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Early 1979 found John Cassavetes at a career low point. The critical and commercial failures of the last two films he had directed, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977), both of which he produced and distributed at his own expense, had caused him emotional distress and left him in financial difficulties. To earn money, he wrote scripts and did anonymous patch-up work on others' screenplays. He proved effective enough in his role as a writer-for-hire that MGM asked him if he had a script the studio could make with up-and-coming child actor Ricky Schroder. Cassavetes obliged with what he later called "a very fast-moving, thoughtless piece about gangsters - and I don't even know any gangsters." Schroder then left MGM, so Cassavetes offered the script to Columbia, with the proposal that his wife, Gena Rowlands, play the main part, a woman with mob connections who reluctantly protects a young boy who runs afoul of the mob. To Cassavetes' surprise, Columbia not only bought the script and okayed Rowlands but also demanded that Cassavetes direct the film, which was eventually titled Gloria (1980).
Cassavetes had reservations about his own script and didn't want to direct it. "I wrote this story to sell, strictly to sell," he later said. He agreed to direct Gloria, he claimed, as a favor to Rowlands, who relished the part of the tough ex-gun moll and prepared for it meticulously. "When I read the script, I knew I wanted a walk for her," Rowlands said. "I wanted something that, from the minute you saw me, you knew I could handle myself on the streets of New York. So I started thinking about when I lived in New York, how different I walked down the street when there was nobody but me. It was a walk that said, They'd better watch out." As Rowlands' co-star, Cassavetes chose six-year-old Juan Adames (who would be billed as John Adames) from among 350 contenders at a group casting call in New York. Cassavetes used Adames' lack of training and experience to convey the character's bewilderment in a way that avoided the usual stylized portrayals of children in Hollywood films. "He's neither sympathetic nor nonsympathetic," Cassavetes said. "He's just a kid. He reminds me of me, constantly in shock, reacting to this unfathomable environment."
As part of a strategy, perhaps, to cope with the union crew that was imposed on him against his will (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night had been non-union shoots), Cassavetes gave a break to camera operator Fred Schuler, making him his director of photography. Seeking to distance Gloria as much as possible from the kind of clich entertainment he detested ("I hate entertainment. There's nothing I despise more than being entertained"), Cassavetes lined up locations in the South Bronx, Flushing, and other areas that reflected an unglamorous New York not often seen in Hollywood films.
Shooting was marked by ongoing battles between Cassavetes and Columbia and between Cassavetes and production manager Stephen Kesten. "If you'd talk about money, well, that was exactly what John didn't want to hear," Fred Schuler recounted. "Toward the end, it got tense." Assistant director Mike Haley remembered Cassavetes and Kesten nearly coming to blows while shooting in New Jersey. "I think they fought constantly," Haley said.
On the release of the film in 1980, Gloria received, as Ray Carney notes, "the most favorable reviews of any film [Cassavetes] ever made." The irony of this, as Carney also observes, is that Gloria was also "the film Cassavetes believed in least of any of the work he had done" since directing A Child Is Waiting for Stanley Kramer in 1963. "I was bored because I knew the answer to the picture the minute we began," Cassavetes said about Gloria. "All my best work comes from not knowing." Of all Cassavetes' films, Gloria is the most conventional, and the interest of the work lies in the maneuvers by the director and the actors to gain a temporary victory over, or at least a stalemate with, convention. Rowlands' bravura performance dominates the film, evoking and transforming the legacy of tough dames from Warner Bros. movies. Cassavetes carefully delineates the progress of the rapport Rowlands' Gloria and Adames' Phil develop as they move from hostility and distrust to mutual respect.
Gloria is the film that best showcases Cassavetes' skill as a metteur en scne (as opposed to his creativity and sensibility as an artist). He handles action setpieces with a panache that is surprising from the director whose dislike of violence drove him to put off as long as possible the filming of the title incident in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The stripped-down visual style of Gloria occasionally hints at the directness and the disregard for classical norms of beauty and decorum that mark Cassavetes' more personal films. Cassavetes uses the drabness, grubbiness, and restrictiveness of his location settings - such as the apartment building where the story starts - to determine the look of the film. In its bold and triumphant ambiguity, the ending of Gloria stands among Cassavetes' major statements (together with his treatment of attitudes toward romantic love in Minnie and Moscowitz  and his depiction of the seedy artificial paradise of Ben Gazzara's strip club in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) on cinema as a purveyor of fantasy.
Producer: Sam Shaw
Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Cinematography: Fred Schuler
Film Editing: George C. Villaseor
Art Direction: Rene D'Auriac
Music: Bill Conti
Cast: Gena Rowlands (Gloria), John Adames (Phil), Buck Henry (Jack), Julie Carmen (Jeri), Val Avery (Sill), Basilio Franchina (Tony), Lupe Garnica (Margarita), Tom Noonan, Tony Knesich, Ronald Maccone (Gangsters).
by Chris Fujiwara
Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.
Marshall Fine, Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film. New York: Miramax Books, 2005.