HomeMovie ReviewsA Woman Under the Influence (1974): John Cassavetes’ Indie Is Major Letdown

A Woman Under the Influence (1974): John Cassavetes’ Indie Is Major Letdown

A Woman Under the Influence (1974): John Cassavetes’ indie – starring his wife, Gena Rowlands, as a (maybe) mad housewife – is evidence that fiercely independent filmmaking doesn’t necessarily result in a mature or profound final product. (Pictured: Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence.)
  • 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.

Artificial authenticity

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.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974). In Penelope, neglected wife Natalie Wood robs her husband’s bank. In Strangers When We Meet and The Last Picture Show, neglected wives Kim Novak and Cloris Leachman find themselves a lover. In A Woman Under the Influence, Gena Rowlands acts “crazy.”

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.[1]

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

[1] John Cassavetes directed Gena Rowlands in seven features; A Woman Under the Influence was their fourth joint effort.

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.


Recommended articles

If you liked “A Woman Under the Influence (1974): John Cassavetes’ Indie Is Major Letdown,” check out:


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.

12 comments

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12 comments

Joseph Kearny -

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

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Best,
RBad.

Reply
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.

Reply
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…

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
jim jarmusch -

oh….ok…peace…

Reply
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…

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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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