Steven Spielberg is a respected film director. Many will even call him an auteur. When you watch a Spielberg film, you know it's a Spielberg film – or at least one made by his myriad imitators. John Cassavetes is a respected film director. No one will deny the fact that Cassavetes is a film auteur. When you watch a Cassavetes film, you know it's a Cassavetes film – or at least a Henry Jaglom imitation of a Cassavetes film.
Now, apart from self-important works like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, it is still acceptable to dismiss Spielberg's films and even Spielberg himself. On the other hand, if you want to be taken seriously as an intellectual film connoisseur, it is totally unacceptable to dismiss Cassavetes' films or his talent as an artist. Why the double standard?
Well, that's quite simple. Spielberg is the personification of expensive, slick, mainstream Hollywood. Cassavetes, on the other hand, is the personification of cheap, raw, independent filmmaking. A true artist must a least give the impression of being poor, honest, and an outsider.
Thus, Cassavetes films such as A Woman Under the Influence – aka "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Wife" – are hailed as masterpieces despite their self-indulgence, their superficiality, and, gasp, their blatant artificiality. For Cassavetes' search for the truth in his films is marred by the director-writer's passion for his own brilliance. Scenes linger on for hours (or it seems like they do), while mindless, meaningless dialogue is talked, yelled, and screamed nonstop, back and forth, for no apparent reason – except, perhaps, to hide the fact that those people don't have anything of interest to say. The result is a series of films whose rawness feels as calculated and phony as the gooey sentimentality found in Amistad or The Color Purple.
In A Woman Under the Influence, we have a film about insanity in which every single character should be committed to a mental institution for life. Perhaps that is Cassavetes' point: we are all totally nuts. Be that as it may, that approach evokes little sympathy for Mabel Longhetti, the bizarre housewife played by the filmmaker's real-life wife, Gena Rowlands.
As her marriage flounders, we are supposed to witness poor, lonely Mabel disintegrate before our eyes. But what I saw instead was a woman already pretty crazy to begin with – what with assorted ticks, off-the-cuff trips to sleazy bars, and, craziest of all, an inexplicable marriage to the brutish, obnoxious Nick (Peter Falk), a construction worker who spends too many nights repairing burst water pipes to keep her company.
Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence
Eventually, Mabel's eccentricities – her chattiness, her nervous ticks, her habit of talking to herself – are seen as severe mental problems. Nick's mother (Katherine Cassavetes, the filmmaker's real-life mother), fearing for the safety of her son and grandchildren, wants Mabel sent to a mental institution. Nick eventually acquiesces and has his wife committed for several months.
When Mabel returns, she's a mere shadow of the woman she used to be. Gone are her chattiness, her eccentricities – and her personality. In his own inarticulate, boorish manner, Nick tries to get his wife to return to the way she used to be.
Throughout it all, Gena Rowlands telegraphs her encroaching madness by proportionally increasing her number of ticks, grimaces, and half-smiles. (Rowlands and John Cassavetes should have taken a good look at Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly and at Harriet Andersson's harrowing performance as a woman on the verge.)
The rest of the cast is hardly any subtler. Peter Falk's inarticulateness is as believable as that of an amateur actor in a school play. Only crazy Mabel could believe that the coarse, simple-minded Nick would be capable of giving her the love and understanding she needs. Katherine Cassavetes' domineering mother-in-law is an over-the-top 1970s version of Gladys Cooper's stern mom in Now, Voyager. The doctor (Eddie Shaw) who comes to diagnose Mabel's illness looks like a capable assistant to either Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Phibes. Mabel freaks out when he gets near her, but, hell, who wouldn't? And such are the raw and real characters found in A Woman Under the Influence.
When someone says that Cassavetes' films reflect reality, I wonder about the sort of reality those people live in. If it is a slice of real life you want, forget Cassavetes. Check out an Eric Rohmer film instead. Or just go out on the street.
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974). Dir. / Scr.: John Cassavetes. Cast: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Fred Draper, Lady Rowlands, Katherine Cassavetes, Eddie Shaw.
Note: A version of this A Woman Under the Influence review was originally posted in October 2004.