The late, great director John Cassavetes created dramatically intense vehicles for himself (“Husbands”), his wife, Gena Rowlands (“Minnie and Moskowitz” “Love Streams”), and a select group of actors that he liked, such as Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara.
“A Woman Under the Influence,” arguably Cassavetes masterpiece, is an insightful essay on sexual politics, marriage and family life. The protagonist, Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands in an Oscar-nominated performance), is a working class housewife who crosses the line into what society considers to be insanity, or madness.
Initially, the project was conceived as a theatrical piece for Rowlands, but the actress balked at performing such a demanding role nightly, and it was changed into a screenplay.
Cassavetes financed the picture himself with his personal money (and also his friends’) and embarked on a length shooting process that took two years.
With a light feminist touch, the film perceives Mabel to be a a victim of a repressive patriarchal order, a product of imposed social roles that define how a wife and a mother should behave–at home and in public.
But Cassavetes, always the original (non-conformist) filmmaker, sees Mabel as desperate, yet courageous enough woman not to pull back from madness, but to let herself descend into it. In the process, she confronts directly and emotionally every facet of her life with her husband Nick (Peter Falk) and children.
At the time, Cassavetes said that he did not consider Mabel to be insane, but just a woman who has her subjective way of perceiving the world, a woman who insists on the validity of her feelings and her authentic ways of expressing them–in privacy and in public. Even in her worst pain, Mabel possesses a transcendent beauty that affects all those around her.
Cassavetes allows no distance between the screen and the viewers: Like Mabel’s family, the viewers are forced into the troubling experience of Mabel’s life over the course of a few days.
As the critic Michael Ventura pointed out, Cassavetes refuses to compromise Mabel’s authentic portrayal by using mainstream Hollywood codes of comfortable cuts and smooth changes between scenes.
The film propagates one of Cassavetes’ strongest theories, that love can exist in the most horrible circumstances, an idea that would be later embraced by David Lynch in several of his pictures.
Contrary to popular notion, and the opinions of some critics (such as Pauline Kael, who dismissed the film), “Woman Under the Influence” is not a mess structurally. Au contraire, the film’s underlying structure is so rigorous that every aspect of Mabel’s conduct receives equal attention.
As always, Cassavetes’ strategy depends more on the subjective personalities of his actors than on pre-determined script and established camera technique. He provided the essential key to his philosophy when he said, “I’m more interested in the people who work with me than in film itself.” That’s why his films go deeper than most in exploring the emotional truths of their participants.
Gena Rwolands received a well-deserved Oscar nomination as Best Actress for this movie, which represents the height of her and Cassavetes’ careers. At the time, Rowlands walked out with all of the reviews, and Peter Falk’s astonishing work was underestimated.
“A Woman Under the Influence” was innovative in another way. Dismayed by the poor distribution of his previous films, Cassavetes, Falk and Rowlands traveled from coast to coast to promote and book their movie directly with theaters. This pattern would encourage other indie filmmakers to take control of the distribution of their movies and often release them by themselves.
Gena Rowlands’ real-life parents appear in the film as Mabel’s folks, and Cassavestes’ mother, Katharine, plays Nick’s mother, Mama Longhetti, making the film all the more personal.
Oscar Nominations: 2
Actress: Gena Rowlands
Director: John Cassavetes
Oscar Awards: None
The winner of the Best Actress was Ellen Burstyn for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” The Best Director Oscar went to Francis Ford Coppola for “The Godfather, Part II.”
Cassavetes had been nominated before as Supporting Actor for “The Dirty Dozen,” and for Original Screenplay for “Faces.” Thus, as a triple threat, writer-director-actor, he joined the ranks of Chaplin, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, and Warren Beatty. He died in 1989 at the age of 59.
Rowlands received a second Best Actress nomination in 1980, also for a Cassavetes film, “Gloria.”
Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk)
Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands)
Tony Longhetii (Matthew Cassel)
Angelo Longhetti (Matthew Laborteau)
Maria Longhetti (Katharine Cassavetes)
Produced by Sam Shaw
Directed, written by John Cassavetes
Camera: Caleb Deschanel
Editing: Tom Cornwell, David Armstrong, Elizabeth Bergeson, Sheila Viseltear
Music: Bo Harwood
Art direction: Phedon Papamichael
Costume: Carole Smith
Running time: 155 Minutes