Let’s talk about women. Women on screen. Most of the time when we think of women in movies we have a clear image, a predefined vision of what a cinematic woman should be like, look like and act like. And when the tables are turned, and we finally get a performance that does not reflect a woman that way, think of Meryl Streep in Kramer vs Kramer as the quiet, docile yet ruthless wife that asks for child custody, or Charlize Theron in Monster as a prostitute that goes on a killing spree after having been molested one too many times, the general public’s response is to reward them. Usually with an Oscar. But that is a rough sketch of the overall picture. But what if I told you that once upon a time there was a director whose entire filmography revolved around unconventional, in a way uncinematic women? What if I told you that he was a director who revolutionized the image of a woman on screen? I am talking about a filmmaker who understood women in all their complexity and embraced everything about them when making a movie. Often times he’d paint the female protagonist as the hero and simultaneously as the antagonist, too. I am talking about John Cassavetes and I want to dedicate this post to the character of Mabel Longhetti in his 1974 effort, A Woman Under the Influence.
Initially conceived as a play, A Woman Under the Influence quickly became a screenplay for a movie with the same title, as Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes’ wife and lifetime collaborator (appearing in 11 of his movies), felt that playing the character of Mabel would become too excruciating in the long run, as most plays are on five to eight times a week. Because yes, Mabel Longhetti is a mentally disturbed woman, but the mental illness is never made too explicit in the film. In fact, Cassavetes never, in all of his interviews, guest appearances and lectures, never referred to Mabel as a mentally unstable woman. To Cassavetes, Mabel was a woman who suffered many things, just like most people, and to him, that was what made her a character worthy of a movie of her own; Mabel to Cassavetes was a person that lived life with everything she had. To Mabel, every emotion is amplified, and that is also perhaps why A Woman Under the Influence is one of the most disturbing portrayals of family life ever put on screen, and perhaps why Richard Dreyfuss, in an interview following his hit movie Jaws in 1975, when asked what movie had scared him the most in the past decade or so, pointed to Cassavetes’ film, admitting that the emotional intensity of the film, the relentless focus on Mabel and her psychological journey as a mother and wife, was enough to make him vomit in exhaustion upon his return home from the movies.
So what is it that makes A Woman Under the Influence one of, if not, the greatest portrayal of a woman in the history of cinema? For starters there is Gena Rowlands, giving a career-defining performance (more about Gena in a post from 2016) as Mabel Longhetti, devoted mother of three, loyal wife of a construction worker (played by an equally powerful Peter Falk), and above all, a woman tormented by her inability to express her overwhelming love. It is in fact Cassavetes primary goal as a filmmaker to talk about love, as he often stated in some of the interviews prior to his premature death in 1989;
I have a one-track mind. That’s all I’m interested in – love. And the lack of it. When it stops. And the pain that’s caused by loss of things that are taken away from us that we really need.
And it’s true. I remember watching A Woman Under the Influence for the very first time and being highly disturbed by the display of mental illness in the movie. I couldn’t take it, and similarly to Richard Dreyfuss, I felt sick and had to pause the movie a few times just to distance myself from what was taking place in Mabel’s world. However, upon revisiting it a couple of days ago, I watched it with Cassavetes’ idea that it is a film that revolves around the weight of love and what happens when someone is sensitive, vulnerable and in love to the point that even the smallest of things will make that person go crazy and lose balance in life. Because Mabel Longhetti is exactly like that. The first scene we see her appear in, is the scene where she is getting her kids ready to go off with grandma for the weekend. Mabel runs around the driveway making sure her three children have all they need for a weekend away; she tucks in their shirts, she runs back into the house to find an extra pair of shoes, and she keeps repeating to her little joys as they get into grandma’s car ”Get your fingers in! Watch your fingers!” And when finally grandma drives off with the kids, Mabel shuts herself inside the house and starts pacing up and down the hallway, biting on her fingernails, murmuring to herself that she shouldn’t have let them go. The instances when her illness takes over are the instances where her overwhelming love does not know where to go. After a short while, Mabel asks herself in panic ”Where are the kids? Kids? Where are you?”
