Mad Gena

Mad Gena

I want to talk about a woman today. There are many women in film. Probably the first name that comes to mind is Meryl Streep. Or maybe Glenn Close. Grace Kelly. Lauren Bacall. Bette Davis. Joan Crawford. Rita Hayworth. Ingrid Bergman. Audrey Hepburn. Katherine Hepburn. And many, many more. However the one woman I cannot stop thinking about since having watched John Cassavetes’ magical Love Streams from 1984, is John’s wife, the great, fearless, ballsy Gena Rowlands.

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Gena is an actress  whose career in the entertainment industry has spanned over six decades. She is still rolling strong. A woman that always went all out in her roles and maybe that’s why she is so interesting to me. During a time when classic Hollywood always had the same prepared formulas, ways of writing, ways of directing and ways of acting, such a formidable force of nature like Gena emerged at the end of the 1950s and shook the world of film with her incredible attitude. Women at the time were mostly paid to play devoted wives, widows who’d fall for the gardener, objects of obsession and trophy girlfriends. Even the great actresses like Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall played these stereotypical parts at one point in their lives. Then something happened to cinema. The beat generation appeared out of nowhere. The hippies joined in. European cinema and the idea of Cinéma vérité (‘the cinema of truth’, a style of documentary filmmaking) started taking over the once magic film industry in the West. Suddenly all the rules were being broken all at once, and one of the people responsible for this was Gena and her natural approach to acting. Gena was married to the great late John Cassavetes,  master of improvisation and an inspiration to all the New Wave filmmakers and other young explorers like Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola. Gena, on the other hand, is still to this day an inspiration to all modern actresses. You’ll see glimpses of her in Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Tilda Swinton and Jennifer Lawrence. The question is, why is that? What was so unique about Gena Rowlands?

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Gena was special. She still is. She is 86 years old now and still going strong. Her years of multiple collaborations with her husband in movies like Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening NightGloria, and Love Streams made of her a legend of realism in the acting field of cinema. There was something very weird about her. Perhaps the word ‘weird’ doesn’t do her justice. Mad. yes, there was something absolutely mad about her. She rocked the screen. Her characters were always hurt, squeezed into a pulp, used, abused, damaged, and yet she always managed to stand up and face whatever challenge awaited her. She played women with problems because she understood the situations her characters found themselves in. She knew what she was doing and yet we, as viewers, seem to be completely blown away by her spontaneity, sometimes unsure if what she is doing on screen doesn’t reflect her actions off screen. Take A Woman Under the Influence for example; the main character is a loving wife, a dear mother, but most of all a sick, trapped person. Trapped inside her own mind, tormented by her painful condition, crowded by her corrupt thoughts. It’s one the most harrowing experiences to watch her character stumble on the floor, yell at herself, run out on the street wearing nothing but a dressing gown and slippers, wait for a bus that never comes. We cringe, we want to turn it off and yet Gena’s presence keeps us glued. Every character of hers is like a well oiled machine, it just keeps on moving forward, speeding up, never taking a break. In Minnie and Moskowitz, Gena, who plays Minnie, cannot find true love. How do you play a character like that? How to you show to the audience the fact that you can’t find love? Love is not material. We don’t know what love is. So how does she do it? Gena becomes the character. That’s her secret. She puts all the rules, all the laws of golden Hollywood acting behind her and pours her soul into every scene. She understands the character and she understands life. She understands the difficulties a woman faces on a daily basis. Maybe she even understood the importance of her roles. After all, nobody up to that point was interested in seeing a film solely focused on a female protagonist. Every audience member awaited a Rock Hudson, or a James Dean or a Cary Grant to appear on screen and dominate the story. Maybe that was her secret. With each character she brought something new. Usually it was something heavy, difficult to digest and yet, there she was carrying that incredibly heavy burden on her back. Gena felt compelled to do justice to her characters. She never went overboard. There was always a certain limit to what her character could do. As viewers we try to root for her, but that craziness, that madness of Gena sometimes prevents us from doing so. When I watch her, I want to cheer, I want to say ”You go, Gena. Show them how it’s done”. But her characters aren’t Superman. They can’t save the world and they were never intended to do so. They make mistakes, they’re goofy, they’re naive and too honest. They stood out. They were outsiders, and usually we don’t cheer for outsiders, do we?

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In most of her roles you get the sense that Gena is crazy, that there is something very unsettling about the way she acts. But that’s what makes her this great, avant-garde actress. It’s the raw truth that she represents, the sad moments and heart breaking finales. It’s the pain, the happiness, the embarrassment, the courage, all fighting one another inside of her mind, her gestures, her voice. It’s her relationship with Cassavetes. A relationship that was built on real love and devotion and understanding. John is one of the reasons Gena was so real. He knew her, he studied her and wrote the finest, most difficult roles just for his wife. And it worked. Gena had and still has that incredible spark of life in her eyes. That’s the sign of a unique, brilliant, fearless actress. A woman that changed the role of women in cinema forever. A woman under a very special kind of influence.

