There's a point early on in A Woman Under the Influence when a woman arranges an impromptu spaghetti breakfast for a dozen grown men. Maybe that sounds crazy--a spaghetti breakfast--and maybe the fact that half of them are drinking beer while the other half drinks wine, all while the sun rises behind the drawn curtains, sounds even more crazy, but crazy situations have a way of working themselves into our lives. See, the men are plumbers contracted by New York City to lay pipe, and at the end of their shift the day before, after hours of grueling work at a construction site, a burst water main elsewhere in the city required them to spend all night repairing the emergency. They've been up for twenty-four hours; they're hungry and beat, and it may as well be happy hour. Hence the spaghetti and the beer.
They're a diverse group--black men, European immigrants, Hispanics--and on invitation they pile around the large dinner table of working stiff Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) to be fed and entertained. Nick doesn't ask his wife Mabel (Gena Rowlands) for her consent, and for a woman who doesn't get out very much--she mostly stays home with their three young children, taking care of the house--she handles the sudden intrusion of a dozen hungry strangers very well, introducing herself, preparing the giant pot of pasta, trying to engage in the carefree smalltalk that hostesses are supposed to be masters of.
But even so, we know that something's... off--way off.
The silly conversation moseys around the big table, with them behaving like big, strong men and her behaving like a cute, little woman, everything according to plan. Nick tries to draw some bizarre connection between post-war airborne toxins and high birth rates, someone makes an off-color reference to moon dust being an aphrodisiac, and it's all a little weird and unrealistic, but it's fine because imaginative people aren't always firmly rooted in reality. Then an old Italian man begins to romantically sing an aria to Mabel. On the surface, it's crazy: an old man begins romancing a married woman in front of her husband in an unfamiliar language through song. And he's not even a very good singer. But we don't think of it as crazy, just amusing and mildly eccentric. After all, that's what old Italian men do.
But then a young, African American man starts stealing the show--singing the Italian aria in a beautiful baritone--and he continues singing, like a trained actor, for several stanzas. And you wonder, how did this black plumber learn to sing such beautiful Italian music, and why has he been fixing pipes all night instead of enchanting audiences at the Met? Why's he here at this table in Staten Island eating noodles and drinking cheap canned beer with a bunch of immigrants? And that, too, seems a bit crazy, but you would never call him insane.
Then Mabel, stirred by the music and wine and really starting to enjoy herself, decides to take the party up a notch, rising and inviting the men to dance with her. They could turn on some music, have a real party.
But nobody stands. Discomfort spreads across the table. They all know Mabel's a looney, though nobody can quite put words to it. Before the breakfast, we've seen one of the workers confront Nick in the car about her unusual behavior, and while Nick defends his beloved wife, he doesn't deny the accusation. Given the circumstances of the hectic and unusual morning, her desire to dance isn't very out of line, but because everyone knows she's crazy, and because crazy people are only capable of doing crazy things, it suddenly occurs to us just how abnormal it is that she's drinking wine and eating tomato sauce and trying to dance in her living room with a bunch of construction workers at seven in the morning.
And her average joe husband, accustomed to seeing all of her actions as being somewhere between tolerable and unacceptable on a scale of insanity, flips out, yelling at her, "Get your ass down!" Maybe he's embarrassed for her. Maybe he's jealous. Maybe he's jumping to conclusions, or he's just irritable from a long night of hard work. An uncomfortable silence hangs, and as the camera focuses on the disturbed faces of the men, we're forced to draw a line and choose a side between acceptable craziness and unacceptable lunacy.
There's no denying that Mabel is definitely off-balance. The night before, having planned a rare date with her husband that he abandons because of the unexpected extra work, she--lonely, disappointed, wondering where her husband is, her plans ruined--goes to a bar, drinks a lot of gin, takes home a desperate man that she has no intention of sleeping with, and then fails to distinguish between the strange third man and her husband. It's not something normal people do, nor are the wild facial expressions and silent jabbering that she makes and does while other people are talking, bizarre gesticulating that unveil the panicky, insecure, and frustrated thoughts in her head.
Sure she's crazy, but she's got reasons to be crazy--the constant, loving care of three rambunctious children, all under the age of ten; a mother-in-law who openly detests her; a huge, disorienting house to take care of; and a controlling, alcoholic, volatile husband who doesn't bother to call her when he stands her up and stays out all night and who's capable of bringing home a dozen men for her to cater to at the break of dawn.
