- A Woman Under the Influence (1974) movie review: Independently financed and distributed, director-screenwriter John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands’ family comedy-drama fails both as psychological study and as thespian showcase.
- A Woman Under the Influence synopsis: Lonely, unfulfilled, emotionally distraught housewife and mother Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) starts behaving in an odd manner. Eventually, her crusty blue-collar husband, Nick (Peter Falk), must decide whether or not to commit her to a mental institution.
- A Woman Under the Influence received two Academy Award nominations: Best Director and Best Actress (Gena Rowlands).
A Woman Under the Influence (1974) movie review: John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands’ marriage dramedy proves that American indie cinema can be as hollow as studio fare
An independently financed and distributed 1974 feature about a neglected housewife, screenwriter-director John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence became one of the filmmaker’s most commercially and critically successful efforts, eventually receiving Academy Award nominations for Cassavetes (in the Best Director category) and for his wife and frequent collaborator, Gena Rowlands, for her portrayal of the title character.
To this day, some consider this psychological comedy-drama not only one of the highlights in Cassavetes’ career as an indie auteur but also one of the seminal U.S.-made productions of the 1970s.
Yet what exactly sets A Woman Under the Influence apart from Hollywood studio releases depicting similar situations, from Dancing Mothers and Strangers When We Meet to, also from the first half of the 1970s, Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Last Picture Show, and Summer Wishes Winter Dreams?
Below is a brief comparison that may explain things a bit.
Dueling schools: Steven Spielberg vs. John Cassavetes
Steven Spielberg is a respected film director. Many will go as far as labeling him an auteur. When you watch a Spielberg film, you know it’s a Spielberg film – or one made by any of his countless imitators.
John Cassavetes is a respected film director. No one will deny the fact that Cassavetes is an auteur. When you watch a Cassavetes film, you know it’s a Cassavetes film – or an (invariably low- to micro-budget) imitation of one.
Even so, aside from self-important works like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, it’s still acceptable to dismiss Spielberg’s films and even Spielberg himself. On the other hand, if you want to be taken seriously as a film connoisseur, it’s utterly unacceptable to dismiss Cassavetes’ films or his talent as an artist.
Why the double standard?
Well, the answer is a simple one. 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 be – or at least give the impression of being – poor, authentic, and an outsider.
Thus, John Cassavetes’ fiercely independent movies like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence are hailed as masterpieces despite their self-indulgence, their superficiality, and, gasp!, their glaring artificiality.
For Cassavetes’ search for cinematic truth is often hindered by the filmmaker’s passion for his own brilliance. Scenes linger on for hours (or seem like they do), while mindless, meaningless dialogue is spoken, yelled, and mumbled nonstop, back and forth, for no apparent reason – except, perhaps, to hide the fact that those people have little of interest to say.
The result is a series of movies whose rawness feels as calculated and phony as the gooey sentimentality found in The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, and Amistad.
A Woman Under the Influence plot: It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Wife
In A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes devised a story about insanity in which just about every character acts as if they should all be committed to a mental institution for life.
Admittedly, perhaps that’s his point: We’re all nuts. Be that as it may, such an approach evokes little sympathy for Los Angeles housewife and mother Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) – a woman on the verge, if ever there was one.
Here’s why: As Mabel’s marriage flounders – her working-class husband, Nick (two-time Oscar nominee Peter Falk), spends way too many nights repairing burst water pipes – we are supposed to witness her gradual psychological disintegration. Instead, what’s clear for all to see is that this woman was already pretty off-kilter to begin with, as evidenced by assorted facial tics, off-the-cuff trips to sleazy bars, and, craziest of all, her inexplicable union with someone as boorish and obnoxious as Nick.
In time, Mabel’s “eccentricities” – her tics, her chattiness, her habit of talking to herself – begin to be perceived as manifestations of serious mental issues. Fearing for the safety of her son and grandchildren, Nick’s bossy mom (Katherine Cassavetes, the filmmaker’s real-life mother) wants Mabel sent to a mental institution. Nick ultimately acquiesces and has his wife committed for several months.
