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John Cassavetes’ Gloria: The Female Action Hero and the Reluctant Director

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The mob wants to make an example of a bookkeeper who’s been skimming off the top while informing on them to the FBI. Unfortunately for all involved, he has a family. Enter Gloria, their neighbor from down the hall who unknowingly walks head on into this situation. As she correctly assesses, “I think I came at a bad time.”

Within one minute of appearing onscreen, Gloria declares, “I hate kids.” Yet the matriarch of this doomed family wants Gloria to take hers, which would include not only tolerating them but also somehow keeping them away from a vengeful, murderous mob. This is the setup of Gloria, the 10th film by acclaimed indie film auteur John Cassavetes, one of the forefathers of the American independent film movement.

But Gloria would come during the last decade of Cassavetes’ career — he passed away in early 1989 — and was not typical of one of his films at all. The difference shows in Gloria’s accessibility and straightforward fast pace, in contrast with Cassavetes’ typically more personal, meandering, and emotionally complex work. Produced by a studio, it also had the biggest budget and crew Cassavetes would ever work with.

The unlikeliness of the film’s central characters being thrown together without warning by outside circumstances, seems to mirror the unlikeliness of this project being made by Cassavetes in the first place. As he put it, “This film is an accident.”

A prolific writer and script doctor, Cassavetes could quickly churn out scripts whenever he needed the money. Gloria was a request from MGM for a vehicle for Ricky Schroder, who was coming hot off the success of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1979 remake of The Champ. Cassavetes wrote it, Schroder went off with Disney instead, and interest immediately dropped. Columbia, however, was interested but wanted Cassavetes to direct.

Cassavetes was surprised that any studio would want him, as he had a reputation for being non-commercial and improvisational and of financing his movies himself.

Said the director, who was typically more appreciated in Europe than he was in the U.S., “I have a way of taking a simple piece of material and complicating it and making it noncommercial – and having no guilt about it. That’s a tough problem for a studio or somebody trying to make money.”

Said Cassavetes about Gloria specifically, “I wrote this story to sell, strictly to sell. I really didn’t want to do that movie. Columbia insisted I direct it.” Ironically for a story about the mob, Cassavetes also had an aversion to cinematic violence. 

On the material itself, Cassavetes commented, “Look, I’m not very bright. I wrote a very fast-moving, thoughtless piece about gangsters. And I don’t even know any gangsters.” 

He continued self-deprecatingly, “It was television fare as a screenplay but handled by the actors to make it better.” Noted Cassavetes, “It’s only because of Gena’s enormous capacity to perform that we have a movie.”

Reportedly, Cassavetes made the movie as a favor to Gena Rowlands, who was his wife, because she found the role of Gloria so appealing. Rowlands is a revelation in this movie and the most unlikely yet ferocious of action heroes. She taunts the gangsters who want to kill her, delightfully egging them on. “Oh, come on, I’d love it, I’d love it. Don’t hang back, I’d love it,” and without missing a beat, issues orders to her charge, “Get in the cab!”

GloriaRowland’s Gloria is smart, independent, well-connected, and over 40. She has a history — you can feel it as she moves through the streets of New York — and she’s worked hard to get where she is in life.

As Gloria puts it, “I saved all my life so I could have some money. I got my money. I got my apartment. I got my friends. I got my cat.” This also feels like more of a reflection of the reality of New York City living than we often see depicted in movies and television, where unless the subject is poverty, people always seem to have all the resources they need at their disposal without a thought.

Cassavetes deliberately shot in unglamorous, un-touristy parts of the city in order to avoid the glamorized version of New York you see in Woody Allen movies of the era. The film even captures the sheer physical discomfort of living in New York City that we don’t typically see onscreen. A New York in which every part of you is sweating and you’re hauling things on and off of buses on foot and the bus lurches and you fall down and your groceries go flying. Or a gangster who is late for a hit because he gets lost going over the wrong bridge amidst “the heat, the traffic, the people.” The film is also great time capsule of New York City in the late 1970s.

The “reality” depicted in this film, despite paradoxically being described by Cassavetes as “an adult fairy tale,” is further outlined by its producer Sam Shaw. “John doesn’t like perfect shots. They’ll set it up and if it looks too good, he’ll change it — stick a shoulder in front of the camera. He’ll say, ‘I don’t want beautiful.’”

Cassavetes also worked hard to avoid the sentimentality you might assume would appear in a film about a child in peril. 

Juan Adames (also billed as John), who plays Phil, the child in question, is not in fact a high point in the film, and it’s the only time he’s appeared in a film or television role before or since. His voice is high-pitched. Perhaps playing against a master like Rowlands also didn’t do him any favors. Ironically, Cassavetes found him after searching through hundreds of children he auditioned all together in a big mob because he wanted to cast a child who was tough and could stand up to pressure. Apparently, Adames passed the test.

Yet Adames wound up in a tie with Laurence Olivier’s performance in The Jazz Singer at the first Golden Raspberry, or “Razzie,” Awards in the category of Worst Supporting Actor. Simultaneously, Gloria wound up taking up the top honors at the Venice Film Festival, tied with Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, and Rowlands was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award.

Cassavetes described Adames’ character as “neither sympathetic nor nonsympathetic. He’s just a kid.” 

“He reminds me of me, constantly in shock, reacting to his unfathomable environment.” 

Though this film was more commercial than his general oeuvre, Cassavetes infuses it with his sensibilities to create a more subtle depth and humanity than one might see in the typical action film, even amongst its bit players. Even at his most commercial, even when working for hire, Cassavetes seemed to retain the heart and soul of an artist and a sense of authenticity, despite himself.

Gloria screens starting Friday, November 24th.
Friday, Nov 24th – 5:15pm
Sunday, Nov 26th – 4:30pm

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