A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Director: John Cassavetes

Producer: Sam Shaw (Faces)

Writer: John Cassavetes (screenplay)

Photography: Mitch Breit, Caleb Deschanel

Music: Bo Harwood

Cast: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Fred Draper, Lady Rowlands, Katherine Cassavetes, Matthew Laborteaux, Matthew Cassel, Christina Grisanti, O.G. Dunn, Mario Gallo, Eddie Shaw, Angelo Grisanti, Charles Horvath, James Joyce

In 1996, the staff of Filmmaker Magazine got together to vote on the Most Important Independent Films in history, of which there could only be one most important. No doubt the list-topper would require several criteria to take the title. It would have to be pioneering, influencing every aspect of the modern independent movement. It would have to be unconventional, using film techniques that break all the standard rules of Hollywood studio filmmaking. And it would have to have a sexy financing story, using shoe-string means of funding and the distribution. Considering all this, it seems Filmmaker Magazine got it right. John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence deserves its spot atop that list.

In terms of influence, the film helped inspire the so-called “Dogme 95” movement. It’s an ideology that argues for a more authentic form of filmmaking, claiming that “new video technology will democratize the filmmaking process and deliver the masses from their oppression by evil, formulaic, speical effects-laden studio fare.” Subscribers adhere to a “Vow of Chastity,” which includes such commandments as  “The camera must be handheld” and “The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc.).” (A) In other words, every part of the filmmaking process — the tools, the techniques, the story — should be organic and true to life. In this very way, Cassavetes turned the role of storytelling on its head, and thus redefined the rules of “acceptable” filmmaking.

As for the sexy low-budget story, Influence was privately financed by Cassavettes and friend Peter Falk, while nearly all the cast and crew worked for deferred salaries. Most all of it was shot in Cassavettes and Rowlands’ own home. And today it’s remembered as one of the first feature films to be successfully self-distributed. (B) The story goes that Cassavetes was having such a hard time finding a distributor for the film, that he literally carried the reels under his arm from theater to theater asking if they would play his movie. Finally, Cassavetes received some help from a hip young director, who had become a breakthrough sensation the previous year — does the name Martin Scorese? It was Scorsese who threatened to pull his much anticipated Mean Streets follow-up, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), from a major New York Film Festival, unless they also accepted Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. (G) It worked.

The film once again explores the director’s favorite theme — the dynamic of marriage. This time its roughneck construction worker Nick Longhetti (Falk) and his manic depressant housewife, Mabel (Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands). Making room for their three children, Nick and Mabel have converted the dining room to double as their bedroom, forcing the two grown adults to sleep on a sofa bed. They have no privacy in the home, except a bathroom marked “PRIVATE,” the sign of which serves as a constant reminder to their predicament. At the start of the film, the two parents try to find some alone time by sending the kids off with Nick’s skeptical mother (Katherine Cassavetes). But when that doesn’t work out, it’s just the first of many problems between the two lovers.

I say “lovers” because Nick indeed loves his wife. It’s just that he’s ashamed of her, of her condition, an obsessive compulsiveness that has her mumbling to herself and making strange noises set to elaborate hand gestures. Ironically, it’s these eccentricites that also attract Nick toward her, but we wonder how long it will last. By the time Mabel yells, “Nick! Where are my kids?” we understand just how loony she is, (A) because she had just dropped the kids off the day before, and (B) because she’s not even talking to Nick at the time!Nick’s patience is wearing thin, and when Mabel acts up at a breakfast for his co-workers, and later embarasses a neighbor, he makes the hard decision to commit her to a mental hospital. It’s only then, without Mabel around, that we learn just how crazy Nick is himself, dragging his kids to a miserable day at the beach and getting them pass-out drunk. The rest of the film seems to play out with the following question — can Mabel’s eventual return from the hospital be a fresh start for the family?

Like all of Cassavetes’ films, much of the film lies on its performances. Thus, the casting is so crucial. Here, Nick and Mabel’s mothers are played by their real-life proxies, Rowlands’ mother Lady Rowlands, and  Cassavetes’ mother, Katherine. Is this where Martin Scorsese got the idea in Mean Streets (1973) and Goodfellas (1990)? For the title role, he cast Falk, already famous for his role as TV’s Columbo (1971). After working with Cassavetes in Husbands (1970), Falk said he would never work under the director again. Wisely, he reconsidered and asked if he could play the lead in A Woman Under the Influence. “I said, ‘John, I gotta go with you again, because I might have been wrong the first time.'” (D) Needless to say, it was a great decision, as Falk gives a harrowing performance. It’s unthinkable he wasn’t nominated.

