For John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands was always more than a muse: “When I saw her, that was it! The first time I saw her, I was with an actor, John Ericson, and I said, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry.’” But Rowlands, focused on her acting career, dismissed his advances. “Once in a while, we would meet and get coffee, and he’d ask if I’d like to go out, and I said, ‘No, I’m not interested in going out with anyone. I’m going to be an actress.’ And it just went along that way until I graduated,” Rowlands told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015.
That all changed in 1954 when Rowlands and Cassavetes entered into one of cinema’s most iconic marriages. Together until Cassavetes’ death in 1989, the director and actress duo collaborated on ten films, many of which are featured in Metrograph’s Cassavetes/Rowlands series, running through July 24.
This past Saturday, Rowlands entered Metrograph’s sold-out screening of Cassavetes’ groundbreaking A Woman Under the Influence to a standing ovation. “I would say this is my favorite,” said Rowlands to the two-tiered theater during the discussion that followed the film. “I really thought that it was an awfully, awfully deep script, and the family had so many problems that they had to overcome or overlook or overdo.” The film, a two-act observation of Mabel (Rowlands) and Nick Longhetti’s (Peter Falk) marriage, shifts between tempestuous and tender as Mabel slips further into her mental illness. “I thought considering all of the problems I had—when I say ‘I’, I mean my character—he [Nick] showed a strange kind of beautiful patience, even though he popped me around a couple of times.”
During the screening, Nick’s domestic violence shocked the audience into an audible gasp when, in a staccato end to a circular chase around the house, Nick hit Mabel off the sofa. “That was not my position on taking care of problems. Not at all,” responded Rowlands when asked about the scene. “However, I was playing a very complicated character.” When Mabel returns from being institutionalized, the outcome of a frenzied request by her mother-in-law (played by Cassavetes’ actual mother) for being “cra-zy” (or as Mabel’s son more kindly describes, “Nervous”), she begins to demonstrate old tics, despite trying to quell any behavior that may seem erratic. “I think his love was such that he knew I was slipping back. And somehow, he felt he had to do something startling . . . something that could place me someplace else than where I was going.” While Cassavetes was famously provocative as a director, Rowlands emphasized the line between her personal life and the actions portrayed in the film. “I accepted it in the movie. I wouldn’t accept it at home. It was a movie.”
“A lot of our friends, we could see certain troubles,” said Rowlands about Cassavetes’ ability to realistically portray mental illness. “And you know, who isn’t a little mentally whacko? Obviously it caught John’s interest because practically every movie he made that I was in, I was whacko.” To this end, the film infuses moments of heightened unease with humor and sensitivity toward Mabel, even when she acts out. “That’s what I liked about the whole movie, the generosity of people, with everybody. They were just a great bunch of people, except my mother-in-law,” she quipped. “But even that, she came around in the end because I think that she recognized that the family and friends were being kind about me and understanding.”
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, Rowlands’ performance in the film is expansive and physically demanding. When asked how she accessed the range of emotion and nuance needed to play Mabel, Rowlands responded modestly and with understated love: “I think the credit has to go to the writer. If he writes good things for me to say, I’ll probably say them pretty well. I think the writer is the secret to it.”
—By Brittany Stigler