Mabel is most vulnerable on her own. It is then that her condition turns her into a threat, a threat mostly to herself, as she goes off into the night in search of an adventure and ends up inviting a stranger into her home (it is never made if it is a one-time thing or a repeating occurrence). Meanwhile, her husband Nick is her only life saver, her only certainty in a world that otherwise could be considered her greatest danger, as the immense metropolis that is Los Angeles is bound to push her off-balance into free-fall. When Nick is not home, and that is quite often as his work demands a full 24-hour availability, Mabel is on her own, squaring off with her demons. She indulges in weird moments of self-harm, punching herself in the head, making faces in front of the mirror, drinking hard liquor, smoking packs of cigarettes, running up and down the house in search of something she could her pour love into, but as Cassavetes himself said about how he tackles the theme of love in his movies; ”To have a philosophy is to know how to love, and to know where to put it. […] What everybody needs is a way to say where and how can I love? Can I be in love so I can live with some degree of peace?” Most of the time Cassavetes movies do not deliver an answer to this question. Yet, in A Woman Under the Influence, this very quest to achieve a degree of peace through love is the main focal point of Mabel’s condition.
When Nick comes home from work with a group of hungry co-workers, we see Mabel spring to her feet in excitement: it is time for to express her love for her husband by preparing a wonderful meal for the numerous guests that Nick considers friends. As Mabel sits in silence, looking at the hungry and tired men devouring home-cooked spaghetti with sauce, we can see glimmers of utter happiness. These are the moments that Mabel lives for, these are the instances when she is at her best, and yet… and yet the condition kicks in. The love that Mabel has for people, for her husband, her family, the family’s friends and relatives, is too strong and is bound to go off any minute. In this scene, for example, Mabel becomes friendly with some of Nick’s co-workers, too friendly, to the point that she embarrasses her husband and makes the guests uncomfortable. When they leave, everything dies down, including Mabel.
If Mabel could have one wish from a genie, that wish would be to be able to put her arms around all the people she loves and keep them there, as close to herself as possible. But that is not how the world works in a Cassavetes film as Mabel is soon deemed to be dangerous for her loved ones (she is eventually put in a mental institution for six months); the danger she poses lies in the affectionate way she plays with her children and her children’s friends, in the way she wants to satisfy everybody that enters her home, the way she maniacally runs up and down Hollywood Boulevard asking strangers for the time as she waits for the school bus to arrive and return her kids safely. It’s as if the most ordinary things make her seem crazy in the eyes of others. But to Cassavetes, the film’s writer and director, this is the essence of a woman; forget the beauty and sex-appeal, the essence of a female protagonist lies in her quirks, her flaws, her habits, her dreams, ambitions and regrets. Mabel is full of them. Cassavetes criticism of women’s depiction in movies is key in analyzing A Woman Under the Influence;
I’m very worried about the depiction of women on the screen. It’s gotten worse than ever and it’s related to their being either high- or low-class concubines, and the only question is when or where they will go to bed, with whom, and how many. There’s nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her.
In Cassavetes’ brilliant psychological domestic drama we experience a woman. An ordinary woman who is not successful, who doesn’t have a job, who doesn’t go out shopping, who doesn’t do things for pleasure or out of interest. Her world, and her experience comes from inside, because Mabel is crazy in the eyes of others, but when she looks in the mirror, she doesn’t see a crazy person; she sees an emotionally rich person, who through a vast range of emotions that can quickly turn happiness into fear, fear into anger, anger into pure joy, confusion into bliss, is desperately trying to find a way to fit into the environment she is forced to be part of. Her body is tied to the physical world, but her mind isn’t. Mabel wants to live for others, through others; in numerous scenes she simulates the behavior of her children because it is her understanding that a mother raising children should feel the same things as her children. And so she dances, she whistles, she races down the street, she makes faces and puts on costumes because her children deserve to be at the center of her attention. And when her husband brings around his friends she finds fitting to emulate his attitude, that of a tough, working man, a macho figure, a bread winner and the head of the household. What comes off as ridicule to Nick is Mabel’s way of telling him, Look how much I love you. Look how much I care about you. Look how much I admire you.
To end this piece, Bo Harwood, the film’s music composer said that to him the score to A Woman Under the Influence is ”basically about love […] about loving somebody, loving your family, loving them no matter what,” which is a fitting conclusion, considering that Mabel is full of imperfections but so are the people around her, above all Nick, her husband, who at times reveals himself to be just as crazy as his wife. Then you might say, well if this is about love and loving somebody, what does the concept of a cinematic woman have to do with this post? To which I’ll reply, everything. To me, and famed critics like Roger Ebert, Mabel represents Cassavetes himself, and his experience with dealing with love, family, betrayal and hardship, and that is why, the portrayal of this particular woman is the most accurate, complete and telling I have ever seen; Mabel represents everything that we might want her to represent. Her condition is the accumulation of values, emotions, stories, incidents and thoughts that we all have, that we all share. That’s what makes her so multidimensional, so unconventional, so beautifully unique, and that is also why cinema would never be the same after the film’s release. Cassavetes and Rowlands, in other words, together revolutionized what a woman can do in a film, what she can stand for and what she can bring to the art form that is cinema.