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Gena Rowlands: A Life on Film

When John Cassavetes' "A Woman Under the Influence," starring Gena Rowlands, premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 12, 1974, it was greeted with a thunderous ovation. Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes were in attendance and years later Rowlands described what happened when the film ended: “To hear 1,800 people clapping their hands in unison is glorious. I was so thrilled that I turned around to John—but he wasn’t there. And I knew what he had done. He wanted it to be my moment. My moment entirely.” 

The anecdote speaks volumes about Cassavetes' attitude towards the actors who appeared in his films.

Gena Rowlands was nominated for two Academy Awards for performances she gave in her husband's films ("A Woman Under the Influence," "Gloria"). She was also nominated for eight Golden Globes (winning two), and eight Emmys (winning three). Her career is often associated solely with the seven films she made with her husband (eight, if you include her uncredited turn in "Shadows"), but that's a mistake. On November 14th, Gena Rowlands was finally given an Honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards ceremony (Spike Lee got one as well). Rowlands is 85 years old. She has been working almost nonstop since the mid-1950s. She and her husband single-handedly launched the independent film movement in America, inspiring generations of filmmakers. Rowlands has regularly been hailed as one of the greatest actresses to ever practice the craft. 

Rowlands' work has a way of creating anxiety in viewers. The boundary line between character and actress is obliterated; or, it was never there in the first place. Her work is so unlike what we see from most other actresses (even very good ones) that it's unnerving to watch. Sidney Lumet mentioned Rowlands in an interview with critic James Grissom, saying: “The highest compliment I can pay to her—to anyone—is that the talent frightens me, making me aware of the lack of it in so many and the power that accrues to those who have it and use it well. And the talent educates and illuminates. She is admirable, which can be said of only a few of us.

To celebrate the career of this living legend, here's a chronological commentary on many of her roles, some famous, others not so much. There's a lot that is not included: her voluminous television work in the 1950s and 60s, wonderful performances in "An Early Frost," "A Child Is Waiting," "Hope Floats," "The Neon Bible," "Unhook the Stars," "Once Around" ... but the list goes on ad infinitum. 

Tennessee Williams had this to say about Rowlands:

"We have to be witnesses to each other—all of us—but particularly among artists ... I believe in loyalty toward those who have given so much to our lives without the benefit of social or sexual intercourse—artists who have endowed us with their souls. We must be loyal to them. Show them respect. Spread the word. Be a witness. I'll give you a list, and the first name is that of Gena Rowlands."

That's what this list is about. Being a witness. Showing respect. Spreading the word.

"The High Cost of Loving" (1958), directed by Jose Ferrer

Jose Ferrer directed Rowlands in her film debut in 1958's "The High Cost of Loving." Rowlands and Ferrer play Ginny and Jim, a couple married for nine years, in a nice cozy rut. Things are thrown out of whack with two simulatneous events: Jim realizes he might be about to lose his job, and Ginny thinks she might finally be pregnant. The tone of the film is light and breezy, with an almost sarcastic "spin" on suburban life, office work, and middle-class routines. But the couple have a fight near the end, and Rowlands, who has been lovely all along, shows her stuff, the stuff that is now the Rowlands "stamp." Ferrer as an actor was a practiced scene-stealer, but Rowlands not only holds her own, she dominates. Her speech, angry and a little bit messy (her emotions are not under her control), stops him in his tracks. Her message to him is: be bold, be strong, she can handle whatever comes, she wants him to know she has his back, but HE has to have his OWN back first. It's a beautifully confident debut.

"Lonely Are the Brave" (1962), directed by David Miller

Rowlands only appears in two scenes in this modern Western written by Dalton Trumbo but she makes a huge impression, not so easy opposite a heavy-hitting charm factory like Kirk Douglas. Rowlands is strong, sturdy, complex. Mia Farrow spoke about the effect the performance had on her as a teenager:

I’d never seen anyone that beautiful with a certain gravitas. It was particularly unique in that time, when many women were trying to be girlish, affecting a superficial, ‘I’m a pretty girl’ attitude. It seemed to be the best way to succeed, but Gena did none of that. There was a directness—not that she wasn’t fun and didn’t smolder—but it came from a place that was both genuine and deep.”
"Faces" (1968), directed by John Cassavetes

