Obstructed reView: Career Day with Gena Rowlands
As a rule, I donâ€™t want to know anything about an actorâ€™s personal life. I donâ€™t like having perspective on why she chose a certain character or what was happening with him that all he did was cry his way through that performance. I want to come to each movie as clean as I can: no preconceptions, little expectation. Shoot, if I could I would remove all footage of a work from its promotional materials. I sit in the darkened theatre with my hands over my ears, quietly singing a low (almost unrecognizable) Zeppelin or Dan Bern song to drown out residual trailer noise. Most of all, I full-on and without reservations do not want to know about celebrity relationships, feuds or marriages.
There are two main reasons for this active and loathing disinterest in the dating lives of movie-stars. The first is that I donâ€™t particularly care about anyoneâ€™s love-life. Not friends, not family. I am a curmudgeonly cur and knowledge of your petty infidelities and passionate flings donâ€™t matter to me even as much as the evolutionary explanation for ear hair. The second reason is that Iâ€™m human and when I find out that John McEnroe is married to Patty Smyth or that PT Anderson and Maya Rudolph seem happy and sane, that crap takes up my whole day. I donâ€™t have the kind of time to navigate this cult-of-celebrity rabbit-hole. Fame kills and the results of living an entire life in the public eye are seldom happiness and a healthy family lifeâ€”and if David Cross and Amber Tamblyn donâ€™t work out, what hope is there for my girlfriend and I? Iâ€™m still hoping Nancy Wilson and Cameron Crowe can patch things up. Soâ€¦ I want to know as little about artistsâ€™ personal lives as possible.
Still, despite all my defenses and defensiveness, there are celebrity couples that have taken up aggressive residence inside my cerebellum. The nearly 60-year collaboration of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman was an inspiration. The strange and altogether inevitable roundabout that was Hepburn-Tracy. Gable and Lombard apparently nearly burned the whole town down in their brief time together; same with Streep and Cazale. Donâ€™t get me started on my unhealthy fascination with Lauren Bacall. All of this is an entirely unfair prelude to the actual subject of this column, which was to be focused solely on the career of the legendary and influential Gena Rowlands.
In 1954, Gena Rowlands and fellow Future Screen Legend John Cassavetes got married, before either was saddled with fame or artistic expectation. Over their 35 years of marriage (before his death in 1989), they made ten feature films together and appeared as a team in one TV movie and half a dozen series. Itâ€™s nearly impossible to talk comprehensively about eitherâ€™s career without extensive mention of the other so Iâ€™ve decided not to try.
In 1955 Rowlands appeared in ten television projects and Cassavetes in eleven, all in guest and supporting roles (remember there were only three national networks at that point). Two of those credits overlapped. Rowlands didnâ€™t receive another screen credit until her first feature film came along in 1958. That three year stretch without a gig is a year longer than any drought sheâ€™s had since. The film role that she landed was the female lead in The High Cost of Loving, a terrific but light comedy starring and directed by the great Jose Ferrer (him, not him). Meanwhile, John Cassavetes had continued his stretch-run on television, supplemented with the occasional feature like the terrific Crime in the Streets with Sal Mineo and James Whitmore (directed by HoFer Don Siegelâ€”not to be confused with Don Seigel).
In 1959, Shadows changed everything for Cassavetes the way The High Cost of Loving had for Rowlands the year before. Shadows was Cassavetesâ€™ first feature as director and shows an early, less cohesive version of his distinctive storytelling style. Owing much to French films of the previous decade, its largely improvised dialogue and deliberately conspicuous camerawork pair perfectly with the heavy jazz soundtrack. Many credit this production as the birth of modern â€śindependentâ€ť film. The only readily available version is from the second shoot of the film, as the original work was only screened a handful of times and lost. Itâ€™s got a rich history and is worth a look. Gena Rowlands appears briefly and uncredited as a member of a nightclub audience. So, technically, thatâ€™s their first film together.
Next was Johnny Staccato, a private detective series with Cassavetes in the title role. The series (1959-60) lasted 27 episodes, of which Cassavetes directed 5, including â€śFly, Baby, Flyâ€ť featuring Gena Rowlands. If you can track down the show (it was released on DVD in 2010), youâ€™ll find itâ€™s got a ton of terrific guest stars including Michael Landon, Martin Landau, Norman Fell, Cloris Leachman, Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Montgomery and Dean Stockwell in early roles.