But face the facts. No matter how good Falk was, he would have been overshadowed by Gena Rowlands. Hands down. Today’s audiences, who have gotten to know her through Hope Floats (1998) and The Notebook (2004), should Netflix this one and feast their eyes on some real acting. It’s one of those legendary performances all movie buffs should know. Not only did it earn her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, it was recently ranked #63 on Premiere‘s 100 Greatest Movie Performances, just ahead of Paul Newman in The Hustler (1961).

Everything we need to know about her character is right there in her first scene. She hops across the lawn on one foot to load her kids into grandma’s car; she nervously conducts the car backing out of the driveway with manic repetition of words; she instantly scolds herself for letting them go; she stumbles in the yard and adjusts her flip flop; she runs inside and points to various things in her living room, like a true obsessive compulsive; she goes to grab a dress box off a shelf but swats it halfway across the room; she holds a radio playing opera music up to her ear; goes out for a smoke and comes back in; and finally makes a bizare gesture with both of her hands, as if mocking the living room floor. This one’s not normal.

But is she completely bats? That’s for debate. One of Nick’s co-workers says, “Mabel’s a delicate, sensative woman,” but Nick is quick to defend her. “Mabel’s not crazy; she’s unusual,” he says. “She’s not crazy, so don’t say she’s crazy. This woman cooks, sews, makes the bed, washes the bathroom. What the hell is crazy about that?” Still, he admits he doesn’t understand her. What he never doubts for a second, though, is her chief goal in life — to please him. “Tell me what you want me to be, how you want me to be,” she says. “I can be that! I can be anything. You tell me, Nicky.” Never is her devotion to their marriage more apparent than when she lists of her “Five Points” of why they should stay together — love, friendship, comfort, “I’m a good mother” and “I belong to you.”

One of their most intense, fascinating scenes together comes when Mabel serves spaghetti for a breakfast table full of Nick’s roughneck co-workers. Watch Rowland’s nuanced performance as she struggles to get her words out. It’s the epitome of social awkwardness. Is she so nervous because she desperately wants to be a good host? Or does she simply not know how to act around other people? The fact we’re even debating that is a testament to Rowlands. Because of her acting, I think it’s the most memorable scene in the movie. Others will disagree, citing Rowlands’ performance in her big nervous breakdown scene, a display I can only describe as disturbing.

“That is the most compelling, unexpected, unpredictable 10 minutes of film I’ve ever seen,” Falk said. “I’ve never seen acting like that, honest to God. I’ll never forget it. … You’re gonna watch that scene, and this lady here is gonna getcha. I don’t care — 100 years from now — it will always be powerful.” (D)

Rowlands knew all too well the powerful emotions involved in the part. Initially, Cassavetes had wrote the film as a play, but Rowlands talked him out of it, aruging that it would be too exhausting to climb into Mabel’s skin night after night on stage. (G) Like the good husband, Cassavetes agreed. He was crazy about her. But inquiring minds want to know — how close does the Nick-Mabel relationship represent the real-life Cassavettes-Rowlands experience? Their real-life mothers even play their mothers on screen! More than anything, the devotion Mabel shows Nick mirrors Rowlands’ life story with her director-husband. It’s as if their careers and personal lives were one and the same. They met at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Art, married in 1954, and stayed together until Cassavetes’ young death in 1989, no doubt hurried by alcohol.

Some scholars, like David Thomson, wonder what could have been for Rowlands had she not tied herself to this cunning fellow. Maybe she was drawn to him because his style was also her style. Or maybe she just enjoyed playing the queen in his loyal circle of collaborators. The two define eachother and thus cannot be separated. As Thomson poses: “Rowlands is a test case of the Cassavetes approach. Was she a great actress, a prisoner in her husband’s films, or the chief recipient of Cassavetes’ assumption that performance was the heartfelt metaphor for life?” When it comes to Influence, Thomson doesn’t doubt the power of her performance, but he wonders if it deserves an entire movie. He says it feels like one long improv. (E)

Indeed, like all of Cassavettes films, he leaves room in the final product for open improvisation. Both Rowlands and Falk recall how there were no rehearsals, only table readings, so that the first time any of them got in front of the camera, it was also their first time playing their characters. (D) It’s hard to know exactly what was improv and what was originally scripted. But the part that feels the most like improv to me comes from “Handsome” Billy Tidrow at the spaghetti table, struggling to recall the names of his kids. It all sounds so off the cuff.

But over time, this improv buzz has been diluted by revelations that Cassavetes actually scripted more than was once thought. Thomson argues this underscores Cassavetes’ flaws as a screenwriter. (E) But occasionally — and I think Influence is one of those occasions — Cassavetes may actually deserve more writing credit than he gets. Not for plot structure — he’s actually quite terrible with that. What he is good at is writing little moments, and making them seem authentic.

