Art by Victoria Elliott
“WHO WANTS TO SEE A MOVIE ABOUT A CRAZY MIDDLE-AGED DAME?”
The Best of Gena Rowlands
I admit that I’m not immune to occasional bouts of rabid, girly fandom of the kind that prompts young girls to desperately sift the dregs of pop culture for suitable role models. I don’t mean that I tape photos out of magazines to my walls; rather, I nurse deep and true reverence for a few female actors. For one, I have the equivalent of a Southern gay man’s infatuation with the late Dame Liz Taylor. Natalie Wood is another—no actress expressed the gut-wrenching adolescent turmoil I felt in myself as well as she. Most recently, however, now that I’m a mostly full-grown adult female person, I’ve become completely enamored with the powerfully gifted Gena Rowlands. In fact, I just about worship her.
It can’t be easy to have been married to the tempestuous, alcoholic, almost visibly self-absorbed genius John Cassavetes, which she was from 1954 until his death from cirrhosis in 1989. In most cases, it wouldn’t be fair to analyze a Hollywood couple through their respective performances, but there’s such identical electricity in each of them, it’s hard not to believe that their acting made, at the very least, for some remarkable therapy.
As much as I admire Cassavetes, I think it’s pretty obvious that Rowlands is a superior actor to Cassavetes in every way, and always has been.
As an actor, she’s mostly known for her supernatural smoking abilities, not to mention her superb drunken schtick. Her most acclaimed and familiar performances (outside of her director-son Nick’s mainstream romance movies) largely involve some kind of jerky, physical comedy where she’s falling down, passing out, gallivanting with children, playing with her hair, lighting a cigarette hastily, or making smoky small talk with a stranger at a bar. I have a serious affinity for anyone who can act that drunk or organically flirtatious or hilarious.
Rowlands is a beautiful woman, but not exactly heart-shattering in the way that Liz Taylor was. It's also clear that she doesn’t rely on her looks, really, at all. Her charm is magnetic on its own; it’s the key thing that makes her a credible romantic lead in films like Minnie and Moskowitz, a role that’s predicated entirely on how desirable a woman she is.
Below, in no particular order, are my favorite Rowlands roles, no matter how large or small, saucy or sober.
1. Mabel Longhetti, A Woman Under the Influence
(dir. John Cassavetes, 1974)
This is the first film for which Rowlands received an Oscar nomination, ultimately losing to Faye Dunaway for Chinatown. Widely considered her greatest performance—she plays a middle-aged housewife struggling, not with addiction as the tricky title implies, but with the onset of mental illness. The role was written by Cassavetes specifically for Rowlands, and despite its groundbreaking subject matter (and the seemingly no-holds-barred era of American cinema in which it was made), it was a battle to raise money to shoot the movie. As Rowlands has said, the general response to the script was, “Who wants to see a movie about a crazy middle-aged dame?”
It’s a difficult piece of cinema to watch, not just for its length (clocking in at around two and a half hours) but its excruciating portrayal of an intensely working-class Italian-American family—the kind of family that wholly depends on the stability of a wife and mother figure— that completely implodes once their matriarch is lost. It’s an almost Shakespearean plot, and Rowlands’s work is so chilling, even her co-star, Peter Falk (who plays her husband, Nick Longhetti) has admitted he’s never seen a performance that rivals the excellence of Rowland’s key breakdown scene.
2. Gloria Swenson, Gloria
(dir. John Cassavetes, 1980)
Gloria is, inarguably, one of the most perfect Cassavetes films ever made. It’s not overlong, and the principal characters, Rowlands’s Gloria and Phil, the tough-talking six-year-old Puerto Rican boy she’s accidentally inherited, have such conspicuous chemistry you could watch them banter for hours on end (Rowlands has an obvious, preternatural gift for acting with children). It’s a little bit of a feminist fantasy—Gloria, a former mob girlfriend, is charged with protecting the young son of a bookie whose misbehavior gets his entire family killed. Phil, the boy, is the only survivor, and Gloria, a single and aggressively independent woman, has no desire to raise an orphaned child. But before she knows it, she’s gunning down mob heavies and running all over New York trying to keep Phil safe. She’s fearless, but it’s a clumsy, foolhardy confidence—like what you see in Kurosawa's samurais. It’s also the role that marks the second and final time Rowlands was nominated for Best Actress.
