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Rowlands’ Extraordinary Performance
on 29 February 2016
Gena Rowlands’ performance as the (apparently) mentally unstable wife and mother, Mabel Longhetti, in husband and writer-director, John Cassavetes’ 1974 film is simply unforgettable. Rowlands was beaten to the Oscar that year by Ellen Burstyn (for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) – another great performance certainly, but not (for me) one that commands the screen to quite the same extent that Rowlands does here. The actress’ interplay with the impressive Peter Falk’s (uptight, preoccupied) construction worker husband, Nick, is totally compelling, as are her traumatic scenes with her three young children, who all do a remarkable job in their playful and loving depictions here. Without direct experience of the issues being depicted here, it is, of course, difficult to be absolutely sure of the authenticity of any 'fictitious characterisation’, but Rowlands’ mix of the obsessive, eccentric, meditative, deluded, loving, caring, fractious, vulnerable, desperate, depressed, resigned, paranoid and even offbeat humour never fails to convince.
It’s hardly surprising that Cassavetes had difficulty securing commercial backing for the film. The man’s unconventional (often oblique) approach to storytelling and his choice of 'unglamorous’ subject-matter are not the stuff of Hollywood and AWUTI’s episodic, uncompromising and harrowing (2½ hour) narrative is about as far as you could get from today’s CGI-dominated, shoot-‘em-up multiplex fare (in fact, plaudits should go the 1970s Academy for nominating both Rowlands and Cassavetes, the latter for Best Director). Here, we get the film-maker’s trademark quasi-documentary, 'improvisational-seeming’, long-take, naturalistic look-and-feel complemented with a superb soundtrack – original piano music by Bo Harwood, plus operatic excerpts (mainly La Bohème) – which (maybe unnecessarily, given the subject matter) enhances the film’s emotional impact.
A core element of Cassavetes’ film is its focus on 'ordinary, everyday’ (here, working-class) folk and their varying reactions to Mabel’s (and the film’s) central issue. A standout scene is that early on in the film during which Mabel attempts to 'socialise’ at the family home, to embarrassing effect, with her husband’s co-workers – apart from prompting the unveiling of 'unlikely’ operatic singing talent around the dinner table, the episode descends into fractious chaos. The intimacy of the 'family feel’ to proceedings is enhanced by Cassavetes casting a number of his relatives, including his mother Katherine, particularly impressive as Nick’s stern mother, Margaret, and by the casting of Rowlands’ mother, Lady, as Mabel’s mother Martha. Any pleas for light relief from the film’s dark themes pretty much fall on deaf ears, I’m afraid, a rare exception being the beautifully tender scene in which Nick applies a sticking plaster to Mabel’s hand.
Comparator films? For levels of trauma I was reminded of Ken Loach’s Ladybird, Ladybird and Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth. Subject matter – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, naturalistic style – perhaps Robert Altman (particularly Nashville). But really, Cassavetes’ film stands alone for bravery and originality.
The 2012 BFI release contains both Blu-Ray and DVD, interviews with Peter Falk and Elaine Kagan (‘secretary’ to Cassavetes), plus a 30-page booklet on the film.