Cast & Crew
A housewife, trapped in an unhappy marriage, plunges into madness.
Joanne Moore Jordan
O G Dunn
Bette Jane Cohen
David V Lester
Phedon Papamichael Sr.
A Woman Under the Influence
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
The Internet Movie Database
Marshall Fine, Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film.
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes: 5 Films on DVD
The early and most historically significant years of Cassavetes' directorial efforts are finally put into context with Criterion's eight-disc, five-film DVD omnibus. While these films were not terribly difficult to see before (in fact, most have been circulated on VHS and DVD under other banners in years past), the absence of any sort of context or filmic Rosetta stone to help viewers appreciate the words and images before them yielding only minimal appreciation for these often challenging works. Now placed in chronological order with hefty, highly accessible supplements, the first twenty years of his output finally clicks into place.
The earliest and simplest of the set, 1959's Shadows offers a freeform rebuttal to the glossy Hollywood depictions of race relations found in films like Imitation of Life and the films of Stanley Kramer. The film centers on a struggling African-American trio of siblings in New York: washed-up jazz performer Hugh (Hugh Hurd), little sister Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), and young punk-in-the-making Bennie (Ben Carruthers). The latter two are distinctly light-skinned enough to pass for white, an opportunity the sexually awakening Lelia uses to date a white man, Tony (Anthony Ray). When Tony discovers his girlfriend's true racial identity, his urge to flee results in a series of hard self-evaluations for each brother and sister.
A free-flowing and striking debut work, Shadows was widely misunderstood during early screenings. Not a traditional "message film," it instead focuses on the emotions and psychological wounds of its characters reflected in the jazzy music and loose intercutting, with the three lives often running in tadem with each other to let viewers draw their own associations. Presented in its original full frame aspect ratio (1.33:1), the film looks considerably better here than in prior incarnations; its rough and gritty texture is still in place but with much more appreciable detail and a film-like texture contributing to its effectiveness. Extras include an 11-minute interview with Goldoni, a 4-minute video chat with associate producer and familiar character actor Seymour Cassel, a 4-minute reel of silent 16mm acting workshop footage with Cassavetes and collaborator Burt Lane, a thorough 11-minute restoration demonstration exploring more than the standard versions included on early Criterion DVDs, a stills gallery, and the theatrical trailer. Incidentally, rumors persisted for years that a "first cut" of the film was completed but pulled due to poor audience response, though as facts later demonstrated, Cassavetes were displeased with some of the footage from the original rough cut and decided to reshoot several key moments. As such, this is the only completed, authorized version in existence; the alternate version is absent here due to the wishes of the Cassavetes estate.
One film that truly does exist in alternate versions is Faces, Cassavetes' 1968 return to personal cinema after a sojourn into Hollywood filmmaking and television production with projects like A Child Is Waiting. Clocking in at over two hours, the film thoroughly burrows into the psyche of insurance executive Richard Forst (The Godfather's John Marley), a barnstorming dynamo at work whose life at home is entirely different. His superficially happy marriage to Maria (Lynn Carlin) comes to an abrupt halt when he demands a divorce in bed; in fact, he has become enraptured with a prostitute, Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), who may or may not be a callous gold digger. Meanwhile Maria becomes the prey of Chet (Cassel), a clubgoer who sets his sights on disillusioned married women. The quartet's damaged love lives soon coalesce into a new set of emotional and domestic alliances as each assumes a new face of their own.
A more audacious and confident work than the previous film, Faces offers a devastating and wholly convincing portrait of a marriage dissolving; the fallout is charted in a series of vignettes, shot in stark verite-inspired 16mm, with each performer contributing top-notch work.
Letterboxed at 1.66:1 with anamorphic enhancement, this film has also undergone a sensitive restoration with its original "flaws" still intact. The feature occupies an entire disc by itself, with a second disc housing the supplements. The first offers a full 17-minute alternate opening sequence shown in Toronto but jettisoned from later prints, followed by an episode of the French TV series Cineastes de notre temps dedicated to Cassavetes, running 48 minutes. A new documentary, "Making Faces," covers the making of the film in 41 minutes thanks to interviews with Carlin, Cassel, Rowlands, and cinematographer Al Ruban. Another new supplement, "Light and Shooting the Film," features Ruban again covering the technical approach used to achieve the film's distinct look and camera placement, split into two sections ("Intro and Equipment" and the clip-heavy "Sequence Explanations").
