Friday, August 11

Gena Rowlands

Here is half of one of the most legendary actress-director screen partnerships in Hollywood history.  There have been a number of other pairings but few evoke the stirring memories created by beautiful Gena Rowlands and her maverick husband, John Cassavetes.  Together, they were king and queen of the indies for 20 years, a deluxe duo who brought a searing realism to films like we'd never seen before. 

We'll deal more with him in the next post so let's go forth on her with this statement:  this is one of the most talented actresses America has ever produced.  One of the great goddesses of the silver screen, she can proudly sit in the VIP lounge with the likes of Stanwyck, Hepburn, Streep and a few more. Radiant in everything she does, this is one of the most honest, natural, raw and thorough performers one could ever hope to see.  The lady never misses a beat.

Born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1930, she was the daughter of a housewife who longed to be an actress and would one day appear in films (mostly directed by her son-in-law) under the name Lady Rowlands.  Her father was a banker and a state legislator and member of the Progressive Party.  At the end of the 30s, the family (including brother David who also became an actor) moved to Washington D.C. so the father could accept a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Rowlands spent a great deal of her childhood reading.  There was always a book in her face and although it appeared she was a solitary soul, she felt uplifted by the fact that she could go on journeys with all sorts of people, having a lot of fun along the way. Most of all, she simply loved the journey. She determined early on to parlay all she learned through reading into becoming an actress.

She seems to have never lacked for courage.  No matter the setbacks, she knew she'd get what she wanted one day.  And she simply knew she had to act.  There was a lot in that little bookworm just clawing to get out.  She knew she had a natural talent but that she would one day move to New York and study acting.  She wanted to do it smart and she wanted to do it now.

She left college after three years to attend New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1950.  She had turned 20.  It was there that she ran into Cassavetes, who'd been attending a year longer.  The topic of acting dominated much of their lives, then as always.  After just a year at the Academy, Rowlands had to drop out because she could not afford the tuition.

Not to despair, she knew the journey had begun and after losing track of Cassavetes for awhile, a chance encounter later brought him back in her life and romance became a topic along with acting. She felt good that she and Cassavetes spoke the same language and shared the same passions.  It was good to have him by her side and in her corner.  She began appearing in regional theater, did some television and debuted on Broadway in The Seven-Year Itch

She said that neither of them was interested in marriage or, heaven forbid, children. Nothing was to get in the way of their shared dream.  But putting protestations aside, the couple did marry in 1954 and remained in that state until his death in 1989. They would collaborate on 10 films together and form a company of talented folks, in front of and behind the cameras, and together reach some lofty heights.  She would one day say that she loved him as an artist and hated him as a husband.  It would not be too surprising to think of them being involved in some serious rows, highly passionate and full of righteousness, but they endured.

Shortly after their marriage they upped and moved to Hollywood. Both agreed they wanted to give films and television a try. They didn't know how their plan was going to work out, but they patted themselves on the backs for at least having a plan.  Her part of the deal was to get some start doing some acting.  He thought she was far too beautiful and talented to not be noticed right away. Problem was she was firm about not going the starlet route... cut the cheesecake photos, magazine layouts and the bs.  She wanted to be known for what she was... a serious actress.

It's likely that she endured some of that but still it could be said most neophyte Hollywood blondes would not make a big screen debut playing Jose Ferrer's wife in the comedy, The High Cost of Loving (1958). It wasn't an Oscar winner, but it was a start and she was noticed.

For several years she appeared in just about every major television show.  She never pooh-poohed television as so many before her had done.  She went where the great scripts were.  Whether in film or television or the stage, she sought complex roles.  She loved to peel back those layers of her characters and breath life into them.  She would eventually win three Emmys for her brilliant television performances.

Rowlands first attracted my attention because of her cool, blonde beauty.  Picture it.  Santa Monica, 1962.  I worked at a movie theater and it seemed that from one week to another, I was receiving posters and assorted paraphernalia that accompanies all films and Gena Rowlands was everywhere, involved in two films. I knew immediately I wanted to see them, which, of course, I would have anyway.  They were all free and I didn't mind the job as long as I could see all the movies I wanted.  

Lonely Are the Brave is a thoughtful, if under-rated, film about a modern-day cowboy (a magnificent Kirk Douglas) on the run from the law.  The greater theme, I thought, was about a man who is at odds with the changing times. Rowlands received good notices as the wife of a friend who is at the heart of why Douglas is on the run.

The Spiral Road was the other film that same year.  It was a bunch of Technicolor melodrama set in the Indonesian jungles and Rowlands, looking beautiful, simply played the girl opposite Rock Hudson.  It was not important in her list of credits.

She had a supporting role in A Child Is Waiting (1963), a drama about developmentally-challenged children. She was thrilled to accept a small part in a film that provided her first real opportunity to work with her husband who was directing his third film.  (Four years earlier she had appeared in a nightclub scene in her husband's Shadows, an experience she apparently will not discuss.)

Mr. & Mrs Cassavetes.... what a pair they were

Faces (1968) is the true launch of Cassavetes' indie productions. Like 
all of his work, the concerns are real-life, everyday situations that could happen to any of us. Faces focuses on the disintegration of a long marriage.  He's left her for a young woman (Rowlands) and later the wife takes up with a younger man.  

Minnie & Moskowitz (1971) was a rather light-hearted look that Cassavetes created about love.  The writer in him must have been going through a period of happiness since that's really what the film is about. One feels joyful watching Rowlands and Seymour Cassel play ordinary folks trying out this thing called love.  I thought their performances were magical.