When Mabel finally returns, she’s a mere shadow of the woman she used to be. Gone are her chattiness, her weirdness – and her personality. What do do?
Unsubtle acting all around
Throughout the first segment of A Woman Under the Influence, Gena Rowlands – always a handsome screen presence – telegraphs her encroaching madness by amping up her character’s twitches, grimaces, and smirks. It’s clear that the filmmaker and his actress-wife didn’t check out Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly and Harriet Andersson’s harrowing portrayal of another woman on the verge.
Not helping matters, the rest of the cast is hardly any subtler.
Peter Falk’s inarticulateness is as convincing as that of an actor in a school play. Besides, only “mad” Mabel could believe that the coarse, simple-minded Nick would ever be capable of giving her the love and understanding she craves.
Katherine Cassavetes’ domineering mother-in-law, for her part, is just a hardboiled 1970s version of Gladys Cooper’s stern matriarch in Now Voyager.
And as played by Eddie Shaw, the doctor who comes to diagnose Mabel’s illness would fit right in as an 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 the two-hour-and-thirty-five-minute A Woman Under the Influence.
Next time you hear/read someone assert that John Cassavetes’ movies present a raw, uncompromising depiction of reality, ask yourself what sort of reality those people live in.
And if you’re in the mood for some slice-of-real-life action, skip Cassavetes altogether and check out instead something directed by Éric Rohmer, Ermanno Olmi, or Claude Sautet.
Else, just go out on the street.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974) cast & crew
Direction & Screenplay: John Cassavetes.
Peter Falk … Nick Longhetti
Gena Rowlands … Mabel Longhetti
Fred Draper … George Mortensen
Lady Rowlands … Martha Mortensen
Katherine Cassavetes … Mama [Margaret] Longhetti
Matthew Laborteaux … Angelo Longhetti
Matthew Cassel … Tony Longhetti
Christina Grisanti … Maria Longhetti
O.C. Dunn … Garson Cross
Mario Gallo … Harold Jensen
Eddie Shaw … Dr. Zepp
Angelo Grisanti … Vito Grimaldi
Charles Horvath … Eddie
James Joyce … Bowman
John Finnegan … Clancy
Vince Barbi … Gino
Xan Cassavetes … Adrienne Jensen
Nick Cassavetes … Adolph
Cinematography: Mitchell Breit (“in charge of lighting”).
Future multiple Best Cinematography Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, 1983; The Natural, 1984; etc.) was responsible for some “additional photography.”
Film Editing: David Armstrong, Sheila Viseltear, and Beth Bergeron.
Producer: Sam Shaw.
Art Director: Phedon Papamichael.
Wardrobe: Carole Smith.
Production Company | Distributor: Faces International Films.
Running Time: 155 min.
Country: United States.
“A Woman Under the Influence (1974): John Cassavetes + Gena Rowlands” notes
John Cassavetes & Gena Rowlands collaborations
The others were A Child Is Waiting (1963), a United Artists release starring Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster, and with Rowlands in a supporting role; Faces (1968); Minnie and Moskowitz (1971); Opening Night (1977); Gloria (1980); and Love Streams (1984).
In addition, Rowlands has a bit in Cassavetes’ first feature, Shadows (1958).
A Columbia Pictures release, Gloria earned Gena Rowlands her second – and to date last – Best Actress Oscar nomination.
 The star director of blockbusters like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg was once a production assistant on a small-budget mid-1960s project written and directed by none other than John Cassavetes: Faces, eventually released in 1968.
Academy Award nominee Peter Falk
 Peter Falk’s Oscar nominations, both in the Best Supporting Actor category, were for Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenberg’s Murder, Inc. (1960) and Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961).
A Woman Under the Influence movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.
Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence movie images: Faces International Films.
“A Woman Under the Influence (1974): John Cassavetes + Gena Rowlands” last updated in September 2023.