Whose normal is it anyway?by Vandana Kumar June 21 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 12 mins, 9 secs
Vandana Kumar goes around John Cassavettes’ ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ and discusses how Independent Cinema in Hollywood pushed boundaries by depicting alcoholism and mental health issues.
In an orbit far removed from the big bucks and glamour of Hollywood, the 1950s and 60s New York created the milieu for filmmakers under a broader umbrella, who amongst themselves, helped give birth to modern independent American cinema. Genre was not on their minds and most wanted to capture everyday American life. It coexisted with the ‘Nouvelle Vague’, or the French new wave, although not directly influenced by it. The desire was to explore social milieus minutely - basically all that had been ignored by mainstream Hollywood.
John Cassavetes too, wanted to work outside the studio system and retain his autonomy. His ‘Shadows’, released in 1959, was the symbol of the first American new wave. It was filmed with a 16mm camera over two years. It was made largely on the streets of New York and comprised actors from Cassavetes’ method acting workshop. The film’s international recognition got Cassavetes contracts with studios and movies that somehow failed to leave a mark and got recognition from neither audiences nor critics. Cassavetes returned to acting and did many movies in that phase, most notably Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ in 1968. With the money he earned he could continue his passion for independent filmmaking and critiquing American society and the American dream. His ‘A woman Under the Influence’ made him a hero for a new Hollywood generation.
John Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands was very keen to appear in a play that highlighted the emotional upheaval and difficulties that women of her times faced. It was what inspired him to write ‘A Woman Under the Influence’. One glance at the script and his wife expressed reservations about performing it on stage, as it would exhaust her emotionally. So he thought of adapting it for the screen.
When he tried to get funding for the project, he was told, "No one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame”. It is stories like these that make the awards and final recognition seem all the sweeter. This 1974 American drama film, both written and directed by Cassavetes, got its share of award nominations - in the category of best film and actress at the academy awards and was the winner of the Golden Globe that year for the best actress.
Cassavetes’ friend Peter Falk plays Nick Longhetti (A construction foreman) and Gena Rowlands plays his wife, Mabel. They have three children and live in a house that plays a central part in the film as most of the film takes place there. Mabel is established right at the outset with a drinking problem that leads to rather irregular behavior and we see her have a nervous breakdown. A woman under the influence is at one level just a story of a woman losing her senses in working class ambience in a family of the America of the 70s. It is the story of a wife being unhinged and struggling for reassurance that she is okay. It is heart wrenching to see the husband having to send her away and then six months down the line her homecoming is celebrated followed by a struggle with the realization that there is no cure. It is about a man’s love for a woman for whom her near insanity is of little consequence.
The world is an outsider - family, neighbors and colleagues - they are welcome if they understand them, but beyond a boundary he draws, they are not to come close. They don’t understand and they shall remain onlookers, as it is only he who knows his wife and her crazy world. His emotions are just like his wife’s - very raw and on display - whether it is throwing out the guests after her homecoming or slapping her in frustration. ‘My films are the truth’, Cassavetes said and was greatly influenced by Carl Dreyer. It is the richness in every composition and close ups that blow you away. John Cassavetes’ story telling is not even just about close ups - it’s every slap on the face and every teardrop that tells us something and propels the film to the next stage.
The film takes you into the home of the protagonists - Nick and Mabel Longhetti and rarely moves from there. Barring a few scenes, the film moves forward mostly in the Longhetti residence. There are a few significant scenes outside the home. One is where Nick is stuck with an emergency in the city of Los Angeles (the water–man break at Palisades) and he can’t make it home for a date planned with his wife. When asked to report for the emergency, Nick screams into the phone, “I’ve got an unbreakable date... with my wife... my wife... my wife, you moron... my wife!” - he screams three times before hanging up and then resigns to attend to his duty”. Nick is used to such sacrifices and also to emergencies the city throws up. What he is not used to and what takes a toll on him are the ups and downs that his wife faces and daily battles.
The film is as much about his struggles to cope and not just Mabel’s obviously insurmountable ones. ‘Woman under the influence’ belongs equally to both of them - to Nick and his obsession with things being okay and difficulty to understand that they aren’t. He is in such deep denial of the deteriorating mental health of his wife that he keeps reiterating that things are okay. He is always looking at her every eye movement, every nod, every head turn for signs of normalcy. He can’t stomach the idea that there can be cracks. His insistence that things are normal takes on violent and aggressive tones ironically. He screams at neighbors and friends insisting that they look upon his wife as normal. “I’ll kill ya”, he tells Mabel, “and I’ll kill these sons-o’-bitchin’ kids”. A release of frustration and giving vent to all that is bottled inside of him as he handles the wife and her illness, while telling the world there is nothing wrong.
Since the pathos and action is all mostly inside the home, it feels like a very personal film, where you are right inside the private world of the Longhettis. There is no privacy for the couple as far as their children or their parents are concerned. The children come rushing in at any moment when the already disturbed couple is alone. It is not minimal and even larger than life at times. The order of the home is as chaotic as the state of mind of both Nick and Mabel. There is an outer world and an inner world of their home. A home as big a character as any - one that has madness and no method to it. The use of stairs is stagey and adds to the dramatic impact. There is perpetual running up and down. A significant scene is with the doctor’s waiting when Mabel is fleeing from him and the second effective use of stairs is with the children; their love and constant search for their mother; their running up and down to be with her on her return from the institution.
