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A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence(1974)

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The genesis of A Woman Under the Influence (1974) began when director John Cassavetes' wife, actress Gena Rowlands, told him she wanted to do a play about the difficulties women were facing at that time. As Marshall Fine wrote in his biography of John Cassavetes, Accidental Genius, "One day he handed Rowlands a play he had written and said, 'See what you think.' Rowlands recalled, 'I couldn't believe John wrote it. I don't mean to be sexist because I don't really believe that women can't write for men and vice versa. But I really couldn't believe that a man would understand this particular problem.'" What Cassavetes had written was so intense and emotional that Rowlands knew she couldn't bear performing in such a play eight times a week and told him that if she did, "I'd have to be hospitalized." So Cassavetes decided he would make it into a film. "I only knew one thing about Woman when we started: that it was a difficult time for today's woman to be left alone while somebody goes out and lives. I know when I was not working and Gena was working for me - because I was really in trouble in this business - I stayed home and took care of the baby and I was a pretty good housewife and all that. But I didn't have really the same reactions as a woman would have, mainly because I didn't have to think into the future of when I'd get older or when my attractiveness would fade or when the kids would grow up or when the baby would cease to cling to you. All those things are more interesting than what they're making movies out of." No one seemed to agree with him when he approached Hollywood money men with the idea. He was told, "No one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame."

Without studio financing, Cassavetes decided to break the fundamental rule in filmmaking, "never use your own money". Instead, he mortgaged his house and approached friends and family to help him. Gena Rowlands remembered, "We didn't have the money to do it, but we had a lot of friends, all actors and interested in the project. So they all helped us. And we just did it." One of these friends was actor Peter Falk, who was starring in his hit television series Columbo. Falk read the script and believed in it so much he turned down a role in Day of the Dolphin (1973) and put up half a million dollars of his own money. The cast included Rowlands' and Cassavetes' mothers, their son Nick, their daughter, Xan, and Matthew Cassel, son of actor Seymour Cassel and Cassavetes' godson. The crew was a hodge-podge of professionals and students from the American Film Institute, where Cassavetes was serving as the AFI's first "filmmaker in residence" for their Center for Advanced Film Studies. The AFI was where Cassavetes ended up doing most of his editing as composer Bo Harwood remembered, "John wouldn't leave. He said, 'My movie's not done'. We were there for two years. It was like a bunch of bank robbers had taken over this eighteen-acre estate." Unable to find studio space to shoot, the scenes in Longhetti's home were filmed in a slightly run-down house on Taft Avenue, just off Hollywood Boulevard. As there was no budget for hair and makeup, Rowlands simply did her own, and with only one copy of her costumes (unthinkable in a Hollywood production), the clothes were sent to an overnight dry cleaners after each shoot.

After production and editing wrapped up, Cassavetes couldn't find a distributor for the film so he ended up calling theater owners across the country trying to get them to run the film. "Everyone who makes a movie is at the major distributor's mercy. We're distributing Woman ourselves because the studios have had no interest in it. And if they did come to us, we wouldn't sell it cheaply because we've taken our risks and expect to be paid well for it. After all, who the hell are they? Unless they finance the productions, they're a bunch of agents who go out and book theaters. That's what it really boils down to." As Jeff Lipsky, a college student hired by Cassavetes to help distribute the film, said "It was the first time in the history of motion pictures that an independent film was distributed without the use of a nationwide system of sub-distributors." A Woman Under the Influence was booked into small theaters, even at college campuses where Cassavetes and Falk would appear to talk about the film. It eventually made it to the New York Film Festival where it caught the attention of film critics like Joseph Gelmis of Newsday, who wrote that it was "an emotional blockbuster that should touch a nerve in every family that shelters an adult who's never grown up." Rex Reed called it "shatteringly profound and disturbing in ways movies seldom affect their audiences". As Marshall Fine wrote in his biography of John Cassavetes, "Actor Richard Dreyfuss was appearing on The Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia, during a week when Peter Falk was Douglas' co-host to promote Woman. As they chatted on camera, Douglas asked Dreyfuss if he had seen A Woman Under the Influence. Rather than simply say, 'Yes and I thought it was great', the voluble actor launched into a description of the film: 'It was the most incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie. I went crazy. I went home and vomited.' At which point Falk piped up, 'It's also funny. It's a funny movie.' ...When the show went to commercial, Falk picked up a nearby phone and called Cassavetes: 'This kid, he's telling everyone how terribly dark and scary the movie is,' Falk said. And on the other end of the phone, Dreyfuss heard Cassavetes laughing, telling Falk 'He can say what he wants.' In fact, it worked to the film's advantage. Suddenly everyone wanted to see the film that made Richard Dreyfuss sick, to see if it would happen to them, too."

To everyone's astonishment, A Woman Under the Influence, the film Hollywood studio chiefs thought no one would want to see, not only made back its $1 million cost and turned a very respectable profit, it earned Academy Award nominations for Rowlands as Best Actress and Cassavetes as Best Director. They lost out to Ellen Burstyn for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather, Part II, respectively.

by Lorraine LoBianco

Sources:

The Internet Movie Database

Marshall Fine, Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film.

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