A Woman Under the Influence: The Soul Stripped Bare
by Erix Antoine
It has been said (most notably by Cassavetes historian Ray Carney) that A Woman Under the Influence completes a “marriage trilogy.” There is certainly a strong case to be made for that. Furthermore, although this is the third film produced, it is actually the middle chapter. Minnie and Moskowitz shows the “honeymoon period,” the bloom of love; Faces portrays the final stages of a marriage laid to ruin. In the middle of that comes A Woman Under the Influence portraying the realities of married life, with an uncompromising look at the emotional struggles that entails.
We can look at it as part of a trilogy if we want, and it makes perfect sense. But, taken on its own, A Woman Under the Influence is powerful enough, and it encapsulates two landmark facts: In it, Gena Rowlands delivers perhaps the most harrowing and explosive display of film acting to grace the screen in the decade of the seventies (and arguably one of the great performances of all time); and – more succinctly – the film can stand head and shoulders above all as John Cassavetes’ masterpiece. Every artist is allowed at least one. This is his. A strong admirer of the man, such as myself, might say it’s one of several – but let’s stick with this one for the time being.
It can be called a masterpiece based on its quality alone, as it is one of the very great American films of the twentieth century. But, if we go to the literal meaning of the word “masterpiece” – which is a work that encapsulates all of an artist’s strengths and weaknesses; while most clearly communicating their mission statement – then A Woman Under the Influence certainly fits that bill as well.
In it, Cassavetes is able to marry his very specific (and even self-indulgent) sensibilities with a fully accessible and compelling personal narrative that can appeal to a broad audience. He doesn’t need to abandon his signature style to accomplish this. In effect, he crystallizes that style into its purest form, and the film is stronger because of it. It’s very telling that, after this, Cassavetes would take his career in a different direction. Oh, as we will see, there is still more to explore in Opening Night, for example. But the films that followed showed a Cassavetes more eager to experiment and reach outside of himself for material. Fittingly, he would return to this well for his final film – Love Streams – but, while watching A Woman Under the Influence you really get a strong sense that he’s finally “getting it off his chest.”
Ray Carney has an interesting theory that I will discuss presently, but I’d like to first touch upon the film’s storyline as it outwardly appears to a first time viewer.
The film seems to be, at first glance, the story of a middle-aged housewife named Mabel Longhetti (Rowlands) and her ultimate descent into complete madness. The narrative unfolds almost completely within this woman’s suburban house with her blue collar husband Nick (Peter Falk). Specifically, it’s structured around two major events. The circumstances leading up to her husband committing her to a mental institution, and her revelatory and, in some ways, disastrous homecoming six months later.
When described that way, the film appears to be a psychodrama. In many ways, it is. It’s certainly a character study, specifically focused on this complicated woman and her relationship with her equally complicated husband. But, like most of Cassavetes’ films, we have to read between the lines to find the ultimate meaning.
First of all, is Mabel Longhetti really crazy? We see several instances of behavior that can be called eccentric, yes. But the film never makes any reference to any specific mental condition. And, frankly, she is only “crazy” when viewed through the eyes of other characters in the film. She is perceived as crazy, even as the film never explicitly confesses that there is anything truly wrong with her. That is an important detail to pay attention to while viewing the film.
Furthermore, if she is crazy, what about her husband? Early in the film, we see her behavior: She talks out of turn, says things to make people uncomfortable. People aren’t sure how to respond to her. She shows herself to be insecure around her children and, during playtime, becomes a child herself – encouraging the others to raid her closet and make costumes for themselves; or re-enact Swan Lake in their backyard.
I don’t know to what extent that behavior is “crazy.” The only thing one can say with any certainty is that it’s different.
Contrast that with Nick’s approach to single parenting after his wife has been committed. He pulls his children out of school in the middle of a cloudy day, so he can take them in his truck to the beach; where he proceeds to run up and down the shore, while barking them an ultimatum to “have a good time!” On the ride home, he lets them drink from his six pack of beer so they can “sleep like rocks” once they get back. Is that behavior not also “crazy”? It’s certainly more irresponsible than anything Mabel does with her children. Why is Nick not being committed to the insane asylum as well?
It is with those elements that A Woman Under the Influence emerges as something more than a mere psychodrama. It is, more than anything else, the story of a marriage. John Cassavetes uses the backdrop of a woman’s apparent descent into insanity to dramatize an essential truth about every marriage – the absolute need for constant and direct communication between a couple. It is really the story of a woman desperately trying to please her husband, transforming herself into whatever he wants her to be. Meanwhile, the husband – deeply in love with his wife, there is no question of this – in a constant struggle to understand her, while never really knowing how to communicate his own feelings. She embarrasses him, he commits her to a mental institution; and it is only upon her shell-shocked return, that he comes to understand who she is, what he truly loves about her and how he has no desire for her to ever change. It’s an astounding, emotional journey about two people learning how to love each other.
Which brings me to Ray Carney and his fascinating theory that the film is actually about John Cassavetes himself and his approach to the art of filmmaking.
NOTE: Ray Carney presents this theory with great detail in his book The Films of John Cassavetes. I am simply paraphrasing it here.
Carney postulates that Mabel Longhetti, and Gena Rowlands’ portrayal of her, are representations of the artist. All of Longhetti’s nervous ticks – her sudden punches into the air, her blowing raspberries… These are all things that Cassavetes himself actually did in his daily life. Carney also plants the theory that watching Mabel interact with others was akin to observing Cassavetes at work with his cast and crew.
