Home Movie Reviews A Woman Under the Influence Review: Gena Rowlands-John Cassavetes Collaboration

A Woman Under the Influence Review: Gena Rowlands-John Cassavetes Collaboration

Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes
Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence

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 – a.k.a. “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.

A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands

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)

Director & Screenplay: John Cassavetes.

Cast: Gena Rowlands. Peter Falk. Fred Draper. Lady Rowlands. Katherine Cassavetes. Eddie Shaw.

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Joseph Kearny -

Dreadful film. Rowlands over does it and it goes on and on without any insight.

T. Thomas -

I only read this review, because it is recent. It deserves to be buried and quickly… It is an insult to Cassavetes and a willful misunderstanding by a person who cannot possibly like let alone understand a complex female character.

RBad -

Please don’t label this article a review of A Woman Under the Influence. It hardly “reviews” a sliver of the film. The dismissals and exaggerations regarding A Woman clearly function to bolster the author’s idea that the powers that be favor Cassavetes’ auteur status over Spielberg’s. I propose this tag for the article’s genre: “Op-Ed.”

Does anyone find interesting that this reviewer/movie-goer responds to Mabel’s insanity in the same manner that every other character in the movie (save the children) either embraces or struggles to embrace or to ignore this insanity? One of the strengths of this film is the challenge Mabel’s presence, mannerisms, “ticks” as Soares labels them, presents to the status quo of the film’s world, and obviously ours. Do we throw her in the loony bin? Shoot her with sedatives? Slap her? Patronize her? Play along? Soothe her? Rape her? Ignore her?

What to do with Woman?

I welcome and enjoy interpretation, but I find offensive that, in the author’s attempt to bolster a paranoid theory (i.e. Spielberg gets no respect), he misrepresents the facts of the movie, that is what happened. There were not “trips” to a bar, there was one. And way to go again, champ: Hold her trip to the bar as a symptom of her “crazy.” In other words, dismiss her (by calling her crazy), holding a trip to a bar - which I’m sure would be okay were she a male character - after which she is raped. Mabel is raped in the beginning of the movie. As critics, should’t we pause to consider the significance of this? And as critics, shouldn’t we limit ourselves from diagnosing characters (and I doubt our critic is a doctor anyway)? Should we ask a more “film” question: What is the significance of Mabel’s insanity, one that is performed, that is recognizable insofar as it threatens, transcends, and challenges the prevailing context and cast surrounding her?

Alt Film Guide - this is not a review, it is an op-ed by Soares. If you would like a true review (I imagine your readers would), I would love to write one for you. You have my e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you.


Phyllys Murtle -

The the most skewed, shallow and ridiculous critique I have read on this American film master piece. Woman under the influence has beyond merited the haut-niveau of respect that it has received. I feel sorry for this Andre Soares character, who must have been distracted by his inability to recognize the truth that is exposed in this film; a woman who is by no means crazy- this is obvious- surrounded by a confused and oppressive generation whose politesse, and thus derived rules and manners, have shot straight out of the puritanical “new- world”, making any emotional woman, “insane” and caught in a similar position of a woman on trial during “the Inquisition”. Good luck with your future reviews Sir Andre Soares.

Gustavo -

If one feels like reading about Cassavetes and A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, one is certainly not looking for is a gratuitous, uncareful dismissal of a completely unrelated filmmaker.

Nevermind my longtime admiration for Spielberg: it’s very telling that, to praise Cassavete’s work, you have to shoot down the former. And that is most certainly off-putting for John’s fans.

One word: insecurity.

If I had to write something about Spielberg and praise him, I wouldn’t even think of trashing, say, Roland Emmerich…

Andre -


Thanks for writing, but…did you actually go beyond the first two lines in this post?

I don’t praise Cassavetes’ film or his work in general. And I certainly didn’t make the Cassavetes-Spielberg comparison to make the former come out on top. In fact, I find most of Spielberg’s highly commercial movies — and that includes at least some of his “serious” efforts — much more interesting and watchable than Cassavetes’. (And I’m no Spielberg fan.)

The comparison was made so as to point out a double standard: auteur’s independent film = good; auteur’s commercial film = bad (or not so good). Though, admittedly, Spielberg is now much more respected than he used to be.

Proman -

And to the person who claims to be Jim Jarmusch.

Most of Spielberg’s work is trash? Really? Dismissive much?

And Indy 4 was largely accepted by both audiences and critics (check that RT score) just fine. It a superbly directed film and whatever flaws it may have in it’s screenwriting, it an excellent tribute to 50s Sci-fi and whatever cheesiness it may have had was purely intentional.

Proman -

“Spielberg is the personification of expensive, slick, mainstream Hollywood.”

And you are a personification of shallow, elitist, quick to dismiss typist. Spielberg a man who made such films as “Munich” and “Color Purple”, “Sugarland Express” and “Amistad”, among many others is personifiaction of a master of range and depth. Don’t make him sound like a Michael Bay clone. The man’s budgets even for his blockbusters are routinely lower than that of other filmmakers and his still manages to make them look better.

And there’s nothing self-important about his dramatic works. It’s really sad to see someone praise one filmmaker without putting someone else down.

jim jarmusch -


jim jarmusch -

i wanst talking too much about the film…just how the guy made cheap shots against spielberg…which im not a huge fan….but i see shindlers with good eye….the acting is way more groundbased and realistic than those of cassavettes….cassavettes puts people in the cathegory of “laughing out loud”..which feels like a random idea of reality….but that doesnt means we gotta “hate” the guy just beacuse its “commercial”…some of the biggest films in movie hystory are made of big budget….thats what im trying to say….anyway i think both directors tend to go to extreme with their own personal styles…which is hugely cheap too….so…

Andre -

Not that I want to take credit away from others, but I believe s/he was calling *my* review “horribly narrow-minded and simplistic” — not your comment.

L.W. Hodge -

This is a horribly narrow-minded and simplistic interpretation of this film which is easily among the greatest works in all of American cinema. Your loss.

jim jarmusch -

i think shindlers list is superior to any work that cassavetes has released…why?….better acting…better camera work…better story…YES…better use of music…better despiction of human nature…amazing images all over the place…and althrough many people find spielberg “too light”…well my friend: shindlers list is an exercise of light and shadow….thing cassavetes coulnt handle in his movies…plus steve presents shindlers list as the whole package: the hystory of cinema via his very personal point of view…it has bergman,italian neo 50’s & silent film elements from such titans as pabst and even elements of david lean…he didnt just copy them..but he was overwhelmed & inspired by such works of art that he made one by himself…its remarcable..its a story told tenderly but with an emotional raw power & perfect pitch fluid images that even cassavetes could never have achieved even if he could get a huge budget to shot one of his films…cause shindler has brutal scenes, brutal use of deaths..but most of all..social terror & intimal relationships…(BUT not on the cheese level as color purple or amistad or the exesive cheese laughs on some cassavetes films)….the material…too huge & complicated…thats too much juice for cassavetes….as exelent as john could be at times…he was more lazy than people think..and most of “artistic people” cant see that….im more of a fan on underground films…jim jarmusch films & bergman’s & some of cassavetes are among my favs…but shindler stands out as the cornerstone of the 90’s filmmaking….most of the work of spielberg seems to be trash..but no sir..this one passed the test of time & reached top quality filmmaking…i admit it….even being such a underground freak…and amen for this talented jew…(well..sometimes not…indy 4 was ajoke even for commercial audiences)…..my regards…waiting for a response


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