A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)

Oh, what a breath of fresh air this was after “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”!  And that’s really saying something, considering there was barely a moment in “A Woman Under the Influence” where I wasn’t uncomfortable watching this crazy, crazy woman played by Gena Rowlands, and in fact I was pretty much squirming in my seat throughout much of it.  But, it’s a breath of fresh air because I made the very ill-advised decision to make “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” my first John Cassavetes film, and it was simply awful.  All I saw in that movie was Ben Gazarra mumbling his way through situations that I suppose involved sleazy strip club life and murderous gangsters, WAY too much screentime for Mr. Sophistication and his lousy act and just…nonsense.  Nonsense that I’d prefer never to think about again, and nonsense that has no business taking up the bulk of a feature film.

But here, though, is “A Woman Under the Influence,” made two years before “Bookie,” and yes it has a lot of the same elements of that ill-advised movie: the herky-jerky camera that makes it feel like a home movie, the unglamorous, life-like performances, keeping the camera going and stretching seemingly irrelevant scenes for far longer than any other movie would.  That was all a failure in “Bookie,” but a rousing success in “A Woman Under the Influence,” and I think that’s because “Woman” establishes characters early on that we can care about, that we can identify with.  I mean, why would I want to spend about 10 minutes in a 2+ hour movie watching a sleazy strip club act from beginning to end?  That serves no purpose.  Here, though, a constant 10+ minute focus on a mentally unstable wife and her husband at the end of his rope becomes compelling, uncomfortable, and tragic.  I’ve never been so happy to be so uncomfortable watching a movie, because discomfort became a devastating portrait of a disintegrating household with only the slightest hint of redemption, and overall a powerful experience.

Clearly everything in “A Woman Under the Influence” revolves around Gena Rowlands’ Mabel, whether she’s on-screen and off, and that’s exactly what I was focusing on when watching: not necessarily Rowland’s performance itself (which was absolutely wonderful, by the way), but how Mabel affected those around her, especially her husband Nick (Peter Falk).  A word on Rowland first, though, because of course she’s front and center.  Cassavetes introduces Mabel perfectly, in her first scene where she’s manically shoving off the kids for a night with their grandmother, hopping around the yard worrying about this meaningless thing and that.  I would say that something’s very wrong with this woman because of how manic she is over something so trivial as putting her kids in a car, but I’ve seen a certain parent of mine act awfully similar more than once 😛 .  Already, then, the film establishes this character who clearly has issues, but who’s also rooted in reality.  That’s why I care when she causes nothing but anguish for her family and friends, that’s why I feel uncomfortable when she makes strangers and acquaintances around her uncomfortable, and that’s why I feel devastated when she has her inevitable breakdown.

Even before that breakdown, there’s little ticks and little nuances in Rowland’s performance that’ll make you squirm and make you marvel at this performance of a woman on the edge, and god help me if I could actually describe them 😛  There’s that early scene after her husband’s had to cancel their night together and she goes to the bar and drinks up a storm: humming, singing, drumming her hands against the bar, getting a little too close to the guy picking up her tab.  Or the next morning, when she hosts Nick and his construction co-workers: the first thing she asks each and every one of them, naturally: “would you like some spaghetti?”  And when they’re all eating said spaghetti, and just the little ways in which she squirms or looks at everyone that I couldn’t do justice by describing, leading up to her imploring the men to dance and again getting a little too close to one of them.  Nick’s had enough and yells her off, making clear the discomfort that he, his friends, and the audience is feeling.  There’s absolutely nothing normal about Gena Rowlands in this movie, but she doesn’t go over-the-top, Oscar-bait style, either.  She’s crazy, yes, and she’s so eager to please everyone around her and to be what her husband wants her to be, but she’s also convincing and, at least for the first half of the film, stays just enough within the realm of normalcy so that you, like Nick, want to believe that she’s salvageable and can get past this (despite dancing to an imaginary Swan Lake with a horrified neighbor looking on and practically undressing that neighbor’s children so that they can like her).  It’s bizarrely over-the-top, but also with an incredibly unique kind of subtlety that Rowlands seems to have invented on the fly.  This isn’t your typical Holllywood performance of a mentally unstable/deficient person a la Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” or Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump.  There’s not a thing about Rowlands’ performance that’s predictable or, at least at the outset, overly-showy.  It’s a woman in the midst of a nervous breakdown who’s weak barriers keeping her wildest emotions at bay are on the verge of disintigrating.

