It would be interesting to know if John Cassavetes read Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. His film, A Woman under the Influence (1975), would be right up her alley. For those not familiar with the famous American writer, she wrote quirky short stories about simple country folk. Perhaps the most famous is “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (O’Connor, 1983), a short story that is the subject of numerous essays and articles that are longer than the story itself (e.g., Curtin, 2015; Fassler, 2013). A hallmark of Flannery O’Connor’s stories is redemption. Readers initially perceive certain characters to be crazy or bad until an unexpected moment of divine intervention
leads to their redemption.
A passive viewer of A Woman under the Influence might say the story was about a housewife who is gradually going crazy, reluctantly being admitted to a mental institution, and eventually returning home to her awkward family. Just as it takes an astute reader to catch onto what Flannery O’Connor is actually writing, it takes a wise viewer to appreciate Cassavetes’ work. Indeed, there is so much more than what the eye meets when watching A Woman under the Influence.
The simple folk of the working class are the subjects of Cassavetes’ art as well as O’Connor’s. The reason for this, I believe, is that it enables the creator to minimize the number of characters in order to highlight what is really going on under the surface. Cassavetes deliberately made the Longhetti family a working class family so that he did not have to include an office assistant or household help, maids or nannies or gardeners in the film. A character that was not absolutely necessary to the story could detract from his demonstration that women can be desperately lonely despite being surrounded by family.
Mothers experience loneliness regardless of class
Cassavetes is quick to add that mothers of all economic classes experience loneliness that is just as intense as Mabel Longhetti’s. However, when an artist wants to express a complicated theme, the working class as subject is simply more efficient for the writer and the movie director. It is easier to portray emotions visually without the distraction that other characters bring. I believe that is precisely why in Flannery O’Connor’s writing, she kept her characters to a minimum as well.
Cassavetes’ story intends to show that things are not always what they appear to be. First, consider Mabel Longhetti’s break down. Is it truly a mental illness or would her circumstances make any otherwise healthy woman lose it? A Woman under the Influence leaves it up to the audience to reach its own conclusion. I believe that Cassavetes intends to show a man and woman who love each other deeply, but whose lot in life interferes with doing what is truly right by the other. Of course, it is irrational for Mabel to bring a man home from a bar while her husband is working late. Mabel appears insensitive to Nick by flirting with one of his co-workers in an overly eager attempt to please. Yet, Nick appears insensitive to Mabel when he invites his whole work crew over for breakfast and he is very wrong to slap her. For some, it seems nothing short of insanity to host a big “welcome home” party upon his wife’s homecoming from a mental hospital. Both Mabel and Nick may lack good judgment in their actions, but their love for each other is strong enough to survive the emotional ignorance each exhibits. That is what makes A Woman under the Influence a positive movie.
As a second consideration, if Mabel and Nick love each other, what is it that makes their marriage so difficult? Mabel’s mother-in-law—Nick’s mother to be more specific. In Mabel’s case, her parents are disengaged, have more or less checked out after their daughter has fulfilled her role in life as daughter, wife, and mother. At first glance, Nick’s mother is a reasonable character. She insists on clothes for her granddaughter who is running around naked in the house following the after-school costume party. At the “surprise” welcome home party, she demands that Nick send his numerous guests home before Mabel arrives. However, an attentive viewer will catch onto the sinister woman lurking underneath.
Nick always trying to appease his mother
Nick’s mother’s unyielding ways force her son to be caught between her and the needs of his wife. Her constant phone calls with this issue or that issue takes Nick away from his family for a significant amount of time. Nick’s mother, envious of Mabel’s importance to him, is clearly fighting for attention. We are familiar with this because we see this behavior in our own lives. We have seen what that kind of jealousy does to every relationship from friendships to marriages. However, many of us are able to find ways to cope with the competition for attention. Mabel has not come up with defense mechanisms against her mother-in-law’s intrusive behavior.
Interesting that in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” it is the fictional grandmother who is perceived to be on the good side but is truly evil. This grandmother’s snobby, manipulative, and conniving ways leads her son’s family to their doom. (The adult son in Flannery O’Connor’s short story was very similar to Nick—always appeasing his mother.) Readers of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” recognize this grandmother character because, generally speaking, she resembles their own!
The genius of O’Connor and Cassavetes is that, as storytellers, they are able to portray the ironies and subtleties of human nature—not immediately obvious to audiences but instead taps at the subconscious, drawing them into the story unaware. In A Woman under the Influence, the unexpected moment of divine intervention leading to redemption comes not to the mother-in-law but to her son, Nick.
In the very last scene of A Woman under the Influence, after tucking their children in, Nick and Mabel are pulling out their sofa bed for the night. The phone rings. The audience, along with Nick, knows that the caller is the overbearing mother-in-law. Nick chooses not to answer the phone, thus the marriage has a second chance. The mother-in-law has lost control over her son. I choose to believe that Nick and Mabel are then able to move forward together with a more productive love.
On a side note, A Woman under the Influence was intended to be a play. However, Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands, did not feel she could handle the emotional demands of the role of Mabel Longhetti every time she performed on stage.
Cassavetes, J. (Director), & Shaw, S. (Producer). (1974). A woman under the influence [Motion Picture]. USA: Independent.
Curtin, D. (2015, Dec 3). The use of animal imagery in Flannery O’Connor’s “A good man is hard to find.” Retrieved from https://www.thecampion.com/the-use-of-animal-imagery-in-flannery-oconnors-a-good-man-is-hard-to-find/
Fassler, J. (2013, Jan 4). What Flannery O’Connor got right: Epiphanies aren’t permanent. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/what-flannery-oconnor-got-right-epiphanies-arent-permanent/266841/
O’Connor, F. (1983). A good man is hard to find and other stories. San Diego, Calif: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.