Rowlands continued dominating prime-time television and feature films until Cassavetes cast her in his next movie: A Child is Waiting (alongside Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland). This oneâ€™s a more mainstream movie in look and feel than any other of Cassavetesâ€™ films. Huge stars, straightforward plot and more-traditional camera techniques strangely make this the least-celebrated of his catalog as well. The performances, however, are bold and powerful, especially Rowlands as the divorced mother of an adult autistic student who is the center of the films several storylines.
Soon after, the two appeared together in a series of TV projects. A terrific and memorable episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (you can find the whole thing here) was followed by Burkeâ€™s Law and Kraft Suspense Theatre. These shows were small moments in a five-year period leading to Faces (NSFW), the movie that shot Cassavetes to the front of the line of modern maverick Hollywood directors and cemented Rowlands as a forceful and versatile onscreen talent. The movie can be a difficult watch, both in style and substance. Yet another portrait of relationships in freefall or explosive genesis, Faces is by turns hilarious and terrifying and certainly unlike just about any other movie ever made.
Starting with Faces, Rowlands and Cassavetes produced four masterpieces of collaboration between director and star that stand easily with the likes of John Ford and John Wayne, Â Scorsese and De Niro, Mann and Stewart, Hitchcock and Stewart or Capra and Stewart. Evenly spaced at one movie every three years, Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night is a run of classic iconic movies independently funded, filmed and distributed. Opening Night, in fact, never received US distribution until 1991, two years after Cassavetesâ€™ death, and A Woman Under the Influence was famously distributed by Cassavetes himself. The director and star, along with co-star Peter Falk, did a kind of road show, appearing all over the country with prints of the film. They rented out individual screens to show the picture. They called and harangued theatre owners into adding it. This truly was independent filmmaking. The severe lack of budget takes none of the power, effectiveness or heart from the films. Rather, the effect of that limitation would seem to be an air of efficiency rare in the history of movie-making. There are no wasted moments, no fat worth trimming (and these are not short movies). These four are not the only great movies Cassavetes made, nor certainly Rowlands, but they make up the core sample of what makes each artist memorable. The films are none of them comedies, but all are funny. None is at all like the others, but there is a distinct voice behind the stories. Classes are taught and books are written that take just these four movies and dissect them over the course of an entire semester so Iâ€™m mostly going to limit myself to broad strokes here. Iâ€™ll say that of the four, A Woman Under the Influence is my favorite, though Minnie and Moskowitz is the most straightforward and accessible. Faces is experimental film-making in the best sense while Rowlandsâ€”along with Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell and Cassavetes himselfâ€”most impresses and destroys me in Opening Night (though itâ€™s kind of like picking a favorite moment in Bo Jacksonâ€™s career or a favorite album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). Three of these are presented on DVD by the Criterion Collection in their Cassavetes set. M&M is replaced by the fantastic The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Â (also made in this ten-year-period) and the aforementioned Shadows.
Rowlands and Cassavetes had a couple more projects together, and while Gloria is an underrated piece of action and over-the-top near-parody, the golden age of their collaboration was at an end by 1980. They each continued to act both together and separately until Cassavetes was taken by cirrhosis and passed away in 1989.
Gena Rowlands has been a soap star, a young ingĂ©nue, mob moll, mother, daughter, caretaker, crazy person. Sheâ€™s starred in five movies directed by her children and at the age of 82 has two projects up for release by 2014. She falls a bit between Hollywood generations. Like Peter Falk or Anne Bancroft, sheâ€™s just after Lucille Ball and Jimmy Stewart, and just before the De Niros and Pacinos (NSFW) and Meryl Streeps she so clearly influenced and inspired. Sheâ€™s shared the screen in recent years with a talking parrot and Cheech Marin shared a cab with Winona Ryder. She lifts bad movies up and turns good movies into ridiculous hits. Gena Rowlands is a first-ballot unanimous HoFer and everything she does is worth a watch.
With that last assertion, letâ€™s talk for a minute about The Notebook. Like many a clichĂ©d Hollywood stereotype of a man, I avoided this movie like a Kei$ha concert. There was just no way I was going to see it. My girlfriend convinced me to watch it by, you know, asking me and being my girlfriend and convincing me that I had mixed it up in my mind with this movie (which I will never see). And I loved it. The cast is special-good: HoFers James Garner, Joan Allen and Sam Shepard plus a couple of kids and of course the great Gena Rowlands. The story is nothing new but itâ€™s sincerely and simply told with good camerawork and the right ending. Watch it with someone you love. And then watch Hope Floats for similar reasons and also Gena Rowlands. And then watch this and everything else Gena Rowlands gives you. Get to it.
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