Gena Rowlands' tour de force comes with A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Cassavetes obviously let her run with it and she did so to such an extent that I would consider this one of the five best performances by any actress that I have ever seen. Others have made similar claims.  Her homemaker Mabel Longhetti is a study of unbalanced behavior and she was matched all the way by her good buddy, Peter Falk, as her abusive husband. 

This character is rich in complexity as written by Cassavetes.  This woman is obsessed with the love of her husband. The risks Rowlands took in all her work always seemed ground-breaking to me.  For so long as I watched her act, I often found myself thinking I've never seen anyone do that. And seriously, the that was always changing. Rowlands always claimed she was a little bit crazy herself and perhaps that aided her in her grueling breakdown scene in Woman.  I know I again was astonished at the depths this woman would go to bring us into Mabel's sad world.

She and I both agree on one thing for sure... this is our favorite of all her films.  She won a number of awards for her performance and received her first Oscar nomination as did her  husband for his direction.

Always taking risks with unconventional characters, frequently those attacking the status quo, she was a bitch of an alcoholic Broadway actress on her way to a flame-out... spiraling down, down, down.  The film is Opening Night (1977) and just as she's feeling the pressures of getting older and remaining a viable product, there's one more mishap awaiting.  It comes when she learns a fan is killed as she is trying to reach the legendary actress. As it's all unfolding, there's an opening night performance to give. Cassavetes wrote himself the part of her leading man, while family friend Ben Gazzara is the director of the play.

One day in 1978, my partner and I were sitting in the Village Theater in Westwood, California, waiting for the start of Grease. We got there a little on the early side, the exceptionally large theater was hardly full, and two women sat down in front of us.  I noticed this huge concoction of blonde hair hanging loosely on the older woman, although I couldn't see her face.  She was swathed in scarves and other accessories, appearing very bohemian-grand to me.  They began talking about the business.  I immediately knew who it was and her initials were GR.  Yep, Ginger Rogers. She wore her long blonde hair down as well.  She kept mentioning John and I assumed she knew John Travolta. Then when she turned to where my partner could see her, he nudged me as he whispered that's Gena Rowlands. We never said anything to her and I never saw her face. Bummer.

Probably most people would call Gloria (1980) a crime-thriller. Rowlands considers it a gangster comedy.  She plays a smart-mouthed, kick-ass neighbor of a six-year old Puerto Rican boy who is hiding after his family is murdered by the mob.  They want a ledger the kid has and are willing to kill even him to get it.  When Gloria realizes she knows the mob boss personally, she becomes even more incensed as they go on the run.

Riveting as Gloria

The actress has always had so much facial business going on.  I especially loved all the quirky things she does with her face in Gloria... my favorite being when she's angry, her face usually looks like she's trying to stifle a sneeze.  She can mug with the best of comics who use their faces so extensively only she's doing it for a drama.

There were so many moments that this movie didn't feel like a movie at all.  Filmed on location, literally on the streets of New York, it screams reality.  Rowlands' gutsy performance, again not liking the status quo but this time packing a gun, is a gem and the Oscar folks delivered another nomination.

Over the years, both she and Cassavetes did films without one another, including films he did solely for the money so he could finance his next indie production.  Among this group my favorite is Tempest (1982). It deals with a rich Manhattanite who has a decided midlife crisis and leaves the U.S. and his wife and takes his teenage daughter with him as he moves to Greece. Costarring Susan Sarandon, Molly Ringwald, Raul Julia and Vittorio Gassman, it will be discussed in more detail when we get to films of the 1980s.

Mr. and Mrs. Cassavetes play emotionally wounded siblings who haven't seen one another in years in Love Streams (1984).  He is an alcoholic, inauthentic writer who is interviewing women for a book at the same time he reunites with his sister on her way to a breakdown because of an impending divorce.  It would be the last time they would work together and his penultimate directing chore.

While she was making Woody Allen's Another Woman (1988), she thought Cassavetes wasn't looking like his usual robust self although she still regarded him as the handsome man she married. It wasn't until years later when she learned that during the making of Love Streams a doctor gave Cassavetes five months to live.  He, however, lasted for five more years, dying in 1989.

The widow Cassavetes could have walled herself up in her beautiful California home but not this lady.  She still had three children and some grandchildren and work to do. After Cassavetes' death, Rowlands more or less left the art house circuit and went into the mainstream media.  She had smaller roles in such films as Something to Talk About (1995) and Hope Floats and Playing by Heart, both 1998.  She scored even more in some television movies as she did on the big screen with Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (1979, with Bette Davis as Mother), An Early Frost (1985), The Betty Ford Story (1987), Wild Iris (2001) and The Incredible Mrs. Ritchie (2003) among them.

With James Garner in The Notebook

She has been directed several times by her son, chip-off-the-old-block, Nick, but no project was more successful than the mega- crowd-pleaser, The Notebook (2004). The story of a young couple's love that is interrupted for years by differences in their social standing, it is interspersed with issues confronting the couple late in life after having been long-married.  It surprised me how much I liked this film although it didn't hurt that Rowlands, still a beautiful sight at 74, and James Garner play the older pair while Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams are the young ones.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (2014), her last film to date, is worth a gander.  It concerns a widow who engages a much younger gay dance instructor (Cheyenne Jackson) to come to her home to teach her some moves. The route of their relationship going from antagonistic to tender is at the heart of the film.  It's not a great film but it's an enjoyable one and it's obvious the lady still has what it takes.

She hasn't retired officially although she says she can't imagine making another film.  She remarried in 2012 and lives blissfully in the California desert.  (How'd I'd love to think she's writing her autobiography.)  She was thrilled that in 2016 the Oscar folks honored her with a special Oscar.  It would have been a grave injustice not to have done so.

Next posting:
As promised... John Cassavetes

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