Immediately after watching John Cassvetes’ A Woman Under the Influence at Movie Klub, I was loathe to say that I liked it, even though my reaction to it was strongly positive. The film contains such gut-wrenching drama that it seems “like” must be the wrong word to apply to it. Long, painfully awkward social events? A family torn apart by mental illness? Children scarred so badly that their stacks of therapy bills should one day grow taller than they are? And I liked all of this?
You bet I did. A powerful conflict whose stakes could not be higher? Complicated, ambiguous characters whose motivations are still a mystery long after the movie is over? One of the great performances in the history of film? I say: what’s not to like?
At first Mabel (Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ real-life wife) appears to be literally under the influence; in the movie’s opening scene she sends her kids off with their grandparents and then heads out to a bar to get drunk and pick up a total stranger. It’s not until later that we realize that her behavior is erratic for a much different reason. She seems to be plagued by some form of mental illness, which is alienating her from every adult around her.
However, it’s worth noting that “seems” is the important word in that last sentence. Cassavetes and Rowlands conceived the movie as a metaphor for the problems faced by modern women at the time, and at first, many of the things that Mabel does aren’t as much mental illness as asserting her own self-identity. Mabel first draws her husband’s ire by being excessively friendly with his co-workers at a group dinner; it’s certainly an awkward thing to do, but hardly a signifier of insanity. Same with her bar-crawling: maybe it’s a bad idea, but sane people do it every day – and sane men are judged far less harshly for it.
Later on, there is no questioning that Mabel is not well, with her paranoid ravings as well as hissing and spitting at her husband and loved ones. But even then, the world’s response to her seems shaped by her womanhood. Her husband Nick (Peter Falk) feels perfectly justified in using his fists to silence her, and it’s hard to believe that the same would apply if she were a man. The only time the script comes too close to the nose is when Mabel returns from a stay in an institution, and Nick keeps ordering her to “be yourself!”; like a lot of women in the 1970s, Mabel can’t be herself because she’s not even sure who “yourself” is or should be.
Even for those unwilling to buy into that metaphor, the film also works on its face as an examination of mental illness. Consider Mabel’s and Nick’s three children: the actors really aren’t called upon to do too much, but that plays in the movie’s favor. These kids think their mother is awesome, the fun mom that no other neighborhood kids have. The actors, like the characters they are playing, have no concept of “too manic” or “too awkward.” Thus they truly don’t understand what the adults are doing or thinking, which lends uncommon power to certain lines at the end of the movie.
A Woman Under the Influence is two and a half hours long, which is probably a half-hour too long for today’s audiences. Ever the naturalist, Cassavetes prefers to set his drama up with a lot of small talk; also it’s important to drag Mabel’s scenes on a bit long, to show the discomfort that she brings out in other people. As the drama picks up, the result is almost like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, where there’s a painful tension involved just in imagining all of the ways that things could go wrong. If one is in the mood for that sort of tension, this will be a fine film, but if not, it could be a tough sit.
Rowlands’ performance, which was nominated for an Academy Award*, is simply incredible. It seems at times that she’s too theatrical, drawling her lines and exaggerating her movements like a daffy dame out of a 1940s film. But it’s important to remember that Cassavetes was an Oscar-nominated actor in his own right** and an instructor of method acting before he starting making his own films. Often times the mentally ill feel as though they are performing for the people around them, starring before a live audience of friends, family and total strangers. So Rowlands isn’t playing “crazy dame,” she’s playing “woman who feels like an actor playing a crazy dame and isn’t very good at it.” This is most clear during her big meltdown scenes, when she drops all pretense to normalcy and launches directly into the ravings.
Falk also deserves credit for keeping the character of Nick so ambiguous. Nick does hit Mabel and threaten her life, and the film leaves open the question as to if he drove Mabel mad with abusive behavior (her family certainly thinks he did, but they seem pre-disposed to blame him in any case). However Nick never comes off as an ogre, the typical sort of movie husband who would beat the hell out of his wife and then deliver the line “come on baby, you know that I love you” covered with heavy layers of bullshit. He really does love her, which makes their struggles all the more serious.
At the movie’s climax, Nick makes the ultimate threat, saying something so horrible that few audiences could ever come back to liking him. But it seemed to me Falk played that line out of pure desperation: Nick is utterly unprepared to raise children on his own, and his understanding of mental health is so crude that it basically involves shouting at his wife with the intention of forcing her to see reason. I never thought Nick would actually do what he was threatening, but simply that he made the only threat he could think of that could get her to “snap out of it.”
The problem with A Woman Under the Influence is that, after such an incredibly dark climax, it peters out into an inexplicably positive denouement. At best I expected a mixed-positive ending; maybe things will get better, but Mabel is clearly not cured and there will be many more rough days ahead. Even that seems too happy, though, as Cassavetes has written a family that will likely teeter on the edge of chaos for the remainder of Mabel’s natural life (which mirrors the social chaos that feminism was being born into in the early 70s).
What we get is the worst possible result: a bizarrely happy Mabel and Nick picking up the pieces over a weirdly jaunty soundtrack. It’s an ending which seems to imply that Mabel actually can snap out of it under sufficient physical and verbal abuse from Nick, which is both medically untrue and a betrayal of the feminist viewpoint the screenplay has had for the preceding 140 minutes. Even I as a passionate fan of the film can’t defend it. It was just a bad decision.
However, that ending doesn’t undo the powerful, challenging movie that preceded it. Cassavetes’ films all seem like personal statements, right down to the fact that some of the supporting roles are played by members of his own family. A Woman Under the Influence feels like Rowlands is contributing her own personal statement to the screen along with him, their combined effort leading to a difficult picture of a marriage that finds itself in a tight corner with no easy way out.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*She lost to Ellen Burstyn in Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
**For playing Private Victor Franko in The Dirty Dozen.