A Woman Under the Influence

April 11, 2011 at 11:21 pm 1 comment

A Woman Under the Influence

Image via Wikipedia

This movie was one of the first truly independent films. John Cassavetes, the writer and director, couldn’t find a distributor that would take it on. He called individual movie theaters himself to see if they would play the movie. It was made for a shoestring budget and produced by Cassavetes and the film’s stars: his wife Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk.

A Woman Under the Influence was released in 1974 when I was 3 years old and Gena Rowlands was 44. Cassavetes couldn’t get a studio to make the film because they all said that nobody wants to watch a middle-aged dame go crazy. Well, he proved them wrong because once the movie hit The New York Film Festival plenty of people wanted to pay good money to watch a middle-aged dame go crazy.

The movie is now considered a part of classic cinema, and it’s probably part of the required coursework for many women’s studies departments. When the film was released it was adopted as a sort of anthem of the feminist movement. Audiences booed Peter Falk’s character. Ironically, Cassavetes wasn’t trying to make a statement about feminism, and he didn’t consider the title character to be crazy. Cassavetes saw Mabel as eccentric, and he thought his movie was an unlikely love story.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, and I’m sure that with the benefit of a modern perspective I’ve read much into the movie that wasn’t intended to be there. For instance, Mabel’s inappropriate affection with men, including her own father, made me uncomfortable. She’s taken advantage of sexually in a sequence near the beginning of the film. I began to wonder how much of her eccentricity might be explained by childhood sexual abuse.

Falk’s character Nick doesn’t deserve to be booed. He’s just a working stiff, caught between his mother (played by Cassavetes’ mother) and his wife. He sends Mabel mixed messages, telling her one minute just to be herself and then raging against her later when she does just that. In at least a couple different instances, he gets violent with Mabel. Rowlands’ Mabel tells Nick, across the dinner table that she will be anything he wants her to be. He only has to tell her what he wants and she will be that. It’s not hard to see why this movie resonated with second wave feminists.

Another great scene involves Mabel asking her father to stand up for her. He takes her request literally and stand up. She tells him to sit back down. No, she means she wants him to stand up for her. Again, he stands up from his chair. It’s Mabel’s mother (played by Gena Rowlands’ own mother) who finally understands her daughter’s intent.

In the end, the movie is a love story. Nick genuinely loves Mabel. No man would put up with all that shit if he didn’t. The title does beg the question: Under the influence of what? Mabel does a lot of drinking in the movie. She takes pills. But I don’t think that Cassavetes meant for this to be a tale of addiction. And I know (from a radio interview included with the DVD) that he didn’t write a tale of insanity. Something tells me that even though he didn’t write the movie specifically as a feminist statement, the influence that he was referring to was that of Mabel’s society.

Mabel is stuck in a world where no one understands her, not even her own husband. And that is part of the tragedy because Nick is attracted to what he can’t understand. It is Mabel’s uniqueness that draws Nick to her. Mabel is okay with being different. What she’s not okay with is her husband’s growing discomfort with her failure to live up to his society’s expectations.


Entry filed under: Entertainment, Love, Marriage, Men, Mental Health, Science, Sexual Abuse & Assault, Social Commentary, Women's Rights. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Clary  |  April 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    You wrote: …”how much of her eccentricity might be explained by childhood sexual abuse.” I hit your blog searching for those very terms having just seen the film a few days ago.

    I haven’t researched Cassavetes’s intentions with the character of Mabel, but the rape of soul that Mabel undergoes DOES start in the extended family – they comprise virtually the entire cast.

    Additionally, the director’s cues at Mabel’s past are blatant, and I’ll name those that were most obvious to me: the freedom with which she embraces her father (we are conditioned to see her behave this way, but this is the culmination of the plot and the meeting of the primal forces of the drama); the costume Mabel wears upon return from the hospital is a doll’s dress with a vaginal oversized zipper full-length (on the back, mind you) for ease of access for all involved (except Mabel); the zipper is flaunted in one searing shot as she bends over the “table” which is her “bed” – they “sleep” in the “dining” room as their bed folds into the space the table occupied; finally Mabel, held in place by Nick at the head of the bed-table, appeals to her father, who is seated at the foot of the bed-table, utensils ready at hand and the door marked “private” open behind him – she asks him to stop [it].

    Certainly this isn’t accidental? In this elaborately focused work by a great director on a minimalist set?

    Frankly I’ve been surprised that the reviews and commentaries I’ve seen online do not or will not point this out, yet perhaps this material does exists in scholarly analyses of the film.

    At any rate, I hope that soon the defilement of all children will end so that humanity can flower.

    Thank you for bringing this great movie to light on your blog!


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