Cassavetes' "Shadows" (1959) was an important film, although much of that importance is seen only in retrospect. It was "Faces," nominated for three Oscars that put Cassavetes on the map. Rowlands plays Jeannie, the prostitute, first seen in a confrontational closeup, coming right after the title credit. There's something hard in her eyes, almost daring you to see beneath her surface. Jeannie is a good sport in the roughhousing of her rowdy male clients, but later, in a scene with Val Avery in the bedroom, Rowlands quiets down. Their two faces crowd together onscreen, and Avery does all the talking, with Rowlands huddled against his shoulder, her expression a mixture of empathy and pity. A scene like that, and Rowlands' playing of it, is a reminder that all great actors are world-class listeners. There are no exceptions. 

"Minnie & Moskowitz" (1971), directed by John Cassavetes

Martin Scorsese describes sitting with Cassavetes during the editing process for "Minnie & Moskowitz." Scorsese, eager to learn from the master, got frustrated at one point and murmured, "Come on, John. Get to the point of the scene." Cassavetes' reply was "Never!" You can see that "Never!" in all of Cassavetes' films but maybe most clearly in "Minnie & Moskowitz," an ode to loneliness, hopelessness, to the feeling that the parade has passed by, now and for all time. Rowlands' Minnie is an uptight gorgeous blonde, hidden behind gigantic sunglasses, mistreated by men, and aching with wordless solitude. Cassavetes' "Opening Night," six years later, showed that, in playing "drunkenness," Rowlands has few equals. But it's there in "Minnie & Moskowitz" too. Minnie wipes out down a small staircase when wasted, and every time it comes, it is alarming, one of those "meta" moments so common when watching a Cassavetes film: Is this real? There's no way this is acting ... right? 

"A Woman Under the Influence" (1974), directed by John Cassavetes

Rowlands' unforgettable performance as Mabel Longhetti in "A Woman Under the Influence" brought her her first Oscar nomination. The performance is as startling today as it was in 1974, and is the kind of performance that raises the bar for everyone else. It shows the enormous gap between skill and genius. Rowlands' Mabel is a reminder to actors (or it should be) of just how deep they need to go, how brave they need to be. Rowlands said about playing Mabel: “It left me exhausted and depressed-feeling. Some of the time, when you’re walking out there where the air is thin, you just hope you can walk back again.”

"Opening Night" (1977), directed by John Cassavetes

Rowlands gives another masterpiece performance as Myrtle Gordon, the alcoholic actress rehearsing a play in New Haven all while descending into a prolonged crack-up involving binge-drinking, consultations with mediums, and a repeat hallucination of a young girl. Rowlands' drunkenness in "Opening Night" is in the pantheon of Great Drunks onscreen. Early on, when Myrtle is first confronted with the hallucination/girl, there's a closeup of Rowlands' face that is an example of her unique genius. One can't actually describe what the moment IS because the truth of it lies on the periphery, not at the center, and even then, it flickers in and out of focus. Even very talented actors feel the need to show an audience "what a moment is about." Not Rowlands. In that closeup, Myrtle stares at the girl, wondering if she has finally lost her mind, and then she puts an almost welcoming expression on her face, before mouthing the word, "Hello!" It's hair-raising. 

"A Question of Love" (1978 television movie), directed by Jerry Thorpe

The Golden Globe-nominated "A Question of Love" tells the story of Linda Ray and Barbara (Rowlands and Jane Alexander), a lesbian couple raising three children from their former marriages. Linda Ray's ex-husband, though, starts custody proceedings, and the case goes to court. Ned Beatty plays the opposing lawyer who voices the belittling attitude towards the "gay lifestyle," getting snickers from the crowd. Considering the progress made with gay marriage over the last couple of years, "A Question of Love" is incredibly bold for 1978. It's an "issue film" told with a lot of heart and humanity. "A Question of Love" is, sadly, not available on DVD but it is on Youtube in its entirety. There's a scene in the courtroom, when Linda Ray's teenage son is on the stand, that is among the best work Rowlands has ever done.

"Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter" (1979), directed by Milton Katselas

Rowlands and Bette Davis star as mother and daughter in this 1979 television movie. It's the Gena-Bette Show, with supporting characters incidental at best. A daughter (Rowlands) who ran away from home 20 years before, returns home to find her mother (Davis) still furious and unbudging. Over the course of the film, the two fight, work on jigsaw puzzles together, garden, fight again. The pairing is almost too good to be true, but the reality is even better. There are moments when Davis' anger shimmers with such pain that you can see it bring Rowlands up short. There are moments when Rowlands' sarcastic gestures and wisecracking breaks through Davis' icy reserve. "Strangers" is like watching two great champions go toe to toe. 

"Gloria" (1980), directed by John Cassavetes

Rowlands was born to play a gun moll. To see Rowlands barking insults at her pursuers on the subway, striding down a New York sidewalk in her fitted silk suits, waving a gun around threateningly, is to experience a fantasy being fulfilled. Tennessee Williams, also in a conversation with James Grissom, asked:

"Did you see her in 'Gloria'? That incredible scene with the mob boss, where she asserts that she's leaving and she's protecting the boy? I could watch that over and over. I sat through that film three times, exhausting the patience and the spine of a good friend, who does not understand that Gena—that several actresses—are works of art you place yourself in front of as if they were paintings in a museum, or sunsets, or mountains, or lovers walking slowly away from you."
Gena Rowlands got her second Best Actress Oscar nomination for "Gloria." 

"Tempest" (1982), directed by Paul Mazursky

Inspired, of course, by Shakespeare's play, Paul Mazursky's film is a golden glorious romp, featuring John Cassavetes as Philip Demitrius (the "Prospero" role), with Molly Ringwald, Vittorio Gassman, and Susan Sarandon coming in and out of the action. Rowlands plays Antonia, Philip's wife. Mazursky was always interested in relationships between men and women, and "Tempest," in scene after scene, explores all of that, through shipwrecks, celibacy, boredom, lightning-storms, and extreme restlessness on the part of all the characters. There's a scene when Philip busts in on a snooty theatre party his wife is hosting, and his drunken shenanigans shock everyone, and enrages her. Watch Rowlands in the midst of a chaotic event: she's never ahead of the event, or struggling to catch up with it, or even trying to drive it. She's always in the thick of it. In the final scene, Rowlands and Cassavetes slow dance on the patio with such tenderness and understanding, such reconciliation, that it's heartbreaking to watch. 

"Love Streams" (1984), directed by John Cassavetes

Little seen at the time (it was barely released), and then lost for many years (not on DVD at all), "Love Streams" was finally rescued and released last year by the Criterion Collection. (I wrote and narrated a video-essay on Rowlands for the "Love Streams" Criterion release.) It's one of Cassavetes' best films, and his most surreal film, the images painterly and carefully chosen, creating a dream-world that feels more real than reality. Who can forget Rowlands emerging from a taxi cab with a clown-car of animals flooding out behind her? Or Rowlands lying down on the floor in the crowded court room? Or getting her finger stuck in the bowling ball? There's one dream-sequence scene where Sarah tries to make her husband (Seymour Cassel) and daughter laugh. She's so desperate she resorts to joke-shop tricks: chattering teeth, bowties that squirt water, exploding silly-string, and finally she does a backflip—wearing a bright pink jacket and skirt—off the diving board. It is one of the most unforgettable scenes in not only Rowlands' career but in cinema itself. 

"Another Woman" (1988), directed by Woody Allen

This little-discussed Woody Allen film is a personal favorite, and Rowlands' Marion, a chilly intellectual, is one of her best performances. Roger Ebert said it best in his review: "There is a temptation to say that Rowlands has never been better than in this movie, but that would not be true ... What is new here is the whole emotional tone of her character ... Rowlands now mirrors [Allen's] personality, revealing in the process how the Cassavetes performances were indeed 'acting' and not some kind of ersatz documentary reality. To see 'Another Woman' is to get an insight into how good an actress Rowlands has been all along." "Another Woman" is all about watching Gena Rowlands listen. There are repeated closeups of Rowlands listening to Mia Farrow's voice coming through the grate from the next room. These are riveting sequences, and again, the truth of the moment flickers on the periphery. It escapes articulation. The depth is on Rowlands' face, and it is beyond words. 

