Gloria: One for “Them”

by Erix Antoine

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It’s important to consider up front that John Cassavetes never wanted to make Gloria. After the back-to-back rejections of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night, he was not particularly excited about directing another film. Instead, he focused on writing.

By this point, in the late 70s, John Cassavetes had already been established as a respected Hollywood actor. He continued appearing in films, such as Brian De Palma’s The Furya gory thriller that climaxes with a famous scene in which the villain played by Cassavetes actually explodes like an oil refinery – his head flying towards the screen as the credits begin to roll.

Cassavetes was also a sought after script doctor. He doctored a number of film scripts during the 70s, but was never credited for this work. It didn’t matter to him, of course. This was something he did for extra money, not recognition.

Something else he did for extra money was to try and sell his own scripts to Hollywood studios. These were never screenplays he intended to direct. These were traditional genre scripts for presumably commercial films, the types of films he appeared in all the time but had no actual interest in making as a director.

Gloria was one of those screenplays.

At the time, Franco Zefferelli’s film The Champ had just come out and been an enormous success. For the unaware, this popular weepie tells the story of a down on his luck prize fighter (played by Jon Voight) and the relationship with his estranged son (played by newcomer Ricky Schroeder). The film has a now famous ending, in which Voight – the “champ” of the film’s title – is killed in a brutal boxing match, and his son sits at the bedside crying: “Come on, champ! Wake up, champ!”

Little Ricky Schroeder would soon go on to great fame as the star of his own sitcom, Silver Spoons, but he was already the toast of the town in Hollywood and Columbia Pictures wanted a vehicle for him.

As luck would have it, Cassavetes had written a genre film that would be perfect for the young actor.

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Gloria tells the simple story of a former gun moll (the title character) and her relationship with a little boy named Phil who falls in her care after his family is murdered by gangsters. It’s essentially a “chase movie” in which Gloria must protect Phil from the gangsters that need to eliminate him because of his ties to the crime, as well as the fact he was given a key piece of information by his father, who had been the mob’s accountant.

The screenplay, as written, had all the hallmarks of this type of film: Action/adventure elements mixed with doses of humor and sentimentality. And the role of Phil was perfect for Ricky Schroeder. Columbia Pictures bought Cassavetes’ screenplay. It was almost a done deal – this would be a star “package” for Schroeder and Barbra Streisand.

Then, three things happened in relatively quick succession. First, Streisand turned down the lead role because she didn’t like the character and didn’t want to play “a mother” at that point in her career. There’s also the possibility that she still resented John Cassavetes. After she had seen and loved A Woman Under the Influence, she approached him about directing her in an upcoming remake of A Star is Born (a classic Cassavetes loved), he famously told her: “Why would I want to direct you?” and turned her down. Using her star power to stall development of his screenplay could be a form of revenge, even though he wasn’t going to direct the film.

The next thing that happened is that other commitments forced Schroeder out of the process. This happened after Streisand’s replacement had been cast – a respected Academy Award-nominated actress named Gena Rowlands. Now, the studio had a star in Rowlands and they had a screenplay for a commercial film. They needed a director.

Rowlands enjoyed the idea of playing this character. She felt it was something she could sink her teeth into, and she wanted her husband to direct her.

Ultimately, John Cassavetes made Gloria as a favor to his wife.

Cassavetes, doing his beloved wife a favor.

Cassavetes, doing his beloved wife a favor.

At this point, I would like to say something like: “the lack of interest and dedication shows in the final product,” or “that explains why this film in no way feels like a Cassavetes film.” But I can’t say either of those things because they simply aren’t true. First and foremost, while Cassavetes may not have been initially interested in directing Gloria, he took an interest in doing it once his wife had been cast. Second, the film does feel like a Cassavetes film. Once he took over as director, he made adjustments to the screenplay so it could fall more in line with his sensibilities as a filmmaker; keeping in mind, however, that what he was making in this particular case was a product – a commercial Hollywood genre film. For which he had been given the largest budget ever to work with (5 million dollars) and had to fulfill the expectations of a studio that wanted a “family adventure” in the Disney tradition.

Cassavetes understood this. For the most part, he actually played ball. He was making this movie for “them,” by which he meant: the establishment. He tells a straightforward genre story that has a logical beginning, middle and (most definitely happy) ending, allows the scenes to play out in as direct a manner as possible; and he even allows for a traditional musical score (by Bill Conti, a Hollywood workman composer, most famous for his work in the popular Rocky films). At every turn, Cassavetes concedes that he is making a mainstream, Hollywood film. He knows this and accepts it fully. He even, to some degree, embraces it.

