Gena Rowlands is without a doubt my favorite actress of all time. It is for an extremely simple reason: She plays women. I don’t mean this in the now contrived stance of her roles screaming ‘FEMINISM’. Feminism that is now just a pop culture movement rather than any real stance of female equality or attempting to open and discuss women’s place in the modern world. Gena Rowlands played women as they are. Some deeply disturbed, some loving, some hateful, some paranoid, some passionate; but they were all beautiful in a particular and peculiar way because she was able to be human in each of her characters.
When I watch one of her roles with her husband (John Cassavettes) in Gloria, A Woman Under the Influence, or Opening Night I always notice a strange dichotomy between her performances and those of her contemporaries as well as those making films now. They are torch bearers of this broken institution that is feminism. I will grant that most of the roles are in fact not all that well written for women these days, and it is indeed a weighted comparison between one of America’s finest director’s in Cassavettes vs. everyone else. However, they does not preclude it from comparison. Or my confusion and frustration at the very least.
Whether it be the Heigl and her romantic comedies or Meryl Streep doing something brilliant, I can’t shake the feeling that it isn’t quite human no matter the quality. Rather it is an imitation of something that is supposed to be human. Or something that hangs onto the remnants of feminism. What I mean is that the only portrayal that we are likely to receive are of the Katherine Heigl variety where the woman is essentially this new age idealized working women with that one artificial flaw in attempts to making her seem human. Or we have Meryl Streep who’s closer to a flawed human being, but instead of delving completely into this she’s still presented as a ‘strong’ woman and nothing less.
Again I will concede that this is an extremely weighted comparison, but it still bothers me. Women are allowed to broken, arrogant, brash, mean, loving, and every other feeling that encompasses the human emotion spectrum. We don’t need to add arbitrary means of idealizing it via one ‘crucial’ (read as: superficial) flaw or having a flawed women actually in fact be perfect through her flaws. And this perfection isn’t interpreted through the audience, it is rather implied or outright said by the screenwriter and director because there must be more remnants of ‘girl power’. Women must not be actually flawed. They must in actuality be idle worshiped to some extent because they have been through certain hoops. Fair enough proposition, but it still bothers me.
Now to my love Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence was the first time I saw her. I had been anticipating a Cassavettes movie for months. It finally came on at like 4 in the morning, so I had to wake up early to catch it. Watching it during the twilight of the morning was probably the best decision for watching it. Everything felt hazy, I was tired and there was a lack of clarity. That was how my body felt in the morning and how I felt about the movie. I do not mean those in any of the negative connotations however. Gena Rowlands played what is most often categorized as a slightly ‘off’ wife. Meaning that, she was a tad strange. She was maybe a tad too affectionate with her husband’s friends/co-workers (not in any sexual way), and she was a tad forgetful, and the meals she cooked weren’t exactly appropriate for the time of the day (most people don’t want spaghetti in the morning for god knows what reason). Taken individually, these aren’t all that awful to a ‘normal’ person, however when added all together they seem to form someone who is embarrassingly off kilter. Because regardless of whether or not they’re actually hurting anyone, the fact that someone would have the unmitigated gaw to shift outside the norm is unsettling to many people. So she if shipped off to an insane asylum where she will be corrected and normalized.
Regurgitating plot however does not speak of her masterful performance. What Gena Rowlands does, with the aid of her supporting cast and John Cassavettes, is give us a woman (note the difference between that and a character) that is eccentric and loving woman, even though she is oblivious to societal norms. All of her loving moments are darling and it constantly hurts throughout the movie where you see her expressions when she does something ‘wrong’ or out-of-bounds. She is genuinely not aware of why this would bother anyone. She is simply being herself. This is greatly contrasted against her role in Opening Night where she plays a veteran stage actress. While there are some slips of sanity that from reading the two synopses or describing the characters, how they’re portrayed is vastly different. In Opening Night, there is never really a loss of her composure as far as her actions, even betwixt her bewilderment of the lost fan. All is channeled through her. Startling vague, I know, but there are certain plot elements in Opening Night that run into ‘spoiler’ territory.
In lesser hands, or contemporary for that matter, both of these women would have featured some of the most bombastic and hyperbolic performances of people who ‘go insane’. Take note, no human being actually ‘goes insane’. They would have likely been applauded for such a great performance. Because the performance was so real it was almost like I never noticed it was a performance! But I am an astute and educated cinema fan so I noticed this marvelous acting! Or that is how I assume the thought process goes into deeming what is or is not a great performance but the masses (be they educated or dim). But that rant is for another entry…