As part of the ongoing Cassavetes mini-retrospective at The Metro Cinema in Edmonton, I had the pleasure of introducing two screenings of A Woman Under The Influence. They were my third and fourth time seeing the film (although I only caught the end of the fourth screening on account of a camper van breakdown in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan that I will likely write about later). I had always considered Gena Rowlands’ performance in AWUTI to be one of the most incredible in the history of movies, but seeing it on the big screen introduced me to levels of nuance and commitment in her acting that I hadn’t had the chance to appreciate before. I think it’s perhaps the best movie acting that has ever been done, one of the most heartbreaking realizations of a character, a time, a place, a culture in recorded human history. Maybe this sounds hyperbolic. If it does, please watch the film again and tell me I’m wrong. I don’t think I am.
Here is my introduction. GLARING OMISSIONS: I can’t believe I didn’t mention that the actor who plays Nick’s mother in the film (ostensibly the villain) is Cassavetes’ mother herself, and the actor who plays Mabel’s mother in the film is Gena Rowlands’ real mother.
Shout out to Metro Cinema executive director David Cheoros for reading this intro on Wednesday night when I couldn’t make it back to town in time.
Hello and thank you for being here. My name is Dylan Rhys Howard. I’m an independent filmmaker in town and I’m also on the Programming Committee here at Metro Cinema. Someone must’ve let the proverbial cat out of the bag at some point and let Pete, the head programmer here, know that I’m a Cassavetes enthusiast, so I’ve been happily tasked with curating this mini retrospective of his films.
First of all, I just want to thank you again for supporting Metro Cinema. I think you all probably know by now that the Metro Cinema Society is a not-for-profit organization. By being here, you’re helping us all preserve this uniquely wonderful experience of seeing a movie together with strangers in the dark, which is to my mind very important in this digital day and age.
A Woman Under The Influence. This film we’re about to watch was originally written as a play by John Cassavetes for his wife and frequent collaborator Gena Rowlands, who wanted a character she could really sink her teeth into, something she could really play. So Mabel Longhetti was born. It soon became clear, however, that the play was going to have to become a film. The character was simply so intense, so emotionally raw, that it would be impossible to perform up to 8 times per week. So after unsuccessfully trying to get a studio or other funder to back the film, they made plans to shoot independently yet again (for those of you who weren’t here for the Faces screening Cassavetes is notorious for being an intensely independent filmmaker who eschewed the Hollywood system in order to maintain complete creative control over the process), with Cassavetes putting up half the money by mortgaging their Los Angeles home and co-star Peter Falk putting up the other half with some of the money he was making on Columbo.
Cassavetes and Falk had worked together before on a film of John’s called Husbands (if anyone is a big Cassavetes’ fan I have to recommend the Dick Cavett show clip where Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazzara all come on to “promote” the film and they’re all completely hammered. It’s like a Cassavetes film in and of itself.). Peter absolutely hated the experience of working with Cassavetes as a director and vowed never to do it again. This is likely because Cassavetes was notorious for refusing to give his actors any information at all about their characters or how to play a scene. In Cassavetes on Cassavetes, biographer Ray Carney gives an example of how John’s directing style could be. An actor comes up and says: “How should I play this?” Cassavetes goes: “Look. You’re here. She’s there. You see?” followed by a long, intense look. But Cassavetes could be extremely convincing, and somehow Peter Falk ended up not only playing a lead in another Cassavetes film, but putting up half the money as well. This role as Nick Longhetti, a blue-collar man trying to find his conscience, under a lot of pressure and ultimately very unsure of what the right thing to do is, challenged Falk to go beyond playing the lovable detective Columbo, which was needed by him at the time.
But the real story of this film is Gena Rowlands’ performance as Mabel Longhetti. Is she suffering from a mental illness, or does she simply love too much, too completely, to be safe in this brutal, materialistic, judgemental Judeo-Christian society? (apologize for obvious personal bias) Personally, when I look at this film, I see the rest of the world as sick and Mabel as healthier than the rest of us. So for that, of course, she must be locked up. I have this theory that it’s especially hard for us as Canadians to really enjoy these films, because we’re even more concerned with propriety than the Americans are. Here’s what John had to say:
“In real life, Gena is as calm and composed as Mabel is nervous and troubled. By comparison, I myself am half mad. It surfaces at the least expected moments…I think it comes from loneliness — our own dedication to what we’re doing — whether we’re labourers or whether we’re white collar workers or college students or whatever…This particular woman isn’t really mad but frustrated beyond imagination. She doesn’t know what to do and she is socially and emotionally inept. Everything she does is an expression of her individuality, but she doesn’t know how to interact with others. She is like me in this regard. Yet it is only by interacting, by engaging in some sort of competition with others, that she feels alive.”
In terms of technical style: you’ll notice again Cassavetes’ preference for lighting large, general areas so that actors could be free to move around the set. This means that his films are usually quite flat photographically, not the more dynamic, high-contrast style we’re used to seeing with romantic Hollywood cinema. You’ll also notice that the film goes out of focus quite a bit, likely due to the actors moving in a way that wasn’t predicted by the poor camera assistants who were struggling to follow them without having rehearsed.
I messaged my favourite film critic, A S Hamrah about A Woman Under The Influence (again, check out his book The Earth Dies Streaming, you’ll love it) and he asked: “How would the home of a similar family look today? What kind of mental health treatment would Mabel be able to get?” And I think I would ask in response, does Mabel really need mental health treatment, or do we?
John said about the film:
“Love fluctuates. Marriage, like any partnership, is a rather difficult thing. And it’s been taken rather lightly in the movies. Family life is so different than what has been fed into us through the tube and through radio and through the casual, inadvertent greed that surrounds us. Films today show only a dream world and have lost touch with the way people really are. For me the Longhetti family is the first real family I’ve ever seen on screen.”
Thank you again for spending part of your Saturday night with us. I really hope you enjoy the film. If anything about it speaks to you, please look me up and send me an email. I’d love to hear from you. Enjoy!
If you’re in Edmonton, we’d love to see you at Metro for the final presentation of our Cassavetes series: Opening Night. Saturday, July 27th at 6:30 PM and again on Wednesday, July 31st at 9 PM. Another incredible Gena Rowlands performance, and Ben Gazzara with one of the greatest voices in film history. Not to mention Cassavetes himself acting alongside his wife! Hope to see you there.
Until next time.
Dylan – Edmonton, AB