It seems hardly a coincidence that the looser construction of film narratives in the 70s permitted a freer exploration of social issues. The lack of resolution of many films encouraged viewers to think about what these films were saying about their own lives, the times in which they were living. It was possible for films to tell stories, even entertaining ones, without leaving behind the sense of reality outside of the theatre.
So too did open endings point to the future, where social values and attitudes might be different from the past or present. Of course change could be dangerous, even destructive. In the famous ending of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the film burns up in the projector: here the future disappears before our eyes.
In other films, however, open endings fit the unpredictability of watching messy conflicts play out. Somewhat if not completely suspicious of convenient labels of hero and villain, women-centered films refused to spell out problems, much less solutions, even, in referencing how women were and could be silenced, doing away with expository dialogue to illuminate key scenes. For example, in the final scene of a film this series recently examined, Wanda (1970), the dead look in the silent female protagonist’s eyes contrasts the apparent liberation of a drunken night in a bar with new friends.
The film that will now be discussed combines the proto-feminist attitude of the lead female actor and the dedication of the male director and writer to maintaining artistic independence. In a creative marriage that paralleled in significant ways their real-life marriage, these two people created a breathtaking view of a relationship in constant, insistent motion.
Love and Betrayal: A Woman Under the Influence
(dir Cassavetes, 1974)
Perhaps the most initially surprising moment in the film is when Mabel Longhetti, played by Gena Rowlands, returns from a mental hospital. Her husband, Nick, has organized a boisterous welcome home party. Just as the party is about to begin, Nick’s mother shows up, a nearly unstoppable force: it was she who pressured Nick to have Mabel committed in the first place. She insists that the party is inappropriate for the seriousness of the occasion. Once again, Nick relents. Mabel returns home to a somber gathering, family members sitting around a table, tense and nervous. No one knows what to do or how to act, not the least Mabel.
Given the previous scenes, we are not sure what will happen, and we suspect it may not turn out for the best. In most films, the actors would be directed to play the awkwardness a certain way. But John Cassavetes, the director and writer, refused to give any such instructions, not even to Rowlands, who desperately asked him what her character should do, only to have him sharply rebuke her for asking.
If you watch this scene carefully, you will notice how Rowlands plays very subdued, practically submissive. Left on her own, Rowlands lets her character feel the subtle but crushing pressures of social expectations and lets her be overwhelmed by these feelings. Her not knowing what to do seems like something we would all experience in such a moment, for most of us, a horrifying realization that brings us closer to Mabel.
Rowlands, in an interview, said, “I’m a feminist in that I’ve been a self-supporting woman since I was eighteen years old. I am a wife to a husband: I’m a mother to three children.” So that’s what a feminist looks like, you might think to yourself. As Mabel, Rowlands conveys the idea that the problems of women are just as important as those of men and should be taken with the same degree of seriousness. This does not mean glorifying the problems of women or, even, the tragic consequences when social pressures become overwhelming—Rowlands commented, about her playing Mabel, “I pleaded with John: Please, let’s not romanticize her martyrdom.”
The moment that tips the scales is a misunderstanding. Mabel, a free spirit who doesn’t quite fit into the suburban milieu, directs her kids and their friends in an impromptu ballet. An uptight father of one of the visiting children is alarmed at what he sees. Mabel’s ill-advised attempt to act friendly to him makes him even more uncomfortable. Nick and his mother show up, tempers escalate, and Nick gets his nose bloodied by the man.
Even in the next scene where Mabel is committed, Rowlands acts in a way that seems all too human. She first is rudely sarcastic to the doctor, when he asks her if she drinks or takes drugs. Mabel may not have the most refined social skills, but she’s no dummy (as most socially awkward characters tend to be in films). Of course she is aware enough to throw the doctor’s lack of decorum right back in his face. But as the questioning continues, Mabel becomes suspicious of his designs and starts to lose her composure.
She does what any wife would be conditioned to do in a moment of uncertainty, look to her husband for support. Mabel believes in unconditional love, and believes—would even stake her life on it—that Nick feels the same way about her. The film, however, challenges conventions by making Nick seem the dummy—for how he betrays her in this moment. He makes it clear that, due in part to the pressures of his mother, he can no longer love a person he thinks is crazy: no longer being able to see Mabel’s quirkiness in the attractive light he once did.
It is only when Nick no longer loves her (and she knows it) that Mabel becomes crazy. This is the part of Rowland’s performance that has received considerable praise, perhaps a major factor in her receiving an Oscar nomination for best actress (Cassavetes was nominated for best director). But the crucial point is Mabel is not crazy until Nick makes her so. Cassavetes puts the audience in the position to understand that such judgments are incredibly difficult to make. Nowhere in the film is there an explanation for Mabel’s problems, as reflected in the title: under the influence, but of what?
If anyone is crazy, chances are it is Nick. He is just able to hide it better. Here gender differences and how they are interpreted become critical. Nick is as insecure as Mabel; he doesn’t know what to do or how to act when she returns from the hospital—and, we recall, his decision to cancel the big party for her appears as another one of the many blunders he makes in the film.
Yet he has clearly missed being with Mabel, while she has been institutionalized. Consequently, when the family gathering for her return goes wrong in almost every conceivable way, he stands by her this time. As the two clean up the house afterwards, a phone rings. Presumably, it is Nick’s mother. It remains ringing as the film ends.
Cassavetes remarked about the ambiguity of the ending: ““I think by the end of the film that this man has started to realize the delicacy of the woman he’s dealing with. That he has some idea of the contradictory expectations men have of women. . . . Whether he’ll do any better, I don’t know.”