- 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 actress’ showcase.
John Cassavetes & Gena Rowlands’ A Woman Under the Influence shows that indie cinema can be as hollow as studio fare
An independently financed and distributed 1974 feature about a neglected housewife, John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence became one of the filmmaker’s most commercially and critically successful efforts, eventually receiving two Academy Award nominations: Best Director and Best Actress for Gena Rowlands for her portrayal of the title character.
To this day, some consider A Woman Under the Influence not only one of the highlights in Cassavetes’ directorial career but also one of the seminal U.S.-made productions of the 1970s.
Yet what sets it 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 at least one made by 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 at least 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 an intellectual 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 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 marred 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.
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Wife
In A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes devised a story about insanity in which just about every character act as if they should be committed to a mental institution for life.
Admittedly, perhaps that’s his point: We’re all nuts. But be that as it may, such an approach evokes little sympathy for Mabel Longhetti, the Los Angeles housewife and mother played by the filmmaker’s real-life spouse and frequent collaborator, Gena Rowlands.
As Mabel’s marriage flounders, we are supposed to witness her gradual 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 tics, off-the-cuff trips to sleazy bars, and, craziest of all, her inexplicable union to the brutish, obnoxious Nick (Peter Falk), a construction worker who spends way too many nights repairing burst water pipes.
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. In his own inarticulate, boorish manner, Nick tries to get his wife to return to the way she used to be.
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 tics, grimaces, and half-smiles. 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 a woman on the verge.
Not helping matters, the rest of the cast is hardly any subtler. Peter Falk’s inarticulateness is as believable as that of an actor in a school play. 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 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.
Reality? What sort of reality?
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, you’d better skip John 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)
Director & Screenplay: John Cassavetes.
Cast: Gena Rowlands. Peter Falk. Fred Draper. Lady Rowlands. Katherine Cassavetes. Eddie Shaw. Matthew Labyorteaux. Matthew Cassel. George Dunn (as O.G. Dunn). Mario Gallo. Angelo Grisanti. Charles Horvath.
Cinematography: Mitchell Breit & Caleb Deschanel (additional photography). Film Editing: David Armstrong, Sheila Viseltear, and Beth Bergeron. Music: Bo Harwood. Art Direction: Phedon Papamichael. Producer: Sam Shaw.
“A Woman Under the Influence (1974)” notes
John Cassavetes & Gena Rowlands collaborations
The others were A Child Is Waiting (1963), 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 Academy Award nomination.
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A Woman Under the Influence cast and crew information via the AFI Catalog website and other sources.
Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence images: Faces International Films.
“A Woman Under the Influence (1974): John Cassavetes’ Indie Is Major Letdown” last updated in December 2020.