John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands created a hard-hitting independent film in 1974 with A Woman Under the Influence. On top of that, the Cassavetes have crafted a spell-binding legacy.
I recognized Gena Rowlands from The Notebook, but I hadn’t known that was her name. The face struck me. Even the emotions and the behaviour. I googled her and found she was who I thought she was and that impressed me. I was immediately more curious about the movie, more willing to see it through. The thing about this movie is that you have to be willing to see it through. A Woman Under The Influence is a hard film to watch.
The acting is so raw. Gena Rowlands is Mabel Longhetti, a wife and mother who is mentally ill. Her behaviour is erratic and unusual, and throughout the film we’re exposed to the blunt truth of how other people see her. At home, she is sometimes wild but is constantly absorbed by the energy of her family. In that sense, her family and her home come to represent a very safe space for her. A place where she is grounded and guarded.
This film, from all the perspectives that I can see, seems to be centered around a radical idea of love. Mabel’s husband is Nick Longhetti played by Peter Falk. He loves her unconditionally. He defends her vehemently in a conversation with one of his colleagues who makes the mistake of saying: “Your wife is a delicate creature…”
With volume and emphasis, Nick responds:
“My wife is not crazy. She cooks, she cleans, what’s crazy about that?”
The conversation in this scene really struck me. It was sending a distinct message. Stating it clearly, but without direct words. John Cassavetes, the director of this film, pioneered a French film movement in America called cinema verite i.e. an indirect, realist style of filmmaking most often associated with documentaries.
Later on in that scene with his friend, Nick Longhetti says:
“Who knows what she’ll do? She might get run over by a car or something.”
His response was unusual and erratic. I think this illustrates how Gena’s mental illness affects the behavior of the people who care about her. It triggers me to think:
A person suffering from mental illness is not the only victim of their situation. Everyone – family, friends, co-workers, even strangers they meet once and never see again – can potentially suffer or be transformed in some way from the pain and experiences of a mentally ill person.
A lot of arguments can be made for or against socially awkward/mentally ill people. I am a socially awkward person, so it was interesting to encounter all of the different angles that this film presents in one woman’s issue of mental illness.
Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes
A Woman Under the Influence was written and directed by John Cassavetes. Gena Rowlands was his wife and co-creator from 1954 (he was 25, she was 24) until he died in 1989. They were husband and wife, creating together, for 35 years. A real love story. A real romance.
In a 2016 interview, Gena said;
“It started out as an independence with us, so that [we could make] things we were interested in. John would write them, I would act in them and all of the actor friends we enjoyed working with would be in them. It was really, quite easy. We just wanted to write and act what people actually say and do; people who are living. John and I were really on the same wavelength.”
Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes had a son, Nick Cassavetes. 30 years after they had made and released A Woman Under The Influence (1974), Nick released his own romantic masterpiece; The Notebook (2004), a film that also featured the idea of ‘love in spite of mental illness’ as a defining detail of its storyline. I watched The Notebook for the first time when I was about 18 years old. I fell in love with it. For a long time, it defined my perspective on what love was like (forever, never forgotten). I fit every moment of my life into parts of The Notebook. It inspired the foundation of my greatest love.
I felt like these two films, A Woman Under The Influence and The Notebook, are worth paying attention to. And the little legacy this family has carried in film, is worth thinking about.
Gena Rowlands has won two Emmy’s, two Golden Globes, and an Honorary Academy Award (there are a few other awards.)
John’s first film, Shadows, has been referred to as the catalyst of the independent film movement in America. His income from acting (The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary’s Baby) helped him finance his own films. He was nominated for three different Academy Awards in 1967 (Best Supporting Actor, The Dirty Dozen), 1968 (Best Original Screenplay, Faces), and 1974 (Best Director, A Woman Under The Influence).
Psst! The Notebook won the MTV Movie Award in 2005 for Best Kiss. It’s an interesting detail.