But Gloria is a failure.

There are some clear reasons why it fails (and one in particular that I will discuss in great detail) but, before I get to what the film does wrong, I would like to take a moment to discuss its virtues.

Cassavetes shot the film on location in New York (and parts of it in Pittsburgh). He consciously avoided any romanticism, choosing instead to shoot in less traveled neighborhoods. Much like the famous crime films of Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, this is the New York of “the streets,” rather than the picturesque New York of a Woody Allen film. As a result, the film has a palpable sense of time and place – a raw authenticity that allows it to feel like a very vivid time capsule.

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The other virtue is, as expected, Gena Rowlands.

Her commanding lead performance is perhaps a tad more low key than the work she’d done in her husband’s previous films, but it is no less virtuosic. She is asked to carry a standard vehicle film entirely on her shoulders. She is able to do this with relish. Gloria is a complex, tough and entirely believable heroine. In her scenes with little Phil, she reveals tenderness without going overboard into cheap sentimentality; and when confronting the gangster villains, she can hold her own both in the tense verbal exchanges as well as the shootouts. She trades barbs as confidently as she fires bullets from the revolver in her purse. It is a classic “star” performance, delivered impeccably.

A star performance.

A star performance.

So, what went wrong?

First is the matter of tone. Cassavetes initially wrote a fairly standard, mainstream screenplay. Much of that remains in the finished film. But, when taking over as director, his adjustments actually hurt the narrative. Most of Cassavetes’ films are not traditional genre pieces, so he’s never had to follow any sort of convention. Even his gangster film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is more an existential meditation than a shoot-em-up, and – as that is his wheelhouse – it is entirely valid. But, when making a standard Hollywood product, you have to observe certain tendencies. It’s fine to want to dilute the sentimentality, but if you go too far in one direction, you risk alienating the audience. A viewer coming to a film like this wants to be entertained. They want to get sucked in to the drama and moved by larger than life characters. When the little boy cries, they want to cry with him. When the woman finally, gradually reveals her maternal side, audiences want to be captivated… They want to feel that change in as superficial a way as possible.

But Cassavetes refuses to take the easy way out and just deliver on these expectations. Whenever the film risks lapsing into pure sentimentality – or “schmaltz” as they say – he consciously cuts back. Only at the very end is there a pure burst of traditional “Disney Movie” emotion, and it feels like a concession.

Also, audiences wanting this to be the enjoyable adventure story of a little boy and a tough gun moll are expecting that to be the chief focus. They want the movie to stay with the two of them. They want slapstick. They want smiles through tears. But Cassavetes refuses that as well. Because he must now tailor it into something that interests him, he needs the narrative to shift at crucial moments to a psychological exploration of his heroine. This is why the film, originally called One Summer Night, is now called Gloria. This movie is not about the two of them, it’s about her. Now, whenever Rowlands is on screen, she is riveting and the tense scenes between her and the gangsters are charged with a certain psychological tension. But they also feel like digressions.

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Audiences want a traditional film. They want the showdown in which the heroine very clearly protects the little boy from the gangsters and they both get away. If you give them long stretches when the woman is on her own, while the boy just waits somewhere; or an aborted “action climax,” which is really just a conversation followed by a half-executed chase down a flight of stairs, all while the boy waits in a hotel room… This is not climactic enough. It fails to meet audience expectations.

But the fact of the matter is all of that would probably be forgivable. Even with all his eccentricities in place, John Cassavetes could possibly have had a genuine “hit” on his hands.

In some ways, he did. Gloria ultimately made more money than any of his films, and it even got relatively good reviews in the mainstream press. Rowlands got an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. It is probably Cassavetes’ most “famous” film within the mainstream. It was even remade, some 20 years later, by Sidney Lumet, with Sharon Stone in the lead role.

But the film could have been truly and completely embraced – a blockbuster.

Had it starred Ricky Schroeder.

I am now going to do something that in some circles could be construed as cruel and unfair. I am going to place all the responsibility for the failure of a work on the shoulders of an 8-year-old boy named Juan Adames. But I am going to do this because, if the film fails to entirely connect, it is almost entirely his fault. That is just me being honest. And, at this point, Adames is probably old enough and certainly strong enough to be able to sit there and take the blame or at least walk away without a care in the world.

Meet Juan Adames.

Meet Juan Adames.

It is his fault that the film fails. But he must share that blame with John Cassavetes himself, of course.

Cassavetes famously said he believed “anyone can act.”

