What can I possibly write about A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, 1974) that has not already been written? Starring Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, this film impressed hard-to-please critics, and earned a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress as well as two Academy Award nominations for Best Actress and Best Director. Among the first 50 films to be selected for its cultural significance in the US National Film Registry (US Library of Congress, 2016), A Woman Under the Influence is a masterpiece that has been analyzed to pieces. I will reiterate what has been written many times over, then attempt to add a new angle.
An Intense Portrayal of a Working-class Couple
The film is an intense portrayal of a working-class married couple with three children. This couple, Mabel and Nick Longhetti, appears to have just enough — a steady income, a house, plenty of food, and access to supportive family nearby. However, like most working-class families, there is nothing left for indulgences: no house cleaners, nannies, vacations, or even a private bedroom for the parents who sleep on a sofa bed in the dining room.
Yet, I trust that the Longhettis accurately portray the working class in 20th-century America, and the 1970s in particular. Nick Longhetti has a blue-collar job and is the sole family provider. Mabel stays home to tend the hearth and their three children. It is a stable life with no major crises, neither personal nor public. Be that as it may, in the early scenes of A Woman Under the Influence, it is apparent that Mabel is not in a healthy state of mind.
Throughout the film, the sources of her mental distress seem obvious. Mabel Longhetti has been groomed by her parents to be a loving wife, a devoted mother, an efficient housekeeper, and a kind daughter and daughter-in-law. But beyond that, it doesn’t occur to her parents, and certainly not to her husband or mother-in-law, that she is her own individual person with other potential or vulnerabilities. Further, no woman could fulfill these multiple roles without what Virginia Woolf called “a room of her own” (Woolf, 1928).
Mabel’s husband, Nick, provides for his family, thus meets society’s expectation of him. However, he has the opportunity to go to a job everyday where he is surrounded by work friends. That in itself is a healthy break from a chaotic home with three young children.
Mabel’s Raging Turmoil
At home all day without encouragement, time, or resources to cultivate a talent, be it gardening, knitting, cooking, or writing, Mabel has no outlet to recharge her batteries. Her quirky body language belies a frantic desire to express herself. Her muttering throughout the movie is an attempt to suppress a mind bursting to escape. Her self-destructive decision to bring a man home from a bar on a night when her husband has to work late signals her desperation to be recognized. Toward the end of the movie, Mabel calls out to her clueless father for help, “Will you stand up for me?” The man actually stands up from his chair, not understanding what she is asking. Thus, Mabel can’t even rely on her own father to see her as an unique individual.
One particularly effective scene shows Mabel’s raging turmoil, a scene that also demonstrates the American epidemic of parents who put their children above all else in life. In a state of hysteria, Mabel meets the school bus to greet her three children. The audience watches Mabel, in a frenetic pace, completely wrap herself up in her children.
‘I hope you kids never grow up. Never.’
‘You know … I never did anything in my whole life that was anything except I made you guys. I made you and you and you.’
Children as the Greatest Accomplishment
Every mother around the world, Mabel Longhetti included, would say that her greatest accomplishment is her children, and she takes great pride in them. However, there is something disturbing about telling children that you want them to stay little for your pleasure. There is something uncomfortable about telling children that they are your only accomplishment and your only reason for existence. [Child rearing expert John Rosemond (2016) would be strongly critical of this. The concept that he repeatedly hammers on is that too many parents are making their children the sun of their revolving orbit.]
It is unsettling that this significant scene strikes familiar chords. There is something about American culture of recent that drives parents to obsess with parenting itself and with giving their children the most happy and productive childhood possible. The state of youth sports today, the selectivity of private schools, and the sheer amount of money spent on extracurricular activities and enrichment, entertainment, travel, and anything that gives their child an edge over others, illustrate the fierce competition among American parents.
In sports, American parents are intense about their children’s athletics, and it shows through their coaching, sideline refereeing, cheer-leading, and organizing the “Team Mom” duties.