"Night on Earth" (1991), directed by Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch's "Night on Earth" was the first film Rowlands appeared in after the death of Cassavetes. In the Los Angeles sequence of the film, Rowlands plays Victoria Snelling, a high-powered talent agent, first seen racing across an empty airfield in black heels, clutching a briefcase. She finds herself in the back seat of a cab driven by the chain-smoking Winona Ryder. Victoria is at first so self-centered about her own career she can't focus on anything outside of herself, but once you share a cigarette with someone, it's a bond for life. Nobody smokes a cigarette like Rowlands. For those of us who were giant Rowlands fans, eagerly awaiting for any sign of her, "Night on Earth" brought a heaving sigh of relief. She's back

"Something to Talk About" (1995), directed by Lasse Hallström

A vehicle for Julia Roberts, "Something to Talk About" features so many entertaining performances, from Kyra Sedgwick, Robert Duvall, Dennis Quaid, and finally, Gena Rowlands, as Georgia King, the matriarch of the horse-farm family. At first, Rowlands' role seems like it will stay in a certain place: she is the perfectly-coiffed Southern lady, concerned about her daughter making scenes around town. But screenwriter Callie Khouri had something else up her sleeve. As her daughter's marriage falls apart publicly, Georgia begins to crack up too. Her marriage to Wyly (Duvall) is good, but maybe there are some secrets he isn't telling. One night, Georgia locks him out of the house. The fight that Rowlands and Duvall have through the locked door is worth the price of admission. It had been years since I'd seen the film but I remembered some of that scene word for word. Rowlands sits in the foyer, body hunched over, holding a glass of bourbon, and she barks insults and threats at Duvall through the door. As with "Strangers," part of the thrill of such a scene is watching two prize-fighters facing off in such a well-written scene. And watch for the subtlety of characterization, and the hint of a hard-bitten drawl in her voice. Georgia King is not like the other characters Rowlands has played. Georgia is her own woman. 

"Hysterical Blindness" (2002, for HBO), directed by Mira Nair

Gena Rowlands' was nominated for a Golden Globe and won the Emmy for her performance as Virginia Miller in HBO's "Hysterical Blindness." Virginia was abandoned by her husband long ago, raised her daughter (Uma Thurman) alone, and works as a waitress at the Skyway Diner in Bayonne. She has started a tentative romance with a diner customer, played by Rowlands' old friend and Cassavetes-film veteran himself, Ben Gazzara. Watch Rowlands take compliments from Gazzara: she's shy, maybe even a bit scornful, she's not sure to believe what he's saying. But there's a pleased little-girl there, too. In one scene, the two slow dance to Frank Sinatra at an Italian restaurant. Their faces press together cheek to cheek, but sometimes they pull back to look at one another, sharing a moment of awe that love could have come into their lives at such a late date. 

"The Notebook" (2004), directed by Nick Cassavetes

Nick, Xan and Zoe, Cassavetes and Rowlands' children, have all become filmmakers and screenwriters as well. Rowlands has been directed by her own son multiple times, and once by her daughter. The pleasure of "The Notebook" comes from watching James Garner and Rowlands work together. You never doubt for one second that these two have been together for most of their lives. There's such ease and gentleness there, such intimacy and tenderness. Rowlands didn't often get to play "ease," "gentleness," "tenderness." "The Notebook" is interesting because it was a box-office hit (the biggest money-maker in Rowlands' career), and teenagers who flocked to see Ryan Gosling, were introduced to Rowlands for the first time. "Who's that white-haired lady?" some of them might have asked themselves. Just Google her, kids, you'll get an earful. 

While Cassavetes might balk at being given the final word in a piece celebrating his wife, the following paragraph said it better than I ever could:

“Gena is ... a miracle. She’s straight. She believes in what she believes in. She’s capable of anything. It’s only because of Gena’s enormous capacity to perform that we have a movie, because a lot of people would be a little bit too thin to work on it. Gena is a very interesting woman and for my money the best player that is around. She can just play. Give her anything and she’ll alway be creative. She doesn’t try to make it different—she just isbecause the way she thinks is different from the way most actors think ... She sets the initial premise and follows the script very completely. Very rarely will she improvise, though she does in her head and in her personal thoughts. Everybody else is going boom! boom! boom!, but Gena is very dedicated and pure. She doesn’t care if it’s cinematic, doesn’t care where the camera is, doesn’t care if she looks good—doesn’t care about anything except that you believe her.”

We do.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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