Arguably the most accessible and widely revered of Cassavetes' films, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) followed two outstanding efforts, Husbands (1970) and Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), both absent here as they currently fall under major studio ownership. In a tour de force performance, Rowlands is mentally unstable Mabel Longhetti whose husband, Nick (Peter Falk), loves her despite her madness and tries to put the best public face on their relationship. Their own bond suffers enough strain, but the situation worsens when their children, friends, and parents enter the mix to create a difficult situation from which there seems to be no escape.
An even longer and more intense character study, this dynamite showcase for Rowlands and Falk (reunited from Husbands) has lost little of its piercing intensity; rarely do form and content align as well as they do here, with Cassavetes offering a compassionate portrait of a marriage from a vastly different perspective than one might expect. Once again material that could have lent itself to typical TV-movie-of-the-week material is dissected and humanized in a manner that yields increasingly powerful emotional dividends. Fortunately the film is presented here in a dazzling transfer that makes appreciating the film all the easier; no previous version can touch the immaculate color and detail on display here.
In the only audio commentary of the set, camera operator Mike Ferris and sound recordist/composer Bo Harwood offer a technical appraisal of their work on the film; don't expect much actor or auteur revelations, but for anyone interested in indie filmmaking methods, it's a valuable and informative track. Other supplements include new interviews with Rowlands and Falk (recorded together, appropriately enough), a 1975 interview with Cassavetes and film historian Michael Ciment, a hefty stills gallery, and the original theatrical trailer.
By far the most difficult film of the set, 1976's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie delves into seedier territory as strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), a former war vet and inveterate gambler, is confronted by gangsters over his escalating debt. They offer a trade-off; if Cosmo murders a Chinese bookie on their hit list, his debts will be cleared. Trapped in a sun-drenched California moral hell, Cosmo must decide what to do as he pits his own life against the consequences of his decisions, all against the backdrop of his seedy club, the Crazy Horse West.
Originally released at 135 minutes, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was trimmed down by Cassavetes to 108 minutes; this latter version is the one previously preserved on tape and disc until now. The two-disc version here retains both cuts; the longer one is certainly a tougher slog but contains some nice character moments (particularly from Cassel, all but invisible in the short version) and technical flourishes rewarding for die-hard fans. However, most viewers may be best off starting with the shorter cut, which features the more coherent narrative experience - and the film is certainly daunting enough in its revised form. Carried almost entirely by Gazzara's performance, the film is largely a celebration of atmosphere and quirky supporting characters, etching a dizzying and sometimes upending portrait of California sleaze where each life indeed comes with a price tag attached.
Extras for this feature include a new interview with Gazzara and producer Al Ruban, running 18 minutes, in which the film's production and rocky release history are thoroughly discussed. Another Clement audio interview is present as well, along with a stills gallery. The transfers of the features are slightly different, with the better-preserved final cut looking a bit more burnished and buffed to digital perfection.
The final feature, 1977's Opening Night, offers a very different vehicle for Gena Rowlands as Myrtle Gordon, the crumbling lead diva in the latest play by hard-bitten writer Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell). One night an eager fan, Nancy (Laura Johnson), is struck and killed while chasing Myrtle's car. As the rehearsals begin to deteriorate due to Myrtle's instability, visions of Nancy and personal demons threaten to derail the entire production as the leading lady's soul proves to be incapable of delivering the performance necessary to bring this important new play to life.
A crucial thematic companion piece to A Woman Under the Influence, this film explores the similar theme of insanity within a family (in this case, a theater troupe) within the context of reality vs. illusion as played out in front of and behind the footlights. Never better, Rowlands dives into her performance and delivers a ferocious characterization, prefiguring the iconic turn she was to perform three years later in Cassavetes' most enduring commercial success, Gloria. Only the obtuse nature of the game-playing within the story might force some viewers to keep Opening Night at bay; it's not as difficult as Chinese Bookie but certainly doesn't play well for casual, half-interested viewing.