3. Dr. Marion Post, Another Woman
(dir. Woody Allen, 1988)
Other noteworthy directors have longed to work with Rowlands, it seems, but not always to substantial success—her bit part in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, for instance, feels clunky and almost like he wasn’t sure how to use her. Woody Allen’s 1988 film, Another Woman, however, not only liberates Rowlands to marvelous effect but also subverts her skill in a provocative and fascinating way.
Dr. Marion Post is an uptight, successful professor. She has everything in life she’s always wanted—well, except for maybe a few bungled relationships. As most Woodyphiles know, there’s usually one character in each film that serves as his avatar. Dr. Post is one of the few times Allen’s part is taken by a woman. The difference is that, unlike Allen doing Allen, Marion’s neuroses are so repressed and hidden behind her symbolically tightly buttoned shirt collar that it takes eavesdropping on a frantically unhappy Mia Farrow’s therapy sessions to ignite in her any kind of self-exploration.
I also admire the way that Allen uses Rowlands, normally so expressive and garrulous and spontaneous in such an airtight script. It speaks to her depth to have her play in direct opposition to a normal, flailing Rowlands type.
4. Rosemary Scott, Machine Gun McCain
(dir. Giulano Montaldo, 1969)
I initially came to Machine Gun McCain through its awesome, overwrought theme song, penned by none other than the maestro, Ennio Morricone. I was fully expecting an Italian-made heist-thriller that just so happened to star John Cassavetes in one of his acting gigs. But then, Rowlands’s name popped up at the very end of the opening credits and I sat and waited, for ages it seemed, for her glowing mug to appear onscreen.
The role of Rosemary Scott is basically tiny, but it’s one of those explosive little roles that serve as a game-changer for a film. Rosemary is the former paramour/accomplice of recently sprung from the clink McCain (Cassavetes). McCain’s just robbed two million dollars from a casino and needs someone to get him out of the country. He returns to Rosemary in a moment of desperation, literally fifteen minutes before the end of the film. It’s a bold move to introduce a new, utterly significant character that late in the game, but Rosemary is such a slick, cool moll, and her part is so resonant in its brevity—and I’m resisting all spoilers here!—that she in the film is completely unforgettable; it’s like getting hit by a truck.
5. Myrtle Gordon, Opening Night
(dir. John Cassavetes, 1977)
You should really never talk to me about this film. I’ve already mentioned it once in this space, in my commemoration for Ben Gazzara, and I will probably mention it again. Now I will say that I don’t think that there’s a single movie that captures the plight of an aging woman with such eviscerating and thoughtful detail as Opening Night. You can gush over A Woman Under the Influence all you want—this is Rowlands’s best role, hands down. But like its companion film, Opening Night borrows in Shakespearean tropes—it’s a play within a play, after all.
The middle-aged but renowned actress Myrtle Gordon has just wrapped a Connecticut opening of a new drama, written by Sarah Goode (a wondrous Joan Blondell). Goode's script is about—what else?—a middle-aged woman resisting the fact that she’s aging. After the success of the initial out-of-town performances, the cast gears up for a New York debut, except something traumatic happens—a seventeen-year-old fan, obsessed with Myrtle, perishes in a car accident right after their encounter. It’s a symbolic death, naturally, and its impact is aided by Myrtle’s descent into loneliness and alcoholism. She’s famous, adored by fans, but plummeting into a complete emotional void.
The ghost of the girl, whether real or not, torments Myrtle to the point of an arduous psychological breakdown. Myrtle disappears from the theater, and no one is quite sure if she’ll turn up in time for the curtain, even as the seats fill up with tuxedoed patrons.
It’s a moving film, with everything: humor, terror, heartbreak, and breath-stealing acting. It is a film in which Rowlands inhabits every bit of space available. It’s also proof that Rowlands is more than a skilled actor; she’s practically a cosmic muse.