The Criterion Shelf: Starring Gena Rowlands

Ranking nine films starring one of Hollywood cinema's greatest talents

People can never talk about Gena Rowlands without mentioning John Cassavetes, and sometimes that’s a shame. He directed very few of his movies without her, so the connection isn’t ridiculous. They came as a package for a few other directors as well (Tempest, Two Minute Warning).  Their pairings continue to be the most celebrated and best remembered works of both their careers, and to be even more fair to Cassavetes, no one ever explored Rowlands’ rough edges the way he did. Rowlands spent her youth playing bottle blondes and, following Cassavetes’ death, appeared in a series of matronly roles in which she was brilliant, but theydidn’t have the moral gray areas she traversed in films like Opening Night and A Woman Under the Influence. A proper summation of Rowlands’ career, though, should take in her early TV work, her later Emmy wins for some groundbreaking television movies and her becoming known to younger generations with performances like The Notebook, and the Criterion Channel’s very Cassavetes-heavy look at her career shows that this has yet to be accomplished.

Born in Madison, Wisconsin this month in 1930, Rowlands grew up the daughter of a legislator who came to that state to run the Office of Price Administration. She attended the University of Wisconsin before leaving for New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Art, where she met and married Cassavetes, paying her dues in repertory theatre and seasons at the Provincetown Playhouse before her Broadway debut in The Seven Year Itch. While in New York, she slowly began building an impressive resume of plays and television shows including Top Secret and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, before films came in the early sixties, her first notable role in Lonely Are the Brave with Kirk Douglas (included in Criterion’s Rowlands collection, but not in Canada). A supporting part in Cassavetes’ drama A Child Is Waiting opposite none other than Judy Garland soon followed, an early indication of what her fans would come to love about the actress: as a mother who wants to turn her back on her special needs child, Rowlands is glamorous and beautiful, radiates depths of feelings but holds tight to her problematic desire to do the unthinkable (ignore her child) and isn’t afraid to play it to the hilt. With Faces five years later, she was officially a force to be reckoned with.

There’s no denying that, as she approached the seventies (and was herself in her forties, a wasteland of opportunity for an actress who entered the business as a glamorous blond), Rowlands pairing up with Cassavetes professionally meant that she would be cast in roles that no studio would give her, partly because the nuances of the characters Cassavetes created weren’t really seen in studio pictures, and partly because her beauty meant that she wouldn’t be taken seriously enough for the parts being handed to the likes of Ellen Burstyn. Cassavetes understood that his wife’s charisma was bewitching in wonderful and terrifying ways, with the tough humour of a broad, the looks of an icy princess, and a deep-seated anger that could spark up without warning. Let it not be said that the benefit was one-sided, though, for Cassavetes’ films were lucky to have her presence as well. Cassavetes was very much of the generation of Method actors for whom realism meant angry rants. It’s hard to imagine that his films would go down as smoothly without the presence of an actress who, at her harshest, was always so very sympathetic.

By the time of her husband’s death in 1989, Rowlands had racked up an impressive career both in and out of his filmography, including two Emmy Awards, two Golden Globes and two Oscar nominations. With the advent of new directors who had studied her work in film school, including her own son Nick casting her in Unhook the Stars (for which she earned a SAG nomination), her later years would prove to be quite busy. The roles were rarely leads and the material (The Skeleton Key, ugh) was never as bountiful as the film’s budget, but even in something as easy and unremarkable as Lasse Hallstrom’s Something To Talk About, her role as Julia Roberts’ exasperated mother shows off plenty of the complexity that we had come to rely on so much from her. Daughter Zoe cast her in her film Broken English, while Nick’s genre-defining romantic melodrama The Notebook is the best film at the beginning of a decade of poor imitations and Rowlands is every bit as responsible for this as Ryan Gosling‘s messy hair and jaunty cap are.

