A Woman Under the Influence is a rarity. It manages to be both an incisive commentary on sexual politics, and one of the great heterosexual love stories of modern American film, independent or otherwise. The film’s focus on a “female problem”, a “condition” that psychiatrists in earlier times referred to as hysteria, enriches it greatly as an earthy romance. It also asks: How does one cope with one’s own emotions in the face of interfering in-laws and parents? Cassavetes’ film is not so much an examination of gender roles, as a study of the characters that take them for granted. If A Woman Under the Influence is Cassavetes’ most probing, as well as most focused work, it is because the filmmaker’s sensitivity and characteristically tolerant view of people, an approach that springs from his actor-centered subjective realism, is wedded to an exploration of a situation of greatly heightened emotional intensity: a mental breakdown and its fallout. Originally intended as a play to showcase the talents of Gena Rowlands, the actress rightly protested that role would be too taxing on stage While the earlier Faces (1968) feels too much like a self-indulgent acting class, A Woman Under the Influence is a formally controlled work. Indeed, Cassavetes felt that it was: “The first picture I’ve had anything to do with that wasn’t made out of plain, simple feeling, but out of a real desire to do something in my profession. It was extremely frightening for me not to come to work out of enthusiasm and instead put myself up as something of a craftsman.” (1)
Made as an unsalaried production with a crew of students and professionals from the American Film Institute, where Cassavetes served as the first ever filmmaker-in-residence, and distributed by the director himself after two years in limbo, A Woman Under the Influence premiered at the 1974 New York Film Festival and went on to gross $11 million at the box office, as well as garner two Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Actress.
The story follows Mabel Longhetti, a lower middle-class housewife and mother of three in suburban Los Angeles, before and after a six-month long stay in a psychiatric institution. The tremulously emotional Mabel is married to Nick (played by Peter Falk, who at the height of his Colombo-fame gives the finest performance of his career, just as impressive as Rowlands career-defining turn), a construction foreman. He is loving but inarticulate. He clearly adores his wife, but his own volatile and erratic temperament makes him ill-equipped to understand, much less cope with, Mabel’s mood-swings and her tortured attempts at self-expression.
Cassavetes shows his hand near the beginning of the film: having broken an unbreakable date with Mabel, when a busted water main forces him to work overtime, and after she has sent the children away to stay with her mother, Nick is concerned and restless. He has a private conversation with one of his crew members, who establishes the film’s subject matter by opining that “Mabel is a delicate, sensitive woman”, Nick then “corrects” him, as if to reassure himself, by stating: “Mabel’s not crazy. She’s unusual. She’s not crazy; so don’t say she’s crazy. This woman cooks, sews, makes the bed, washes the bathroom. What the hell is crazy about that?”
The loosely connected scenes that follow have a tremendous accumulative power. This is precisely because Cassavetes avoids the functional, plot-advancing acting of conventional movies and enthrones his truly outstanding performers as co-auteurs. In the process, and alongside his very carefully written dialogue and thought-out situations, he creates the feeling of improvisation. We see Mabel seeking comfort, and taking revenge, after Nick’s betrayal by taking home a one-night stand from a flophouse. He unceremoniously leaves her in the morning, perhaps briefly thinking that she has killed herself. We also see Nick taking his entire crew home unannounced for an improvised spaghetti dinner. Things come to a head when Mabel arranges a seemingly “unmotivated” children’s party where she encourages the children to dance naked. In a scene of unexpected and uncomfortable humour, Mabel instructs the children “to die” for Mr. Jensen (Mario Gallo), the perplexed visiting neighbour, to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
Cassavetes stresses Mabel’s eccentricity throughout the film. Her desperate neediness and failure to communicate are combined with an always-gentle irony and qualification that illuminates the other characters and their own failings. After all, it is Nick who resorts to violence when he returns home with his mother, as he slaps his wife and sends Mr. Jensen packing. After one of the most painfully convincing rows ever put on film, Nick finally succumbs to the pressure of his mother (the badgering mother-in-law is the film’s one regrettable stereotype), and has Mabel committed with the help of the family doctor. The scene ends abruptly on a disturbing note with the doctor intoning: “Mabel, I have a piece of paper that says…”, suggesting the awful arbitrariness of psychiatric diagnosis.
In the six months Mabel is away, Nick is shown to be no less maladapted to domestic life and rearing children than his wife. We witness a manically joyless excursion to a rather wintry beach, and feel the misplaced warmth of a nurturing father sharing a six-pack with his children on the back of his friend’s pick-up truck on the way home.
The “influence” of the film’s title is left ambiguous. But one thing is clear; the distinction between sanity and insanity is as much a question of mastering the roles expected of us as anything else. Nick is good at his job, that he is a poor “housewife” does not in any way make him insane, or even particularly strange in the eyes of others, no matter that he too is mentally unstable. Unlike Mabel, he has a suitable arena in which to thrive. Cassavetes keeps Mabel’s stay in hospital off-screen and is most interested in the elusive influence of gender on us all. Cassavetes’ concern with the daily realities of psychiatric illness sits in marked contrast to his contemporaries Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, 1967) and Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975) who dealt more journalistically with the sensational aspects of the same subject matter.
So the film does not score countercultural points by taking pot-shots at psychiatric institutions. Nothing has changed for our protagonists at the end of the film, even as they prepare for bed after another intense row, with upbeat music playing on the soundtrack, and the shared hope that tomorrow will be better. I began by claiming that A Woman Under the Influence is a love story. Diane Jacobs has compared the film to It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), and I find the comparison apt. That cheery Christmas movie is driven by frustration, the loss of identity and the lure of suicide. But for Mabel and Nick there can be no intervention from either benevolent angels or grateful townspeople. Their imperfect love is sustained by the pluckily resilient will and need to keep trying, though neither themselves nor their circumstances are likely to change.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974 USA 155 mins)
Prod Co: Faces Prod: Sam Shaw Dir, Scr: John Cassavetes Phot: Mitch Breit, Al Ruban [uncredited] Ed: David Armstrong, Sheila Viseltear Art Dir: Phedon Papamichael
Cast: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Katherine Cassavetes, Fred Draper, Lady Cassavetes, Matthew Laborteaux