Ninety percent of the conversation is between the couple - either fighting with each other or trying to fight outsiders (anyone who does not understand her illness) and trying to make sense of their imperfect world. A few significant scenes are tender; they belong to the mother and her children. The children are initially insignificant - they seem to be around dutifully obeying orders, to go to bed or brush their teeth sort of thing. As the film progresses and the mother’s illness with it, they find themselves opening up in throwing tantrums and not being disciplined kids anymore. They have missed their mother and want her, sane or not. Heading towards the climax they insist that she is there and tucking them into bed.
In a battle drawn between a world that deems her insane - they are there for her and love her unconditionally. “You know I never did anything in my whole life that was anything except I made you guys,” Mabel tells her children, desperately seeking their approval and feeling that she is falling short. She asks them if they find her “dopey, or mean” and her oldest son immediately says that she’s “smart, and pretty, and nervous”. It is only too obvious, the love they feel for her, even though the word ‘nervous’ implies that they find something odd and irregular in her behavior. The children are not judging her by any societal yardsticks.
Interestingly ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ came under the feminist scrutiny and received both appreciation and criticism. They showered praise on the film on the assumption that Cassavetes was portraying a neglected and unappreciated wife. He said in interviews that actually Mabel Longhetti was not a wife he had any idea of personally and certainly nothing like his wife, Gena Rowlands. It was a world he created - one that was coping with a changing American society and how a particular character’s normal is at complete variance with what is socially accepted. It was about how much anyone could accept variance and what are the limits to which relationships get tested under such circumstances. It was about a portrayal of a very grave manic illness, one that he has often said he identified with personally and transformed it to the other gender, to observe it from the outside too. It had little to do with (at least not intentionally) what some feminists lauded the film for - a depiction of the loneliness of housewives.
At the other end of the spectrum were feminists who felt that she was not the sort of woman that needed to be represented on celluloid - confused, vulnerable, tied to a life that revolved around the home and family - and desperately seeking love within motherhood and as a wife. This was a time when the women’s movement was growing in America.
At the crux is the flawed ‘American’ family – the unit on the inside and the world outside. The neighbors, Nick’s male colleagues and everyone, who after a point will not understand her illness - they should retire and go home as they have no place in their home. Nick screams at his mother (played by his mother Katherine Cassavetes) to send away the well–wishers inside the house, called to celebrate the wife’s homecoming from the asylum.
The film has often been criticized for not being an accurate depiction of mental illness and for Rowland’s over the top depiction. The film isn’t even about being an accurate study of mentally disturbed patients. It is about such illnesses but more about how it impacts lives of loved ones and their dealing with it - both acceptances and denials. Never is she shown in the asylum or any attempt made to show diagnosis and treatment. It is significantly a departure from a lot of films showing mental illnesses. A lot of American films horrified the medical community because of the sheer stereotypes. There would be the patient who would be deemed crazy. If it was a woman there were often stereotypical depictions showing them turning seductresses or going on killing sprees destroying most men en route.
The highly acclaimed and sensitive films showing mental illnesses touched more on life in the asylum. In Miloš Forman’s ‘One flew over the Cuckoo’s nest (1972)’, that was based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, the focus was on the mental hospital and life there that revolves around the central characters. In the 2001 film ‘A beautiful mind’ we are told about the debilitating illness that is schizophrenia and the struggles of the renowned mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., dealing with it. In ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ the institute is not relevant and neither is what happened there or the line of treatment. The specifics of the illness are never mentioned. The influence being alcohol and that she has a drinking problem is established earlier. She tells her doctor in a significant scene that she has taken “uppers, downers, inners, outers.” Cassavetes perhaps kept the mental illness deliberately ambiguous.
A film that was such an extraordinary labor of love in the way it overcame all odds that it served as an inspiration and was often quoted by those out of funds and struggling to make a film. Cassavetes’ friend Peter Falk chipped in a million dollars for the sheer satisfaction of watching his friend’s vision on celluloid. The stories here were too many - Cassavetes mortgaged his house. Gena Rowlands was her own coiffeuse and make-up artist. The mothers of both Cassavetes and Rowlands were cast in the film.
Richard Dreyfuss on a TV show (he appeared along with Peter Falk) said he saw Cassavetes’ “incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie” and after the experience “went home and vomited”. For all the dark places it might have taken Dreyfuss or any of the audience too, it is essentially about love and how two people face the most turbulent storms in their lives, even as the film attempts to break and move away from hitherto stereotypical depictions of madness in American cinema.
The acceptance of mental illness as normal is the biggest challenge. One he throws the family that is looking at every lift of Rowland’s head, every interaction with the children, to see if she is ‘Now okay’ on her return from the asylum. One that he is asking us to think of - how okay are we with a normal that isn’t society’s normal. How much are we willing to love someone like that?