Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.   With 254 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  This week, he takes on John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence.

This week’s film presents a middle-aged housewife progressively losing her mind, to the point where her husband must send her away to a mental institute.  One of the most unconventionally moving love stories you’ll ever see, A Woman Under the Influence is about people, and a reminder that when movies are done right, you don’t need much else.

The Players

  • Director: John Cassavetes
  • Writer: John Cassavetes
  • Cast: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk

The Plot

[Warning--Spoilers Ahead!!]

Mabel Longhetti gets restless one night when her husband Nick calls to say he’ll be working all night.  Mabel’s frustration pushes her to go out drinking, eventually going home with another man, although it is unclear whether she does anything with him.  As her strange behavior intensifies, particularly in the company of others, Nick is left without a choice and commits her to an institution for several months of treatment. During this time, Nick struggles to raise three kids, at times bringing his own parental abilities into question.

The Good:

  • Dinner Table Scene: Mabel’s deteriorating mental state begins to show when she and Nick host a large group of construction workers for lunch.  The inappropriateness is riveting, her unpredictable interaction with the various men at the table is captivating.  While in most movies characters always speak with cleverness, the dialogue here is amazingly natural and refreshingly entertaining, damn near like witnessing interaction in real life.
  • The Psychiatrist Visit Scene: While domestic violence accounts for some of the disturbing moments in this film, one of the toughest scenes to watch is a psychiatrist visit seeking to take Mabel away.  With Nick’s mother vocalizing her disapproval of Mabel staying in the house and Mabel acting out defiantly, heart-wrenching madness ensues.  Her crazed and sporadic behavior in the presence of her family and the doctor is chilling, you watch and you just wouldn’t want to be in that room.
  • Directing Style and Performances: After about 20 or 30 minutes into the film, I was saying to myself, “this film doesn’t feel over-produced….why?”  I learned later about how Cassavetes approached actors, often not revealing to a particular actor the motivations and dialogue of other characters.  In fact, actors were not even allowed to talk to each other during the entire production.  The result?….exquisitely natural performances!…with Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands being nominated for an Oscars in directing and for best actress, respectively.
  • Historical Significance in Film History: After being unable to find a distributor, Cassavetes personally called theater owners, asking them to run his film, perhaps the first time in film history that an independent film was distributed without the use of a nationwide system of sub-distributors.  In 1990, A Woman Under the Influence was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, one of the first fifty films to be so honored.

The Bad:

  • Runs a bit long:  For those who like faster paced movies, this movie may seem too slow and boring.  Not helping its case, this film is about 20 minutes longer than it needs to be.  With a little patience, the payoff can be very rewarding.

A Woman Under the Influence trivia:  Cassavetes was inspired to write this film when wife Gena Rowlands was looking for a stage role exploring the difficulties faced by contemporary women.  The intensity and emotional weight of this role was so great that performing it daily on stage would be too exhausting.  Faced with little financing and often told that, “No one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame”, Cassavetes mortgaged his house and borrowed from family and friends, including Peter Falk!

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:  While I generally refute the “auteur theory”, I agree with you, Mr. Ebert, that John Cassavetes may just qualify as one of VERY few “auteurs”, as his characters are distinctive enough, revealed with a harsh yet tender vulnerability.  Your review pays beautiful tribute to all the things that make this film work and I stand in awe of its power with you, as its emotional grip unleashed my compassion and left me pensive, sad, somewhat fearful, and yet hopeful.  I agree with you that “dysfunctional” families do not necessarily indicate at state of being non-functional, but instead they may still be functional, albeit in their own screwy fashion, each holding a nuanced method to its own madness.  Effortlessly, I felt a renewed sense of appreciation for the complexity that human behavior exhibits, and unlike other pieces of entertainment to which we’ve become accustomed, this film doesn’t treat mentally unbalanced human beings superficially, as though they were freaks at a circus.

Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT

Do you consider A Woman Under the Influence to be Good, Bad or Great?

Next Week’s Film:  Ace in the Hole