One of the film’s most memorable set pieces is a scene detailing a breakfast of spaghetti that Mabel cooks for Nick and his co-workers, when he brings them home after work at 7am one morning. It is a fabulous scene, in which everyone engages in casual conversation. Eventually, a couple of the friends begin to sing arias. One of them, in particular (Hugh Hurd – one of the stars of Shadows), spontaneously launches into a segment from Aida. The key thing about this scene is how Mabel, as hostess, is also guiding the reverie – encouraging and cheering them on. It is a grand time, until she gets carried away with one of them – making him uncomfortable when asking for a dance – and Nick has to tell her to “sit your ass down.”
Another example of Mabel “directing” a scene, comes in the aforementioned Swan Lake sequence. She takes her children, and those of a neighbor named Mr. Jensen, out to the backyard; and encourages everyone to dance to the music of Tchaikovsky… “Die for Mr. Jensen,” she says. Meanwhile, Mr. Jensen gets progressively more uncomfortable until he feels he must grab his children and leave.
Cassavetes would often make people uncomfortable with his directing style. Asking of his actors in ways they didn’t always understand. It wasn’t uncommon for many of them to vow they would never work with him again – until they saw the finished work and realized what he had done in pulling such exceptional, truthful work from them. Peter Falk, in fact, was one of those people. During the making of Husbands, he actually took Cassavetes aside and told him he would never work with him again. That it was an infuriating and confounding experience to have no clear guidance. Be that as it may, it was Falk himself who subsequently lobbied for the part of Nick (even as Cassavetes thought he was completely wrong for it), and even put 500,000 dollars of his own money to finance the film.
That aspect of Cassavetes is certainly dramatized in Mabel Longhetti. The aggressive nature that is at first off-putting and then seductive.
In any case, I’ll leave Mr. Carney to continue theorizing that A Woman Under the Influence is about John Cassavetes and his filmmaking style. I think, more explicitly, it is definitely about his marriage. If Minnie and Moskowitz was about the courtship, then it makes perfect sense that he would follow that up with this. Once again, he casts personal friends as his alter egos. And once again, Katherine Cassavetes and Lady Rowlands both appear as their respective mothers.
Taking the specifics of the plot out, this is still the story of the evolution of a marriage. And, as such, it is structured very much like a symphony – with three specific movements. The first movement is the events leading up to Mabel’s being committed. It’s an emotional build-up that finally explodes in a compelling and painful sequence, where Nick regretfully has her committed while his mother looks on and encourages him to do so. That movement can be taken at face value, but it can also be interpreted as the first stage in a marriage – that of struggling to communicate, leading to a moment of crisis. Wherein it is decided that maybe the couple each need their space. Involving a domineering mother in the proceedings is an intriguing and very telling aspect.
The second movement dramatizes what happens when a couple has been separated… The man on his own, coming to grips with the fact that he needs his wife by his side. He didn’t realize her importance. The children need her, he can’t raise them on his own, and so on.
The third movement, with Mabel coming home, is a representation of reconciliation. The husband welcomes her back. At first, she is awkward – having spent time remolding herself into what she thinks he needs – but then, after it becomes clear this is unmanageable, she reverts to who she’s always been and always will be; restoring the status quo, with the two of them finally coming to a mutual – albeit painful – understanding.
If we combine Ray Carney’s valid theories of the film’s subtext with what the film itself clearly presents, what emerges is a remarkably layered and complex film that explores many realities of human relationships. I think there is room for all of these interpretations, and the film remains completely focused on its emotions regardless of how one wants to look at it. That’s the quality that makes it truly special.
I made earlier reference to the brilliance of Gena Rowlands’ performance. I cannot emphasize enough how important and essential she is to the success of the film. I don’t mean, however, to downplay Peter Falk’s contribution. He is most definitely excellent. In fact, coming on the heels of his success as Columbo on TV, it must have certainly been a revelation for audiences in 1974. And it remains, in my view, his most exceptional work as an actor. He puts aside all of the laid-back, frumpy mannerisms that made him such a popular comic presence with audiences and refocuses his skills into an arrow point – delivering a portrait of vulnerable masculinity that stands with the classic work of someone like Robert Mitchum. It’s definitely a movie star performance, but it eschews any movie star affectations – emerging as a terribly authentic portrait of a real human being.
Be that as it may, I think there are two performances in the 1970s that are key, touchstone pieces of film acting – they are soulful, raw displays that show what acting can do for both the performer and the viewer. They are Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. I single those two performances, not only because of their profound achievement, but also because of their similarity.
Both are “soul-searching” performances. The difference is that Brando’s is entirely introspective, a complete personal catharsis that shows us who that person was at the time the film was made. Whereas Rowlands does something slightly more inventive and, in many ways, more complicated. I may not entirely agree with Ray Carney that the film is about John Cassavetes and his filmmaking style. But I definitely see it clear as day that she is, in fact, channeling her husband in her performance.
We see throughout the film how Nick struggles to understand and relate to his complicated wife. In a way, by playing Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands is able to perhaps finally understand her husband. There were reportedly heated arguments between them as the film was made. Outwardly, they appeared to be of the typical Director/Actor communication variety. But I think this soul searching definitely had an effect and created tension. It must have been an interesting experience for Rowlands to inhabit her husband’s skin and particular state of mind, and I can’t imagine it was easy.
If that is truly the case, and there is enough evidence in the text of the film to support it, then it reveals itself as John Cassavetes’ masterpiece for yet another reason. Because, in it, he uses his wife as a vessel to completely bare his soul to an audience. It is with this extreme intimacy that the man truly emerges as an accomplished and uncompromising artist. What more can he say? To see this film is to finally understand and hopefully appreciate John Cassavetes.
It is an extraordinary piece of work.