Rowlands, Gena: 1999 Scottsdale Film Fest Award

1999 Scottsdale Film Fest Award

Few actors deserve tributes and awards as much as Gena Rowlands, who is now recognized internationally as one of the best and most accomplished screen actresses in the world.

With her classic cheekbones, cascade of blonde hair, and cool, seductive gaze, Miss Rowlands could easily have become a Hollywood star during the studio system of the late 1950s, when she began her career. But playing it safe was never part of her vocabulary. Instead, she opted for a truly independent, truly risky route, and in the process made movie history with her husband-director, John Cassavetes, arguably the greatest American filmmaker of the modern era.

In 1954, after seeing Rowlands in one of her first plays, Dangerous Corner, Cassavetes went backstage to meet her. Four months later, they were married. He spent several more years playing tough guys on film and television before he leaped into directing in 1960, using $40,000 he earned from playing detective Johnny Staccato to finance his first film, Shadows, an improvisational work about racial prejudice.

In one of the film world's most remarkable artistic collaborations, Miss Rowlands and her all-around partner set out to create a vital new cinema populated by tough, realistic characters of complexity, depth, and humanity. Miss Rowlands appeared in–or, more accurately, collaborated on–six of Cassavetes's films, from A Child Is Waiting in 1963, to Love Streams, his very last movie, which was released in 1984, five years before his untimely death.

“When we started making our own films, people thought we were crazy,” Miss Rowlands told an interviewer. “But we didn't care, because we were totally in love with what we were doing.” With her selfless dedication to art, her indefatigable urge to dig deep into her characters, and her magical touches of melancholy and effervescence, Miss Rowlands created a rich gallery of indelible screen portraits, of which the most lyrical and touching is Mabel in the movie you are going to watch tonight, A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes' undisputable masterpiece, which was recently designated by an Act of Congress as worthy of national preservation.

Rowlands was at the center of Cassavetes' emotional explorations in such gritty films as Faces and Minnie and Moskowitz, in which she lived, breathed, and felt like a real woman, in defiance of the narrowly constructed stereotypical roles that Hollywood offered to actresses at the time. Miss Rowlands has expressed the greatest compliment to Cassavetes when she said: “Most actresses get one or two great parts if they're lucky–but I've been especially lucky.”

Cassavetes not only wrote parts for Miss Rowlands, but also created an atmosphere that called for experimentation and exposure of the highest order. As a result, he drew performances from her that are still astonishing in their savage honesty and utter lack of vanity. In pioneering their innovative gritty style, the couple paved the way for a whole new generation of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and their very own son, Nick Cassavetes, who made his feature directorial debut in Unhook the Stars, a movie he specifically created for his mother.

Yet Cassavetes and Rowlands didn't feel like trailblazers at the time. “I literally thought 50 people would see A Woman Under the Influence,” Rowlands has said of her favorite role, for which she garnered her first Best Actress Oscar nomination, portraying an emotionally needy housewife spiraling into madness.

The studios took notice, and in 1980, Columbia bankrolled Cassavetes's Gloria, a tale of a feisty mob moll, that earned Miss Rowlands her second Best Actress nomination (a very pale remake last year, starring Sharon Stone, showed the magnitude of talent of both Mr. Cassavetes and Miss Rowlands).

Over the last decade, Miss Rowlands has worked with the best directors in the world: Woody Allen in Another Woman, opposite Gene Hackman; Lasse Hallstrom (whose film, The Cider House Rules was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar), in Something to Talk About, as Robert Duvall's wife and Julia Roberts's mother; British director Terence Davies's poetic meditation, The Neon Bible; Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth, in which she played a cab driver who gives a ride to Winona Ryder.

Limitations of space and time don't allow me to describe all the highlights of Miss Rowlands's distinguished career, for which she has won international accolades. But I will mention a few. She was named Best Actress at the 1978 Berlin Film Festival for Opening Night, which was directed by Cassavetes, and has won several Emmy Awards, including one for her portrait of the First Lady in the TV movie, The Betty Ford Story.

Ladies and gentlemen, it gives a great honor to present the first Scottsdale Center for the Arts Film Achievement Award to Miss Gena Rowlands.