This month, Rowlands reaches her 91st year and, not having appeared in a feature film since 2014, it’s likely that her public life is over, which makes me feel lucky for having, ahem, “met” her at the Cassavetes retrospective at TIFF in 2012 (she signed my autograph book and smiled and nodded at me, it was a highlight of a lifetime). In 2015, the Oscar that eluded her for so long finally came her way, receiving an Honorary Award for having “illuminated the human experience through her brilliant, passionate and fearless performances.” Criterion’s collection, dissatisfying in how imbalanced it is in presenting the breadth of her career, at least allows viewers to see the truth of that statement.




A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)

Earlier movies about mentally unbalanced women were usually about horrific villains or were cheap detective-style investigations of psychosis (find the childhood memory that they’ve locked away and everything will be well again). Rowlands’ performance, which earned her a very deserved Oscar nomination, is both terrifying for the few comforting solutions it offers, and deeply touching for its portrayal of a woman who wants to be everything her husband (Peter Falk) and children expect of her but can’t maintain her equilibrium, which the film wisely sees as an emotional conflict instead of a mental defect. Cassavetes has some pretty outrageous ways of putting the character through her paces (throwing a party for your wife on the day she comes from home from a mental hospital might be why you’re driving her insane, buddy). He manages, in what is definitely his masterpiece, to make something very compelling and beautiful out of a very sad story.


Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977)

Rowlands’ ability to play mentally fragile women is put into a much more extreme mode of expression in this uneven but unforgettable drama set in the world of Broadway theatre. During out-of-town tryouts for her latest show, Rowlands is distraught when a young female fan is killed in a car accident while trying to get her autograph (a sequence that Almodóvar paid tribute to in All About My Mother). It brings up repressed emotions about her fears of aging and, eventually, sees her being visited by the dead girl’s ghost. Cassavetes’ plotting gets stuck in second gear, as he conjures situations that he doesn’t resolve except to have his star pass out yet again. He also creates a series of richly compelling sequences that make the film one to cherish, including the couple performing in the play within a play on a live stage with a live audience (a play that would never in a million years be a hit in real life). Despite having too many similarities to her Influence role, Rowlands knocks it out of the park in one of her strongest performances.


Gloria (John Cassavetes, 1980)

Cassavetes pays tribute to classic gangster movies by employing a grandiose musical score to complement the interactions between his James Cagney-esque lead, a hit woman for the mob (Rowlands, earning her second Oscar nomination) and the little kid who witnessed his whole family getting killed by her friends. She is reluctant to protect the young man but eventually gives in, going on the lam and turning against her own people as the Big Apple becomes a concrete jungle that puts them at risk every time they try to run from one hotel to the other. As with all Cassavetes’ films, the narrative gets messy as it emphasizes character over plot, but it’s a showcase for Rowlands’ impeccable talent. She is so arresting and never fears the harshest aspects of her characters. What could be a tacky tale of a lonely woman who goes soft with being forced into a maternal role is a relentlessly harsh exploration of a gal who actually likes her hard edges and refuses to give them up. The 1999 Sidney Lumet remake, while respectably entertaining, cleans up the narrative but fails to keep this level of spiky integrity.




Minnie and Moskowitz (John Cassavetes, 1971)

Universal Pictures hoped to cash in on the success of Easy Rider by underwriting another indie and giving Cassavetes a shot, not realizing that his work wasn’t the counterculture of drugs, sex and rock and roll that was part of that film’s striking box office gold. Rowlands gives one of her most spontaneous and exciting performances as a museum curator who leaves her married, abusive lover (Cassavetes) and takes up with a rough, loud parking attendant (Seymour Cassel in the world’s greatest pony tail) even though their encounters are volatile. Beginning with their meet-cute, where Cassel saves her from a violent date with Val Avery, Cassavetes subverts screwball comedy traditions, placing two crazy people in a sane world (it’s usually the opposite) and having a great time watching them constantly explode every time they make contact. Rowlands sports the world’s greatest collection of sunglasses in one of the few optimistic films her husband ever made.