Take, for instance, Mabel’s breakdown. The scene is so well written that it seems spontaneous, but we know the entire thing was scripted. (D) Rewind back to the “Longhetti Spaghetti” scene, where Mabel asks one of the roughnecks his name. When he responds, “James Turner. I work with Nick,” she answers the only way she knows how, with the obvious, “I’m Mabel Longhetti. I live with Nick.” The moment says so much about her character’s well-intentioned cluelessness. It’s sympathetic in the same way as “My name’s Forrest Gump. People call me Forrest Gump.” The best writing, though, comes in Mabel’s statement to Nick: “I always understood you and you always understood me, and it was always just how it was, and that’s it.” There’s something so profound yet simply-stated in that line. Cassavetes somehow captures the barely-articulated internal thoughts of his character, as she looks at her husband and says, “You know. It’s us. You’re going with them out there on the outside. And we’re supposed to be on the inside. We were always there!”

Must we forget Cassavetes earned a screenplay nomination for Faces (1968)? What he lacked in understanding of structural narrative and eloquent prose, he made up for in hyper-authentic situations and dialogue. Roger Ebert may have put it best: “There was never the arc of a plot, but the terror of free-fall.” (F) That was the effect of Cassavetes. You felt anything could happen at any time because he wasn’t playing by any known set of rules, except the one that says there are no rules.

This lack of a narrative arc will no doubt drive some viewers away. Casual movie fans will find it boring. But if you have the slightest interest in the unconventional, you may just find this film fascinating. I do. I think you can just sit and watch Rowlands in every scene and be compelled enough. Still, I understand the complaints of accessibility. Indeed, Cassavetes often opts for ambiguity. Why is Mabel the way she is? What is she under the influence of? We get no forced, cookie-cutter Hollywood flashbacks that explain Mabel’s roots, only subtle hints for the astute viewer. Was she sexually abused as a child? The way she kisses her father in one scene hints at this. But does her father also represent a broader male oppression? Is she under the influence of a patriarchal society? When she says, “Dad, could you please stand up for me?” it’s what she’s been wanting to say to him her entire life. Of course, he doesn’t get it before and literally stands up. When his wife, Mabel’s mother, corrects him, he tells her to sit down, at which point Mabel snaps back into madness. This must be crucial. Whether it’s as specific as abuse, or as broad as oppression, the father is the key.

Equally ambiguous is the film’s ending, or so some will say. I personally think it ends on an optimistic note. After all the madness between Mabel and Nick, they tuck the kids in bed and Nick tells them, “We got through the night. It was a tough night. Tomorrow’s gonna be better.” And strangely we believe it. Sure, this type of turmoil will flare up again. There will be more fights, more dysfunction, but when the smoke clears, we know Nick will be there to wash the blood off Mabel and tell her he loves her, without ever having to say it. Why doesn’t he say it? Because they’re already as close as two fingers held tightly together, as Mabel demonstrates. The finale also offers a subtle hint at character growth. Early in the film, the phone rings and Nick answers it. We see Mabel’s reaction, dismissing the phone with a weird noise and a thumb motion that says “get out of here you dumb ringing phone.” When this same ringing phone is echoed in the last shot, we see a key difference. Instead of answering the call — which is probably Nick’s mother — he just lets it ring. Meanwhile, he helps Mabel pull out their bed, as they close the drapes on the camera.

Not only does this “curtain closing” recall the closing curtains of a stage play, it reinforces Cassavetes’ whole approach — that he’s showing us real people. It’s as if we’ve just ease-dropped on these lives for a couple hours and now it’s time to go. Remember that in the beginning, the camera is also at a distance in the corner of the living room as Mabel does her crazy routine. It holds still, even as she disappears from sight into anothe room. Thus the film, from a directing standpoint, is structured smartly — beginning at a distance, then moving into the main action full of closeups, then back to distance. How better to do a domestic drama, than to slowly bring us into a case of domestic turmoil, then take us back out?

A Woman Under the Influence earned Cassavetes his one and only Academy Award nomination for Best Director, losing to Coppola for The Godfather Part II (1974). Can’t argue there, but it’s worth analyzing Cassavetes’ approach. To start, I find clever mise-en-scene in the roughneck breakfast scene, as Mabel is positioned directly beneath the “PRIVATE” sign on the bathroom door. It’s the very same sign she hid behind moments earlier as she tried getting up the strength to face her many houseguests. As the scene unfolds, we see Mabel as a people pleaser, a socially awkward one, yes, but a people pleaser. Ironically, it’s Nick who wants to keep his wife’s eccentricites PRIVATE. A nice little touch.