In education, parents in my area of Atlanta are beyond stressed about getting their children in the right preschools, and in turn, the right elementary schools and so on until college and beyond. More than one mother has confided in me that she takes anxiety medication to cope with the pressure.
Volunteering has turned into an arena where one mother tries to outdo another. One mother remarked to me, “I volunteer my head off.” While parental involvement is minimal in some demographic areas in the United States, it is just staggering in others.
For too many parents, children are sources of emotional comfort and their children’s lives are a second chance to improve long ago childhoods. Many parents, Mabel and Nick Longhetti among them, confuse the line between being a friend to their children when it is appropriate, and being an authoritative figure when they need one. Nick copes with his wife being a patient in a mental institution by jerking his children out of school in the middle of the day and taking them to the beach, forcing them to have a good time, and letting them drink beer.
Nick, stressed about his wife’s situation, uses his children as an unhealthy coping mechanism. Of course, children recognize when a parent is not acting as a parent and will manipulate the circumstances to get their way. The Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII of England, pointed this out many decades ago when he visited America. Quote he, “The thing that impresses me most about America is the way parents obey their children.”
Decades of Catering to Children Leave Them Unfit to Cope
Some children now depend on their parents to find jobs for them. Yes, you read that right. When a position as Development Director opened at my son’s school, a handful of parents walked in with a resume in hand as advocates for their own children in the role.
Despite a gigantic and lucrative business in books, classes, and seminars on how to parent, we now have a generation who is unable to cope when things do not go as envisioned. Recent hallmarks of this generation are cry rooms, safe places, being perpetually offended, and putting heavy emphasis on feelings. I believe that decades of catering to children has finally led us to a generation who are truly ill-fitted for the real world. How did this happen and where do Mabel and Nick Longhetti fit into all of this?
The children of the 1950s are now approaching or already in their 8th decade, and they reminisce about that era as dreamy, idyllic, and peaceful. June Cleaver of TV’s “Leave it to Beaver” presented a simple life where moms were loved for putting a hot dinner on the table. However, these moms were not expected to be “Super Moms” driving children all over town and chairing PTAs. This was the “Greatest Generation”’s parenting the “Silent Generation,” and eventually “Baby Boomers.”
The turbulent 1960s shook things up and landed these generations in the mellow 1970s, when they were starting families of their own. The go-go ‘80s created economic opportunities and both the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers took advantage. They invested, traveled, entertained, and gave their children (“Generation X”’ers) a childhood that they now recall as the “best decade ever.”
Generation X’ers enjoyed the the combination of the freedom to be children and having access to entertainment, travel, and social activities beyond what their grandparents ever imagined. The good times of the ‘80s more or less continued through the 1990s, but the cost of living started to rise. That combined with increasing opportunities for women career-wise resulted in dual incomes that were necessary for many families and a choice for a few. Thus started “Mom Guilt” on whether to make sacrifices to stay home and raise the family, or go to work to give the children extra things in life. This heart-wrenching dilemma instigated the “Mommy Wars” that pit mother against mother over who is doing it better, and this continues to this day.
The Always-higher American Dream
The overarching view is that from the 1940s to the 1990s, the American Dream was within reach for the middle class. Grandparents and parents had realistic hopes that their children would live a higher quality of life than they did. Thus, they started doing everything in their power to put the younger generation in a position to achieve a higher level of this American Dream.
I believe this led to parents’ involving themselves in every aspect of their children’s lives: education, social life, and extracurricular activities. As parents scrambled to set up their children for success, youth sports got more serious, parent/teacher conferences became more intense, birthday parties became more elaborate, and everything involving children inched closer to the extreme.
Many Generation X’ers and their younger siblings, the “Millennials,” benefited from having one or two generations to fall back on financially if they hit on hard times — their grandparents, who were products of the Great Depression and wise with their money, and their own parents, who believed that following rules was the pavement to success. Generation X’ers and their younger siblings, the Millennials, were especially primed to be, at the least, financially comfortable.