Faces (John Cassavetes, 1968)

Rowlands had already made more than a handful of films and been directed by her husband in a major role in A Child Is Waiting, but this is considered the first major collaboration and her first notably great film performance. John Marley and Lynn Carlin have decided their marriage is falling apart–he takes up with party girl Rowlands and she goes to a night club and getting picked up by cool kid Seymour Cassel. Cassavetes didn’t believe in self-control when it came to enjoying the pleasures of watching actors interact, and Rowlands proves herself the perfect interpreter for his style, sometimes soft and glamorous, other times harsh and terrifying, always compelling and endlessly bewitching.


Night on Earth (Jim Jarmusch, 1991)

A portmanteau of stories about cab drivers in various cities around the world on the same night, Jarmusch’s beautifully photographed comedy is an easy, charming showcase for its performers. In Los Angeles, Winona Ryder is unconvincing as a foul-mouthed cab driver taking classy casting agent Rowlands (in her first role after Cassavetes’ death) from LAX’s Executive Terminal to her home. In New York, Giancarlo Esposito can’t get a cab in the dead of winter until a clueless Czech driver (Armin Mueller-Stahl) picks him up and reveals he can neither drive nor find the way to Brooklyn. In Paris, Isaach de Bankolé drives blind Beatrice Dalle and is surprised by her tough self-sufficiency. In Rome, Roberto Benigni drives a priest and delivers a confession with a very unexpected result, and in Helsinki Matti Pelonpaa picks up three drunk men and moves them with his tale of woe as he takes them home. Each city’s tale has a different comedic tone suited to the setting and cast, and while Rowlands’ is the least effective of the tales, her performance packs a wallop in just a few moments on screen.





Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959)

Including this film in this collection is a cheat (almost offensively so) considering that Rowlands only briefly appears as an uncredited extra in her late husband John Cassavetes’ terrific directorial debut. A film mostly improvisational in performance, using actors from his Cassavetes-Lane Workshop collective, it follows a group of friends through their rowdy nightlife and, as its centre, focuses on a light-skinned Black woman (Lelia Goldoni) who has a romance with a white man (Anthony Ray) who has no idea about her background. There’s no great, high-concept drama that is expressed through emotional dialogue or a carefully delineated plot, but rather the thrumming rhythm of life in the big city, its pace so fast that Cassavetes can merely capture snatches of it as it passes quickly into nothingness.


Machine Gun McCain (Giuliano Montaldo, 1969)

Rowlands has a brief cameo at the end of this Italian-produced action film shot on the streets of Las Vegas and San Francisco. John Cassavetes gets out of prison after twelve years and learns that his son paid the government for him to be pardoned (sure, okay) because he wants him to help with a casino heist. Cassavetes finds out that an ambitious mobster (Peter Falk) is behind the heist because he wants to take the casino for himself. When he is betrayed, our Johnny goes on a rampage of mayhem that includes bombing half of Vegas and stealing the money for himself and his girlfriend (Britt Eklund, in as thankless a role as she ever played). This kind of straightforward orgy of violence was de rigueur in the seventies, set in an analog world that has a kitschy appeal to viewers now, but few of them are filmed with the gorgeous panoramic beauty of just about every shot in this otherwise shallow and wholly impersonal adventure. Rowlands does what she does best, presenting a fractured glamour with a world-weary intelligence, and brightens things up for the little time that she’s on screen.


Tempest (Paul Mazursky, 1982)

Mazursky sets an outline of Shakespeare’s play in modern-day Greece, where John Cassavetes has escaped to a remote island with his daughter Molly Ringwald (Miranda), mistress Susan Sarandon (Aretha aka Ariel) and discovers the company of wild man Raul Julia (Caliban). In New York City he was a millionaire architect wishing he could get away from it all, and when his rocky marriage to wife Rowlands ends after she takes up with a gangster (Vittorio Gassman), the choice is made for him. Themes of mid-life crises, marital happiness and learning to love the present moment are put across intelligently and the imagery is stunning, but there’s not enough to justify its running time. It lacks a dynamism it very badly needs. Not worthless, but definitely boring.