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This is Gena. Remember her.
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Double Standards

Double Standards

Today’s topic: dual personality. Every once in awhile we come across the concept of having multiple personalities, especially in cinema with movies like Fight ClubEnemy or even with the character of Smeagol in The Lord of The Rings franchise. However, the subject matter is often understood and categorized as a kind of sickness, a mental disorder, which of course gives the writers an interesting idea to develop quirky plots and mind bending storylines. That’s why today I want to write about the 1982 gem of a comedy Tootsie. It’s a movie that has shaped the genre of comedy and managed to touch some serious subjects like the role of women in today’s society, the way we look at women in the film and TV industry, and what it feels like to live in someone else’s skin. It’s a movie that, in my opinion, is still ahead of its time, and that’s why I want to go deep and see why.

For those who don’t know, Michael Dorsey (played by an incredible, post-Graduate-post-Midnight Cowboy Dustin Hoffman) is a New York actor. He loves acting and he loves the smell of the theatre. What’s wrong with him? He’s a perfectionist, or what we call today, an asshole. Nobody wants him because he just doesn’t fit anywhere. Michael drives everybody mad. He teaches a few of his friends and students some basics for the perfect “Michael acting”. That’s when at a party, he learns of a soap opera part that pays good money but with only one problem – it’s a female character. Who, cares. He goes for it. Meet Dorothy Michaels, a tough woman who can literally act her ass off in front of the cameras. What should have been a short term job becomes the only job Michael has. It’s a great job, maybe too great. And that’s when the real questions come into play. It’s when this acting job becomes a real journey, an eye-opening experience.

It gets scary when you can't tell the difference.
It gets scary when you can’t tell the difference.

The character of Dorothy Michaels is strong, loud, and when it comes to facing someone or something, Dorothy always comes out as the winner. That’s why Michael gets the part in the first place; he creates a masculine character, that aside from making us laugh to tears, makes us reflect on the current idea and perception of the woman we had in the 80s and probably still have today. It’s that masculinity, that grit that makes the show’s director change his mind and make an offer to Michael, because he sees what he rarely sees in a woman. A woman is supposed to be delicate, sweet, sensitive. Dorothy is a whole other animal. She’s a predator. Michael creates the ideal of what he considers to be a great person. Outside the Dorothy costume, he’s still an asshole that always begs his friends for money and advice, forgets about his date, doesn’t pay attention to his flatmate in need, and well, is a huge egomaniac. But with Dorothy he becomes someone else. He enters a new world, a world where he can start a whole new story and get to live it. As Dorothy he makes new friends, and especially with a fellow actress and castmate, Julie. Julie brings out a feeling that Michael had forgotten about; the feeling when you fall in love with someone. For real. But, as Dorothy he cannot show it. So now, the new skin becomes a trap that makes it impossible for Michael to demonstrate who he really is.

Sometimes too far is in fact, too far.
Sometimes too far is in fact, too far.

Maybe, it’s for the better. Because only as Dorothy is he capable of forming a true friendship, a real meaningful bond, one where two people got each other’s back no matter what situation comes up. It’s love that isn’t love. It’s not about having those discussions and arguments couples have, it’s something different. Something that Michael has never tasted before. The days go by, and Michael feels less and less comfortable as his own self: he tries a dress at his girlfriend’s place, he pays more attention to the amount of hair he shaves everyday than the amount of food he consumes, he watches his hips and ankles, he comments on other women’s appearance and overall, starts thinking like a woman. Perhaps it’s the frustration and anger against a world that has never appreciated him for who he is as a man, as a male actor, or perhaps it’s the wish of the inner child to finally get to live the life he always wanted to live: the one of a famous, respected, well paid soap opera star. Maybe that’s the real dream that Michael has always chased. Or maybe not. Soon the fans overwhelm him and his life, the publicity makes him lose track of the real objective and gets in the way of his feelings toward Julie, and after a while he realizes that he’s not living the life that was given to him as Michael. Being Dorothy Michaels was supposed to be a short term job, that would help him get back on his feet and direct the play he always wanted to. The love for Julie is by now, too strong to hide.

A not so perfect kiss.
A not so perfect kiss.

We get to see what it feels like to live two separate lives: it’s fun and it gives a lot of satisfaction but we, as humans, can’t deal with it for too long. Maybe some do. But Michael can’t. Life as Dorothy proves to be exhausting and it’s more of an educational adventure: Michael understands that you need other people to feel fulfilled, you need to give to receive, and a love that’s mutual and feels real does exist. It’s no fairy tale. It’s real life. There are important values in life, and sure, there’s more than the usual nights spent in front of the TV with a couple of beers and an over worked script on your lap. Now Michael has to learn to be Dorothy Michaels without actually being her, is that possible?

Tootsie’s one of a kind, so yeah. It is.

An adventure that keeps on going.
An adventure that keeps on going.