Again boasting a gorgeous anamorphic transfer, Opening Night boasts another fine set of extras. Rowlands and Gazzara appear for a 22-minute interview, offering their own recollections about Cassavettes' state of mind during this, one of the most volatile periods from his career. Other extras include a new 7-minute interview with Ruban, a Ciment/Cassavetes audio interview, and two theatrical trailers.
If that's not enough to satisfy your Cassavetes craving, take a deep breath and dive into the final disc, A Constant Forge. Created in 2000, this 200-minute opus by Charles Kiselyak features a comprehensive biographical study of the director/actor and covers each of his projects both realized and idealized. Rowlands and company appear again, delivering somewhat more critical studies of his work with a focus on ethnical and symbolic threads running through his films. As a portrait of a modern American filmmaker, it would be hard to imagine a more thorough and even-handed tribute - even given its epic length that outdoes any of the films themselves! This final disc also contains "Cassavetes Players," a profile of his astonishing stable of acting talent, and a thorough poster gallery. The fold-out boxed set also contains a massive 68-page booklet containing essays and reflections by a host of critics and writers: Gary Giddins, Stuart Klawans, Kent Jones, Philip Lopate, Dennis Lim, Charles Kiselyak, Martin Scorsese, Elaine Kagan, Jonathan Lethemrn and interviews and writings by Cassavetes himself.
For more information about John Cassavetes: 5 Films, visit Criterion Collection. To order John Cassavetes: 5 Films, go to TCM Shopping.
by Nathaniel Thompson
John Cassavetes: 5 Films on DVD
On the list of American movies designated a "national treasure" by the Library of Congress.
This film was selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1990.
Voted Best Actress (Rowlands) and One of the Year's Ten Best English-Language Films by the 1974 National Board of Review.
Released in United States 2009
Released in United States 2013
Released in United States April 1989
Released in United States April 24, 1991
Released in United States August 1997
Released in United States January 1989
Released in United States July 1989
Released in United States July 26, 1990
Released in United States June 7, 1990
Released in United States May 15, 1991
Released in United States October 12, 1974
Released in United States on Video September 16, 1992
Released in United States September 1996
Shown at Anthology Film Archives (John Cassavetes Retrospective) in New York City June 7, 1990.
Shown at Museum of Modern Art (John Cassavetes: From the Archive) in New York City July 1 & 6, 1989.
Shown at New York Film Festival October 12, 1974.
Shown at Pacific Film Archive (The Films of John Cassavetes) in Berkeley, California July 26, 1990.
Shown at San Francisco International Film Festival (World Cinema) April 23-May 7, 2009.
Shown at United States Film Festival in Park City, Utah (Tribute to John Cassavetes) January 24 & 29, 1989.
Formerly distributed by Cine-Source.
Formerly distributed by Faces International Films.
Released in United States 2009 (Shown at San Francisco International Film Festival (World Cinema) April 23-May 7, 2009.)
Released in United States 2013 (Guest Artistic Director)
Released in United States January 1989 (Shown at United States Film Festival in Park City, Utah (Tribute to John Cassavetes) January 24 & 29, 1989.)
Released in United States April 1989 (Shown at AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival (Tribute to John Cassavetes: Marathon) April 13-27, 1989.)
Released in United States April 24, 1991 (Cinema 3; John Cassavetes Collection; New York City)
Released in United States May 15, 1991 (John Cassavetes Collection; Los Angeles)
Released in United States June 7, 1990 (Shown at Anthology Film Archives (John Cassavetes Retrospective) in New York City June 7, 1990.)
Released in United States July 1989 (Shown at Museum of Modern Art (John Cassavetes: From the Archive) in New York City July 1 & 6, 1989.)
Released in United States July 26, 1990 (Shown at Pacific Film Archive (The Films of John Cassavetes) in Berkeley, California July 26, 1990.)
Released in United States August 1997 (Shown in New York City (Paris Theater) and Los Angeles (Laemmle) as part of program "Love on the Edge: Six Films from the Legendary Independent Director John Cassavetes" August 22-28, 1997.)
Released in United States September 1996 (Shown in New York City (Anthology Film Archives) as part of program "Best of the Indies" September 5-15, 1996.)
Released in United States on Video September 16, 1992
Selected in 1990 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in United States October 12, 1974 (Shown at New York Film Festival October 12, 1974.)