In the history of America’s modern independent film, Orson Welles was first—-with his self-financed 1952 production of Othello—-and next, eight years later, came John Cassavetes with his self-financed Shadows. Like Welles, Cassavetes used his acting salaries (mainly from indifferent films or TV shows) to pay for his directing-writing career, and to keep himself free and his pictures made without interference or compromise. To protect the work, he even self-distributed two of the most successful of independent films: his first mature masterpiece, Faces (1968), and A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (available on DVD), perhaps his finest film, Oscar-nominated for Best Director and Best Actress—-the sublime Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ favorite player, and wife of over three decades. Recently, the picture was correctly designated a “National Treasure” by the Library of Congress.
Contrary to the common perception that Cassavetes improvised all his scripts with the actors, he actually only did that once, on Shadows; all the other films he directed were written (or, in two cases, co-written) by him. When asked once about the improvising issue, Peter Falk—-Ms. Rowlands’ superb co-star in Woman, and starred memorably also in Cassavetes’ brilliant Husbands (1970)—-replied: “Who the hell can improvise lines that are that good!?” Indeed, Cassavetes elicited performances which seemed to be caught in improvisation because the lines were remarkably well written to capture the cadence of regular people talking, and he inspired amazing reality from his actors.
One of the reasons why the improvisation myth has clung to Cassavetes, however, is because of the deceptively haphazard construction of the pictures themselves. They seem not to be constructed at all, but rather to have grown out of a daily free-floating inspiration. Yet this, too, is a part of Cassavetes’ extraordinary ability to catch an uninhibited freshness; his virtually unique genius at making what might be called life studies. Personal, moving, necessary, and strangely poetic, the pictures are resolutely anti-Hollywood.
In Cassavetes’ little-known comedy, Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), Gena Rowlands’ lovely Minnie has a striking monologue in a drinking scene with an older woman (in reality co-star Seymour Cassel’s mother-in-law) which obliquely underlies a lot of what Cassavetes was doing in his pictures, and why. After the two women have discussed love-making and their continued desire for it, and men who crave to possess rather than love, Minnie comments that “the movies are never like that.” She goes on:
You know, I think that movies are a conspiracy… because they set you up… They set you up from the time you’re a little kid. They set you up to believe in everything…in ideals and strength and good guys and romance—-and, of course, love… So…you go out, you start looking. Doesn’t happen, you keep looking. You get a job…and you spend a lot of time fixing up things—-your apartment and jazz. And you learn how to be feminine—-you know, quotes: “feminine”? You learn how to cook… But there’s no Charles Boyer in my life…I never even met a Charles Boyer. I never met Clark Gable. I never met Humphrey Bogart…I mean, they don’t exist—-that’s the truth. But the movies set you up and no matter how bright you are, you believe it.
Cassavetes, then, was making movies that did not set you up, that were brutally honest about the way people behave, that didn’t even remotely try to be like all other movies in terms of construction, subject matter or execution. What he did make are among the finest achievements of the American screen, unique in their insistence on artlessness as antidote and restorative. It’s rare in film history to find pictures made with the intensity, conviction and dedication to truth embodied in Cassavetes’ shining opus.
The title character of A Woman Under the Influence is a perfect embodiment of a woman Minnie was describing, one who had been “set up” by movies, one who has, in fact, been driven to insanity by expectations—-hers, and others’ of her. There has never been an American film that more devastatingly reveals the terrible underside of a middle-class housewife/mom’s existence. Yet the picture is not depressing because, as my dear mother used to say, “Good art is never depressing,” and John Cassavetes was one of our truest, most original, and least understood artists. He is sorely missed.