Unfortunately, X’ers succumbed to the “Illusion of Permanent Financial Security” and the “Demon of Entitlement.” Easily accessible credit cards combined with a desire to keep up their lifestyle resulted in X’ers being responsible for the largest share of debt in the United States. The average Generation X’er owes $125,000. as compared to the national average consumer debt, which is $88,000. Fortune magazine has called Generation X the most indebted generation ever (Matthews, 2014). As for the Demon of Entitlement, I believe it is the Millennials who took this one and made it their own.
Now Generation X’ers are closer to middle age and should be looking forward to retirement on their horizons. Because of astronomical debt, this generation will most likely be working in their walkers. X’ers are struggling to give to their children what they had growing up; and, they are the first generation since before the Greatest to realize that their children may not enjoy the same high quality of life that they did in their youth. Astronomical taxes, rising healthcare costs, higher cost of living, and an increasingly competitive job market make a difficult world harder, especially when the victim mentality is rewarded.
Though they may have taken things for granted in their youth during the prosperous 1990s and contributed to the sluggish economy today, Generation X has decided that there is enough time to attempt a turning of the tide. It was the Generation X working class who turned out in droves and put a former Democrat who is a Park Avenue multi-billionaire with no political experience into the highest office of the land, the Oval Office.
X’ers have high expectations that the job market can improve, their taxes will be lowered, and they will have a chance to redeem themselves on the way to financial solvency. From what I have observed, it is apparent that X’ers want to see themselves as rescuers of the American Dream, so they can show their children, the “Centennials,” why their grandparents valued it so.
Mabel and Nick Longhetti Will Make It
But, back to Mabel and Nick Longhetti. They are most likely the youngest of the Silent Generation or oldest Baby Boomers hoeing through the 1970s. Even though their lifestyle is humble, it can stand on one income. Mabel does not need to work outside the home to help put bread on the table; what is required of her is that she raise their children in a clean and safe place.
Her education is probably limited to high school. If it went beyond that, it may be a teaching certificate or a nursing degree, neither of which she would be using because she has a capable husband providing for her. With little purpose in life beyond raising the children, Mabel completely throws herself into mothering future Generation X’ers and making them feel special, hence the reason the aforementioned after-school scene is painful to watch. We are witnessing how a national epidemic got started.
SAHM the Most Demanding Job
All generations will agree on one concept; being a SAHM (Stay-At-Home-Mom) is the hardest and most demanding job of all time besides that of a single mother. All generations would then quickly add that it is by far the most rewarding job, and there is an abundance of joy to be found in it. Why else are mothers sentimental when their children grow up?
As mentally unstable as they are or are not, Mabel and Nick are a united American couple who wants to see their children be part of the American Dream, which is within reach for many families in the working middle class. So much so that they snap right back into their day-to-day routine in the very last scene of the movie — after finally realizing how their bizarre behavior is upsetting their children. After all, there are positive things about putting your children first.
- Cassavetes, J. (Director), & Shaw, S. (Producer). (1974). A woman under the influence [Motion Picture]. USA: Independent.
- Ebert, R. (1974, Mar 14). Review: A woman under the influence (1974). Roger Ebert. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/a-woman-under-the-influence-1974
- Fleming, J. (2012, Dec 21). Why Americans cannot discipline their children. PravdaReport: Russian News and Analysis. Retrieved from https://www.pravdareport.com/opinion/columnists/21-12-2012/123261-americans_children-0/
- Rosemond, J. (2016). ParentGuru: Helping parents raise responsible adults. Parent Guru. Retrieved from https://www.parentguru.com/
- United States Library of Congress. (2016). Complete national film registry listing. National Film Preservation Board. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/
- Woolf, V. (1928). A room of one’s own. Project Gutenberg Australia. Retrieved from https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200791.txt