And that all leads, of course, to the loooong and drawn-out scene of her breakdown, with her distraught husband, mother-in-law, and doctor looking on.  Actually, this centerpiece-like scene didn’t do it for me as much as scenes before, where she’s actually trying to act “normal” and be accepted, before she involuntarily lets all her inhibitions go down the tubes.  In fact, this scene was almost a relief to me, and almost a tension-breaker.  Before this, when Mabel would be just a little too touch-feely or say things just a little off-kilter and inappropriate, I felt as uncomfortable as those who came in contact with her, and I almost felt embarrassed for this woman as if I were there (really says something about the magnitude of this performance).  It was so subtly strange that it was really a brilliant use of tension on Cassavetes’ part, because you know that this woman is a ticking time bomb, but you don’t know when, or if, she’ll go off the deep end, and how much further she’ll go before she does.  Finally, when she does break down, that tension’s released, and you finally know the full extent of how stark-raving mad Mabel can get.  So for that reason, it was a release for my discomfort and a pay-off for Rowlands’ performance.  And what a pay-off it was!  Yes, I was more affected by the more subtly mad Mabel, but even I have to admit how special this 10+ minute scene of her breakdown is (with, as far as I remember, very few camera cuts).  Lest I ruin the utter shock and surprise of the extent of Mabel’s protracted moment of utter madness, I won’t describe exactly what goes on (actually, I couldn’t describe it if I tried 😛 ), but it’s the entire movie’s worth of this woman’s slow descent into complete madness condensed into one long scene.  Responding to her husband and mother-in-law’s pleas to calm down for the sake of the children becomes incomprehensible babble, and that becomes a chicken with its head cut off, basically warding off her mother-in-law with a cross.  Gena Rowlands takes complete center-stage here, non-stop, and it must’ve taken so much energy to pull it off.  It’s insanely over-the-top, but believe it or not, it’s still grounded in the real as it was before, and it shows the complete deep end of where an actor will go to deliver a powerful performance.  She clearly poured her heart out for this performance, and for that reason it’s awkward, unsettling, powerful, and great.

As I said, my chief focus in “A Woman Under the Influence” wasn’t necessarily Mabel, but those around her and how she affects their behavior.  This woman is quite simply a swirling vortex: everything revolves around her, and her descent into the deepest depths of madness sucks everyone in and alters them accordingly.  Mabel’s father, for instance, shows a slight hint or two of having a screw loose at Mabel’s coming home party when he angrily refuses spaghetti.  Her mother fears her and follows her every order as if a child obeying an abusive parent.  Her children, during one of her episodes, worryingly fawn over her and protect her from their angry father as if they were her tiny bodyguards.

And then there’s Peter Falk as Nick.  Boy, this ain’t your parents’ Columbo.  Smooth and likable one minute, flying off the handle and physically abusive the next.  He makes some terrible decisions throughout, like slapping Mabel senseless when she flies off the deep end, pulls the kids out of school to force them to “have fun” at the beach, and feeds his kids beer in the back of a truck.  And yet, I saw him as a sympathetic character.  Why?  Because he didn’t strike me as a naturally abusive person.  He’s a good person and a good father and a loving husband who’s simply been brought to the breaking point by the madness of his wife.  Hell, I’m not sure if I would act so differently than this desperate man in a desperate situation.  Even feeding his kids beer as he sits with them in the back of the truck was horrible parenting, yes, but almost a kind of intimate bonding between father and children, and one of the few quiet moments they’ve had together in the midst of committing a wife and mother.  It’s just one moment that shows a possible madness of his own, and a madness a hell of a lot more subtle and hard to see than Mabel’s.  He feeds his kids beer, abuses his wife in moments of extreme stress, and tells her over and over and over again during her breakdown that he loves her, as if it’s his mantra and he’s trying to convince himself rather than her.  Hell, he even implores the poor woman to be her usual excited, near-manic self when she acts morose at her coming-home party.  Just what the hell does this man want?  I don’t know, and I’m sure he doesn’t know.  He’s been driven to the breaking point just as she has, and for that reason they’re perfect for each other, making the movie’s final seemingly simple image so poignant.

To quote Norman Bates of “Psycho” (and I realize quoting a Hitchcock movie is wildly inappropriate in conjunction with the original independent filmmaker, John Cassavetes 😛 ), “we all go a little mad sometimes.”  And could that be any truer for the Longhetti family?  Mabel is mad, Nick is mad (though it takes a lot of careful observation on the audience’s part to see that), and everyone else is pulled into that vortex.  I identified with this orgy of madness for a number of reasons.  Cassavetes’ simple, home movie-style of shooting and filmmaking gave the movie an air of realism, for one (that’s realism, mind you, not the awful and unwatchable hyper-realism of “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”).  Nick’s, and even Mabel’s, madness are steeped in reality and are exacerbated by issues that could annoy any one of us in real life.  Most of all, though, the madness that’s brought out in Nick and others as a result of (or perhaps in conjunction with) Mabel’s shows the capacity for varying degrees of madness in all of us, and how love, hate, and any everyday occurrence in-between really can drive us all a little mad sometimes.  Perhaps as Mabel and Nick finally bring themselves together and find companionship in their madness, it’s that madness that’s the common factor that bring each of us closer together.  So maybe that’s why I so easily sympathized with Mabel from her first scene onward.



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