In his films, he frequently cast amateurs and non-actors (including his own mother) in key roles. He was so taken with a waitress he met at a diner that he cast her in a rather important role in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. A construction worker, who had no interest whatsoever in acting, was given the prominent role of one of Myrtle Gordon’s co-stars in Opening Night; and he was very good. Cassavetes’ opinion that “anyone can act” was based on the principle that we all “act” every day of our lives. We are seldom ourselves, always wearing some kind of mask when interacting with others. If acting is pretending, then everyone can play a role with the proper guidance.

There is some truth to this. And it is also true that the idea of acting should come easily to children, as they are constantly doing it every time they play with their friends.

Now, while it may be true that “anyone can act” it is also a fact that not everyone can act…well. The role of Phil required a certain degree of skill. It’s a complicated role. This is a little boy whose entire family is brutally gunned down by evil criminals. After this traumatic experience, he must bond with a middle-aged lady he doesn’t know (or particularly like), while the criminals who murdered his family pursue him; intending to most likely kill him also.

A role like that requires a young boy able to exercise control; a boy who can do things like show complicated emotions, cry on cue and have the charisma to charm a mainstream audience into falling in love with him.

Disney was in the habit of discovering child actors like this. Haley Mills, Jodie Foster, Kurt Russell… The world of television showed us this as well. Melissa Gilbert on Little House on the Prairie, Gary Coleman on Diff’rent Strokes

Ricky Schroeder had those qualities. He would go on to charm audiences as the rich boy with a heart of gold in Silver Spoons; and he had already charmed audiences in The Champ. Their hearts had broken for him when he had to watch his father die. They would have broken for him again in Gloria.

But Juan Adames, a little Puerto Rican/American who had never acted before (and never would again), just did not have the natural talent nor the skill to make that character work on screen. Worse still… He was the antithesis of Ricky Schroeder. Not only was he a bad actor, but he had a grating, unlikable presence. Charisma is something you can perfect, but you either have it or you don’t. Juan Adames had no charisma, coming off like a petulant brat rather than a grieving little boy. So, when the gangsters slaughter his family, the event might at first shock you (and it’s very telling that Cassavetes chooses to play the emotional reaction to this almost entirely on Gena Rowlands’ face) but, once the drama develops, you might find yourself wanting the gangsters to catch up with this insufferable little boy, so they may do what you yourself wish you could.

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It remains a mystery why John Cassavetes chose this actor for that role. In interviews he has claimed that he felt the boy had a natural, real and (this is very important) “unsentimental” quality to him. That he didn’t seem like “a Hollywood kid” but like “a real kid.”

Given Cassavetes’ devotion to realism and authenticity, this reasoning makes absolute sense. It’s also true that – for all his talents – Ricky Schroeder was very much a “Hollywood kid” with all the camera-ready qualities this entails. So, if Cassavetes was dead set on making his Hollywood movie as “unromantic” as possible, then Schroeder wouldn’t have worked. By that same token, though, Cassavetes auditioned more than just a handful of children. Surely among the group there had to be a kid who possessed the qualities he was looking for, but that could also act. There is nothing in Adames’ work to suggest that choosing him was anything more than a colossal miscalculation on Cassavetes’ part. And, after working with him for a few days, the limitations should have been evident. Why did Cassavetes persist in using him? It’s a mystery that has been lost to time. Maybe he truly believed in Adames’ work.

As an admirer of Cassavetes, I’ve always enjoyed positing the theory that Gloria was in fact a very deliberate “fuck you” to the Hollywood establishment. They wanted him to make a family film? Fine. He would make “a Disney movie” for them and he would do it his way. He would eschew any sense of fun and adventure, replacing it with psychological exploration and the very real unpleasantness of a middle-aged woman who hates kids having to be saddled with one. To hammer home the point, he would deliberately cast the most insufferable, annoying and terrible pissant kid he could possibly find.

Here you go… Enjoy your family comedy.

Enjoy.

Enjoy.

But I know deep down that is not the case.

It’s true that Cassavetes had no interest in making a Hollywood film. But, once his wife asked him to, he couldn’t say no. And there was no way he was going to deliberately direct his adored wife into a “flop.” It’s clear that Cassavetes wanted to give it an honest effort. He wanted to see if he could make “a movie for them,” and still hold on to his dignity as a filmmaker.

Gloria is a professionally-made and often very watchable film. Cassavetes kept his dignity intact and showed he could “play in the big leagues” as efficiently as anyone. But it’s still his most unsatisfying and creatively unrewarding work.

Thankfully, he still had one more ace up his sleeve…

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