I think that John Cassavetes (1929-89) was admired more for the independence than for the quality of the movies he directed… and wrote? How much of the naturalistic-sounding dialogue he wrote, how much was improvised by his troupe of actors (Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassell, Peter Falk, and, most arrestingly and most often, his wife Gena Rowlands) remains an open question. In a bonus feature on the Criterion DVD of “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974), Falk said that no one who was not there can tell which was which, what speeches improvised, what ones written out, but praised Rowlands for an improvised one standing by the fireplace. Rowlands said that her mother-in-law (onscreen and off-) improvised many of her lines.
Both thought that the movie contains some of the best acting work they ever did. I hope they were acting! (that is, not playing scenes from the Cassavetes/Rowlands marriage). Rowlands has played a wide range of parts over her career, even her career acting in her husband’s films. I don’t see much range in the roles inhabited by Peter Falk. Whether playing gangsters or detectives or, here, a municipal gravel-pit crew foreman, Falk played somewhat wry (and sometimes compassionate) tough guys. For a fast-talking New Yorker, he was often inarticulate, but almost always entertaining, whether clowning or genuinely frustrated.
The wife Mabel (!what an archaic name, even in 1974; Rowlands’s part) of Nick (Falk) provides many frustrations. She wobbles on the line between free-spirited eccentric and out-of-control crazy, and Nick has reason to be concerned about her ability to monitor and protect their three children (two of them real-life children of Cassavetes and Rowlands). Nick’s mother (played by Cassavetes’s real-life mother) thinks not and pushes Nick to have Mabel committed. He agonizes about what is the right thing.
Nick is less obviously crazy, but his taking the kids out of school to go the otherwise deserted autumnal beach suggests he is less than sane and sensible. On the way home from that forced-fun outing, he shares his beer with them. And a surprise welcome-back (from the asylum) surprise party for Mabel. There is something significantly wrong with his thought processes, though he is better able to function in society, holding down a job.
Nick and Mabel love each other, but their crazinesses don’t dovetail. As Roger Ebert wrote of Cassavetes films: “There was never the arc of a plot, but the terror of free-fall.” This is as true for Nick as for Mabel here.
The Cassavetes/Rowlands collaboration that I like best is “Gloria” (1980), which, though still character-driven, has the most plot. (It is perhaps the only one that is a “movie” rather than an independent “film.”) Though the visual style of their movies is recognizable, I don’t much like it. The framing is awkward, IMO inept. Scenes go on too long except when they are too perfunctory. And the characters endlessly floundering often bores me, even when I recognize that they are acting up a storm (Ben Gazzara in “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and Rowlands in the other Cassaveates movies). I feel sorry for the characters on display, but don’t want to spend as much time with them as the running time of the movie(s). That is 155 minutes for “Woman.”
I think the princeling has no clothes and prefer Cassavetes the actor (Edge of the City, The Killers) to Cassavetes the auteur. Maybe the seeming technical sloppiness of his film-making was supposed to indicate the sloppiness of ordinary lives. It was not just lack of money, since lower-budget movies (Take Out, Amreeka, Sin Nombre, for instance) are more compelling (IMO). And from his era, there is the oeuvre of Ingmar Bergman, who also had a troupe of recurrent players working with him on explorations of angst and (especially in “Persona”) madness. Indeed, from the same year, also examining a troubled marriages, there was Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage.”
“Woman Under the Influence” is way too long, but I thought the second half was more interesting, maybe because Mabel was less manic, though still blurting out thoughts that are not broadcast in company (mixed or not). At one point Mabel pleads with Nick to tell her who he wants her to be, claiming she can be whatever/whomever. A normal-appearing wife and mother, however, she cannot be. (Early on, she cannot even ask pedestrians for the time without scaring them, for instance.)
Rowlands received a Golden Globe as best actress in a drama and was nominated for an Oscar (which was won by Ellen Burstyn in a more sympathetic part and movie, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”). Cassaveates was nominated for best director both by the Academy and by the Hollywood foreign press, the latter also nominated his screenplay. “Godfather II” got the Oscar, “Chinatown” the Golden Globe, with the directing awards going to the same movies’ directors: Coppola and Polanski. Bergman was not nominated for “Scenes of a Marriage,” though Liv Ullmann in it, was.
Rowlands received another Golden Globe nomination as the alcoholic actress unable to get into her part of an aging woman in Cassavetes’s 1977 “Opening Night” and another Oscar nomination as “Gloria,” the moll with an unwelcome ward in his 1980 movie. (She also won a Golden Globe for the tv “Betty Ford Story.”)
Also see my reviews of Cassavetes’s Shadows, Minnie and Moskowitz, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, and Gloria.