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Happy Birthday, Gena Rowlands!

Happy Birthday, Gena Rowlands!

Today is the 82nd birthday of one of the greatest motion picture actresses, if not THE greatest. Her Eminence Gena Rowlands was never a movie star. Her widest-known success as an actress will probably be “The Notebook.” I’d never dis that movie, because I really do love it, but let’s take a little look back at some of Gena Rowlands’ greater screen moments.

Oh, how beautiful she was in the 1960’s. She was a TV and stage actress best known for a long stint on the shitty soap “Peyton Place.” Here she is getting into an argument on the beach, with the wind blowing in her voluminous hair. I am watching this with the volume off, because the dialogue is so insipid. But the camera loves her.

She had her first major cinematic role in “Faces,” an early independent film directed by her husband John Cassavetes. She played Jeannie, an aging prostitute. Rowlands would return to the subject of aging beauty in “Opening Night.” This film is much messier. At its best, it’s actually nerve-shattering.

“A Woman Under The Influence” remains Rowlands’ most legendary performance. Mabel Longhetti – how could you forget such a name? – remains a career-defining role. She’s a housewife driven mad by her life’s monotony, stuck with a husband who is crazier than she is. They’re still truly, madly, deeply in love. Over the course of two-and-a-half-hours, their relationship hits its harshest strain, but their magic is lost once she returns from the brink of madness. That’s about as well as I can sum up this performance. Here’s one of the more lighthearted sections of the film, in which Mabel harrasses strangers on the street and begs for approval from her kids. Yes, this is actually one of the happier parts.

Here’s Joan Blondell and Gena in “Opening Night.” Gena plays an actress hitting a midlife crisis while preparing for a new play. It might be my favorite Cassavetes/Rowlands collaboration. It’s certainly the most re-watchable. It never hits the emotional depths of “A Woman Under The Influence” – I may never watch that film again – but Myrtle Gordon might be her most completely realized character.

TV movies used to be really, really good. Actors who were too good to work in cinema during those dreaded 80’s ended up in television. Bette Davis made a lot of TV movies back in the day, and one of them was the awesome “Strangers,” opposite Gena, who plays her dying daughter. Call me old fashioned, but I love watching goddesses argue.

I believe I first encountered Gena Rowlands when I was two or three, while watching a rerun of Shelley Duvall’s classic Faerie Tale Theatre. She played Rapunzel’s wicked stepmother. The special effects are lousy, but when I saw Gena cast a magic spell, I remember being so terrified that I ran out of the room and watched the rest of the episode through the living room curtains. Now that it’s Netflix-able, I watch it all the time. Its effect hasn’t decreased. If you ever find me hiding under my couch, this is what happened.

And then there’s “The Notebook.” When people talk about crying in this movie, they’re never talking about the McAdams/Gosling parts. Boooooooring. The only good scene in this movie is this one: Gena comes out of her dementia for a few minutes to share a dance with the love of her life. Oh, it does this to me every time.

It’s been a few years since Gena made a movie. It seems like she may have retired. I will always hope she keeps working, because she’s truly my favorite. But wherever she is, I hope she’s well and celebrating. We love you SO much, Ms. Rowlands!

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