For the second feature in our screening series with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation at Nitehawk cinema, we present a gem from independent maverick John Cassavetes called A Woman Under the Influence. The 1974 drama concerns a troubled housewife and features a jaw-dropping performance by Gena Rowlands. It's a performance that is rightfully counted as one of the greatest acting achievements of all time. Simultaneously life-affirming and soul-crushing (often within the same scene), this is not cookie-cutter cinema. These are heavy, complex themes explored by unhinged actors twirling in a maelstrom of emotions, and if you want to make it through this thing without having a breakdown we’d recommend dulling your senses with a stiff drink. Also, Kim Gordon will be on hand to introduce the film and help you cope with what you're about to see.
To get you in the mood, we asked a few of our favorite cinema buffs to weigh in on the film. There are a few small spoilers, so if you really enjoy being completely blindsided when you walk into a theater, maybe just show up at Nitehawk tomorrow and be blown away.
- Introduction by Greg Eggebeen
“A Woman Under the Influence” is a terrific, evocative title, but a very strange one for a filmmaker previously partial to the bluntness of unadorned plural nouns: Shadows, Faces, Husbands… titles that dare you as a viewer to draw your own conclusions about their meanings. But this one, well, it all seems laid out for you, right? She’s under the influence! This is a movie about the dangers of alcoholism! It does have a kind of mid-70s “afterschool special” ring to it.
Perhaps that’s what I thought I was getting into when I walked into a theater at age 20 to watch this movie. And yep, right off the bat, there’s Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti looking very down-and-out indeed, trashed at a sleazy LA bar. But oh boy, I had no idea where this thing was headed. I had no clue that by the end of it alcohol would seem almost incidental to this story—a kind of red herring, like making a movie about Al Capone and calling it The Tax Evader. Mabel Longhetti is far too powerful a force for her behavior to be ascribed to any particular “influence.” This woman is the influence.
I’d never seen anything like it. It blew the doors of perception wide open for me and rebuilt my notions of what cinema might do—or should do. If Woman is not my favorite of Cassavetes’ films, that is simply because it is too painful. Certainly it is the most directly powerful thing he ever did, a big fat tap right into the mainline of all his deepest, most wrenching concerns. And unless you give birth or lose a loved one within the four walls of a movie theater, it is as crucial an experience as you will ever have there.
HANNAH FIDELL – DIRECTOR (A Teacher)
I’m probably going to get a lot of shit for writing this, but there is no need to go to film school if you want to be a writer/director. With no formal training in filmmaking, I decided while still in college (Indiana University, which, at the time had no real filmmaking program) to critically watch movies as homework. This still holds true today: the more I watch, the better versed I am in what works and doesn’t work on the screen.
No director has taught me more than John Cassavetes, and no film has been more influential than A Woman Under the Influence. Cassavetes isn’t afraid of using close-ups; of going handheld; of blocking a scene not for the ease of the cameraman, but so that the actors can breathe—and have room to really inhabit their roles. Because of this, his actors trusted him. Cassavetes’s wife, Gena Rowlands—and, for that matter, his best friend, Peter Falk—were not afraid to look foolish on screen, to make mistakes as their characters to show a type of rawness unheard of in the films that Cassavetes himself had continued to star in to pay the bills. Falk and Rowlands showed insecurity and pain and dug deep into themselves and their own personal histories to get to those dark places that Cassavetes asked them to go. And because of this, A Woman Under the Influence is a masterpiece.
I didn't know much about John Cassavetes outside of him being the guy whose head blows up at the end of Brian DePalma's The Fury and the crazy maniac in The Dirty Dozen. I gradually became aware of his pioneering work as a filmmaker by reading about it in college and talking to my brother Jim, a film scholar, about it. As an actor, I was particularly intrigued by the idea that Cassavetes used improvisation in rehearsals with his actors. He would write scripts around those improv sessions and shoot films that seemed like extremely compelling documentaries instead of the very rigorously written and structured works of art that they were.
It wasn't until a fateful night in 1994 that I was exposed to the work itself. My friend, the actor Paul Adelstein and I were doing a stage version of A Clockwork Orange at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. We would usually get pretty charged up after the show, so that night we decided to rent a movie. I don't know why, but we chose Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie starring Ben Gazzara, an actor I was primarily familiar with as the villain in the Patrick Swayze classic Road House. Watching a pan-scan VHS copy of that movie on what couldn’t have been more than an 11-inch television set was one of the most revelatory experiences of my movie-watching life. Gazzara's performance is one of the five greatest pieces of acting ever committed to film. It's the only film I can think of that I rewound and watched over again immediately after the first screening. I was shaken to my core. I also learned that the character of Cosmo Vitelli, played by Gazzara, was somewhat based on Cassavetes himself. All of his films, in fact, were home movies of a sort—they were about his life, the lives of his family and friends.
Sometime thereafter, The Music Box Theatre showed a complete retrospective of his career. This was the first time I saw A Woman Under the Influence. My God, I thought. Is this really happening, or is this a movie? I was VERY aware of Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands as actors, but I was still somehow convinced that this was one of the most revealing documentaries about marriage and mental illness I had ever seen. How has he captured all this?
After many years of watching and reading about John Cassavetes, I have a little more insight, but I'm still not sure how he did it. He was a true original. Cassavetes was able to pull you into the pit of madness and smear you with his characters anguish, joy, and pain all at once.
A Woman Under the Influence sometimes reveals itself to me as a woman battling a debilitating mental illness. But other viewings make me feel like Gena Rowlands' Mabel is the only one who REALLY gets it—who really knows what's going on. She knows the truth. She holds the secrets of existence. She's not crazy, everyone else is! Perhaps more than any of his other films, A Woman Under the Influence demonstrates Cassavetes' profound understanding of humanity. How we can be joyful, sad, happy, despondent, euphoric, hopeless, loving, angry, hateful, and beautiful all at once and STILL not be insane. We're just humans trying to figure ourselves, and each other, out.
A Woman Under the Influence was preserved in cooperation with Faces Distribution Corp. from the original 35mm color negative and original 35mm fullcoat magnetic soundtrack. Laboratory services by Cinetech, Audio Mechanics, NT Audio. Special thanks to Gena Rowlands and Al Ruban.
Preservation funded by the Film Foundation and GUCCI.
For tickets, click here.