Furthermore, we think of Mabel as crazy and erratic and Nick as sane and stable, and we judge all their actions accordingly, but isn't Nick just as crazy, or even crazier--lovingly encouraging her silly, babyish behavior in private, yet hypocritically correcting her when she acts that way in front of others; prone to violent outbursts toward everyone; unmindful of the consequences of his actions? At one point his violence puts a coworker in grave danger; at another point he blindly allows his three kids to become drunk in his presence, then wonders why they're so tired.
Is Nick the influence Mabel is under? Is it a male-dominated society? The stresses of modern life? The demons in her head? Mabel is a crazy woman surrounded by crazy people, and we must choose whether to judge her by the same standards of forgiveness and tolerance we grant everyone else, or whether to label and dismiss her as being just another Grade A Psycho.
For example, there's a scene (below) where Mabel eagerly waits for her children to come home from school. She greets them with hugs, races them to the house, and chats with them on the door stoop. The scene comes late in the movie, at which point the viewer is accustomed to staring at her with jaw-dropping horror, analyzing every nutty thing she says and does in order to make a proper diagnosis. Yet, viewing this scene out of context, would we really draw the conclusion that she was mad? Or would we think of her as a "free-spirit"? A loving mother? A tad energetic?
A Woman Under the Influence is #163 on the TSPDT? list, and a masterpiece it is. All of the acting is transfixingly real, with the combination of non-intrusive, lingering camerawork, improvisational dialogue, and natural lighting and sets giving the film a documentary feel. John Cassavetes's direction invites us into this strange yet familiar world, giving us a seat at the breakfast table, trapping us in the discomfort. We don't know what to say, there's nothing we can do, and we can't escape. Life unfurls in front of us, and the only power we have is to judge and assess, to condemn or forgive. Gena Rowlands is mesmerizing in one of the most powerful and captivating (and probably very difficult) performances of all time, and her bizarre chemistry with Peter Falk, the everyman hero as well as the antagonistic villain, is a chaotic tango between unconditional love and utter dysfunction.
It's a film I highly recommend.
* * *
Unlike Faces, which uses the same improvisational screenplay, rambling scenes, close-up photography, and naturalistic acting and plotting to the most boring effect. What Faces lacks is a single interesting character.
The film stars John Marley and Lynn Carlin as a wealthy, urban husband and wife who become displeased with their comfortable married life for no real good reason. Maybe they miss the excitement of their youth, the passion of mysterious, new encounters. The sex life has dampened, and the jokes are either funnier than they should be or not funny at all.
The husband finds companionship in a lonely, confused call girl played by Gena Rowlands, and the wife has a brief encounter with an aging gigolo portrayed by Seymour Cassel. Surrounded by numerous equally miserable (or even more miserable) supporting players, they each have some fun, charged moments with their respective potential lovers, but ultimately they're still disappointed, and in the end they resume their quiet, dull misery on the steps of their too-large home.
It's an important subject, and Cassavetes handles it with neither sensation nor melodrama, evoking some excellent performances and establishing a style that would pave the way for better films (such as A Woman Under the Influence). Maybe the film meant more to audiences in 1968, and maybe that's why it's #469 on the TSPDT? list and why it garnered three Academy Award nominations.
While watching it, however, I couldn't help but be as bored watching their lives as they were living them. It's the same problem that Revolutionary Road (2008) suffered from: they think their lives are boring, their conversations are dull, their relationships are stale, their aspirations are misguided, and their accomplishments are meaningless for a good reason. They are. Who wants to watch boring people who know that they're bored and boring yet are too boring to do anything non-boring about it?
Val Avery steals a scene as a desperate midwestern business man with a ton of money, a family, and a sycophantic sidekick. His biggest problem in life is that his worthless son wears tennis shoes, and what kind of a man wears tennis shoes?
One has trouble empathizing with such characters. It's easier to just dismiss them as whiny, middle class assholes, shake one's head, and consider the film as unpleasant and forgettable as the characters in it.
A Woman Under the Influence
d/w: John Cassavetes
(Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk)
d/w: John Cassavetes
(John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Gena Rowlands)