the inside world really holds you, really contains you, can cause you pain that you don’t show outside and that is why no one ever talks about it. He has two selves and she only has one.
—John Cassavetes quoted in Carney, 2001
His [Cassavetes’] opinion was that society made women quite crazy—and not just the men. It was their mothers making them crazy half of the time. He said men got all the blame but their mothers told them which way to act and to pretend things that they didn’t feel and say things they didn’t mean, to inflate a man’s ego . . . —Gena Rowlands quoted in Campbell, 2001
Seems to me that much of our concern about Mabel Longhetti (played by Gena Rowlands), the woman who is the focus of this month’s movie, relates to the notion that she doesn’t behave normally.
Her unusual behavior draws attention at the outset of the movie. Yet, who decides what’s normal? She appears to be appropriately groomed and dressed and behaving within the law. She expresses the concerns expected of a mother whose young children will be cared for by another. In my opinion, she smokes too much, but in 1974 we didn’t know as much about that.
Mabel’s uncomfortable body movements
Mabel’s body movements are attention-grabbing and uncomfortable to watch. Norms in body movements relative to environments make us notice things that seem out of the ordinary. For example, no one notices people running down the street anymore, other than to assume they are exercising or preparing for a marathon. However, prior to the societal change that now keeps gyms and exercise studios in business, if a person were seen running down the street, it would have been alarming to witnesses. They would likely have assumed a robbery or other emergency had taken place.
Mabel is trapped in a society where people are assigned roles, duties and even personalities that may have little to do with what they really think and who they really are (Ebert, 2001).
The unusual behavior we notice—hissing and mouthing of words under her breath, kissing men who are unfamiliar to her, extreme anxiety reflected in her over-reacting to guests in the house or pacing at the bus stop—are so anomalous that it is cause for concern. Yet, her children are not alarmed at all. They accept her for who she is and love her unconditionally, which must mean she appears to them no different from the person they have always known.
On the other hand, the fact that brain dysfunction and emotional distress show themselves in unusual behavior allows others to observe that a problem exists and to enlist aid if possible or needed. In this case, any number of societal and family circumstances don’t allow help for her, based on what we can see so clearly in the film. Nick Longhetti (played by Peter Falk) simply requires conformance from Mabel, fitting the mold, behaving as a normal wife and mother should. Beyond that, his vision is blank.
[He] doesn’t know what a woman is. Has no ideas. Both—thinks it’s something that’s supposed to be something that cleans and sews and cooks and stays home at night, and never has a thought or a sexual idea or an instinct in her to do anything at all except to be his wife, you know (Cassavetes quoted in Carney, 2001, p. 370).
Nick Longhetti as typical working-class husband?
We see Nick Longhetti with his work crew and are amazed that he so adamantly refuses to help remedy an emergency situation at work because he has a commitment to his wife. Would it not seem more “normal” that, instead of fighting for his commitment, he would call his wife and express his regret to her that they could not keep their date night? Or, maybe if he were really in control, uncaring and malevolent, he would simply call and disrespectfully state that he isn’t coming home. Actually, we may have seen such nasty behavior in the movies and TV more often than we have seen what Nick demonstrates. Do we have any way of knowing otherwise what is typical, normal? And would we expect a white collar worker to behave differently when compared to a blue collar worker? Maybe it is the memorable character of Archie Bunker, who was on TV screens during the same time as this film, with whom we associate working class men?
Archie himself is depicted as a hard worker, loving father, and basically decent man; nevertheless, he is bad-tempered and frequently tells his long-suffering wife Edith to “stifle yourself” and “dummy up” (Wikipedia, 2016 ).
Cassavetes not a normal director
John Cassavetes as writer and director did things differently all around. Having been an actor himself, he showed respect for actors ability to perform with little direction. He also listened to what they had to say. At the time, this was quite out of the norm for a director.
As an independent filmmaker, Cassavetes struggled to get financial support for his films. Fortunately, both he and and his wife, Gena Rowlands (who plays the role of Mabel in this movie), could earn the money themselves to produce the films by acting.
Cassavetes had made his name playing the title role in the television detective series Johnny Staccato and went on to act in nearly 30 films including Rosemary’s Baby and The Dirty Dozen, mainly to finance his own movies (Campbell, 2001).
Cassavetes had an ability to communicate subtleties of our humanity and our relationships that some cannot or do not wish to think about. Fortunately for those who value his work, he persevered to create imagery that helps us to understand more about our human frailties. John Cassavetes died in 1989 at the age of 59.
Archie Bunker. (2016, Dec 4). Retrieved from Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archie_Bunker
Campbell, D. (2001, Mar 2). ’“Why would anyone want to see a movie about a crazy, middle-aged dame?” The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2001/mar/02/culture.features3
Carney, R. (1994). The films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, modernism, and the movies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Cassavetes, J. (Director), & Shaw, S. (Producer). (1974). A woman under the influence [Motion Picture]. USA: Independent.
Cassavetes, J. (2001). A Woman Under the Influence (1972–4). In R. Carney (Ed.), Cassavetes on Cassavetes (pp. 306–378). New York: Faber and Faber. https://www.thestickingplace.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Cass-on-Cass.pdf
Ebert, R. (1974, Mar 14). Review: A woman under the influence (1974). Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/a-woman-under-the-influence-1974