polarizing with film critics. He relies on character as it’s conveyed through emotional tone… Spend a few seconds gazing at Mabel’s face, and it communicates a thousand different emotions sans any dialogue.
The beauty of a Cassavetes/Rowlands collaboration is in the minute detail. It demands complete focus and attention of its audience to the emotionality of the characters, and deeply rewards those who are wise enough to really listen.