Immediately after that scene, Nick and Mabel sit on opposite ends of the table. The camera set-up shows their physical distance from one another, so distant in face that Nick has to cup his hand around the side of his mouth to yell “Wacko!” It’s not as obvious a technique as when Welles does it in Citizen Kane (1941), but it’s the same principle. Physical distance = emotional distance.

Later, as Nick kisses Mabel on the bed, opera music peaks and, right on beat with the song, Cassavetes cuts to black. Seconds later, Mabel turns on a lamp to bring light back into the frame and she smokes a cigarette. That’s a sex scene. For a film so raw and in-your-face, it’s a nice change of pace.

Cassavetes is also good at going against expectation to generate meaning. When Mabel comes home from the hospital and enters the room to reunite with her children, we hardly see the kids at all. We hear their voices, even see them in a few quick reaction shots, but most of the scene is done in a close-up on Mabel’s face. This is her scene. We’re highlighting her emotions. It’s intimate, provoking and brilliant.

It’s just one example of Cassavetes’ affection for faces, for close-ups. He uses them to make us feel uncomfortable at the breakfast scene, as Mabel literally leans over a guy’s shoulder and stares into his mouth. Soon after, when Nick yells at Mabel, Cassavetes gives a close-up of Mabel’s wounded reaction, and then tilts down to see the uncomfortable faces of the surrounding house guests.

Still, one of the very best bits of direction in the film comes in the use of a simple staircase. Midway through the film, in the scene where the doctor comes to take Mabel to the mental hospital, Nick’s mother literally guards the staircase between Mabel and her kids. Here, the stairs take on the symbol of emotional separation. Later, when Mabel returns from the hospital, Nick takes her onto the stairs, away from their parents downstairs, and in that transitional space of the stairwell, he says his most supportive lines in the entire movie: “I’m with you. There’s nothing you can do wrong. … I just want you to be yourself. This is your house. To hell with them!” In addition to the symbolism, the shot is just damn beautiful, in a raw kind of way. It’s shot in extreme closeup, so that all you can see are the tight silhouettes of their faces.

This in-your-face feel meshes perfectly with the whole Dogme 95 idea. Sporadically throughout the film, we feel the unique chaos only possibly with a handheld camera. We also see moments of lost focus throughout the film, partly because they were beginners, partly because it was intentional. I say this “jarring” approach is intentional because in one scene, as Mabel waits for the schoolbus, Cassavetes purposefully elbowed his cameraman to produce a slight jolt in the shot. (B) I know what you’re thinking. Is that really art? Couldn’t any director just act sloppy and call it art? I suppose. But when the “jolty” movements come in a work that’s so inspired, authentic and consistent as this, it makes the claim of art that much more credible.

“When people think about John, they think about that he is an original and he introduced a new standard for spontanaety in acting that the world had never seen before,” Falk said. “Not only this country, but all those French guys, the New Wave guys. They all were smitten with John. They all took it from him.” (D)

In 2002, MovieMaker Magazine ranked Cassavetes #14 in their 25 Greatest Directors of All Time. Are you ready for the names he ranked above? Billy Wilder. Jean Renoir. Francis Ford Coppola. Howard Hawks. Francois Truffaut. Buster Keaton. Fritz Lang. John Huston. Woody Allen. Luis Bunuel. Ernst Lubitsch. That’s how respected this guy is.

Which brings me back to Filmmaker Magazine‘s claim. Is A Woman Under the Influence really the Most Important Independent Film of All Time? Some scholars won’t even say it’s Cassavetes’ most important. In Empire‘s own countdown of greatest independent films, the magazine chose Cassavetes’ debut, Shadows (1959), which I guess is the true birth of the modern independent movement. And in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Maverick Films, Peter Travers chose Faces (1968), which may very well be the first masterpiece of independent film. But even with all this, how can one bet against A Woman Under the Influence? Is it not Cassavetes’ most assured, engrossing, powerful work of his career?

I guess it’s best to leave it in the manner Scorsese sees it. To him, it’s not even worth choosing a favorite because Cassavetes’ work is all part of the same artistic brushstroke. “His films are like one great musical composition, every one of them interweaves with the other. It’s one great canvas,” Scorsese said. “He, I think, is the standard bearer for the American independent cinema of today. Young people invariably look towards John Cassavetes’ films and the commitment that he had in his work, which was putting his house up for mortgages, shooting in his house, shooting with his friends. He put everything on the line, he put his family’s livelihood on the line to make the films, and that is truly the independent spirit.” (C)


CITE A: The Film Snob’s Dictionary — “Dogme 45”
CITE B: Filmmaker Magazine’s Most Important Independent Films in history
CITE C: TCM’s documentary Edge of Outside
CITE D: Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk interview on Criterion Collection DVD
CITE E: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film
CITE F: rogerebert.com

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