‘A Woman Under the Influence’: Cassavetes’ Intense and Emotionally Exhausting Slice of Life

John Cassavetes on the set of A Woman Under the Influence. Photography by Brian Hamill

By Sven Mikulec

When Gena Rowlands, his wife, expressed her interest in appearing in a play about the difficulties that contemporary women had to face, John Cassavetes wrote a script so emotionally profound and exhausting Rowlands immediately understood it would be too much for her to perform it eight times a week. Cassavetes turned the play into a screenplay for the big screen, but A Woman Under the Influence was too much for Hollywood studios and producers to swallow. Nobody wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame, they said. Luckily enough, both for Cassavetes and for all of us in the audience, the filmmaking couple had a lot of friends who fell in love with the powerful script and who were willing to chip in and even become a part of the project. Peter Falk provided half a million dollars of his own money just so he could watch his friend’s impressive vision turn into a movie. Cassavetes himself mortgaged his house. The crew consisted of both professionals and students from the American Film Institute, where the director worked as the first filmmaker in residence. Rowlands did her own hair and makeup, Cassavetes and Rowland’s mothers were cast—the budget was very limited, but the production had heart and guts, and one hell of a talent behind the camera.

Even after completion Cassavetes’ trouble with the film was far from over. Unable to find a distributor, he called theater owners himself, asking them to run the film. It was one of the very first cases where an independent film was distributed without the use of distributors or sub-distributors. It was Cassavetes’ passion project and he was prepared to do whatever it took to share it with the world. Unexpected help came from Richard Dreyfuss, of all people. Appearing on The Mike Douglas Show with Peter Falk, he said he saw Cassavetes’ “incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie” and after the experience “went home and vomited,” and people rushed to see what made the actor so sick. It’s hard to find better words to describe the rollercoaster of feelings you get when you watch it.

A Woman Under the Influence is intense, providing a portrayal of a working class family and the dynamics of family, marriage, sex and social interactions. It’s an exploration of a woman’s psychology written and filmed with much understanding and dedication. Emotionally draining, Cassavetes’ film features brilliant performances from Rowlands and Falk, playing a married couple caught at a moment when their shaky world crumbles down. It offers no consolation, no resolution, no bright note before the credits. Just like all of Cassavetes’ best work, it’s a vivid and chaotic slice of life that you feel continues naturally without us when the curtain is drawn.

It’s a great privilege and pleasure to read John Cassavetes’ screenplay for A Woman Under the Influence [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available from the Criterion Collection. We also highly recommended the Criterion Collection’s John Cassavetes: Five Films Blu-ray box set.

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“A script is a series of words strung together. When I first start writing there’s a sense of discovery. In some way it’s not working, it’s finding some romance in the lives of people. You get fascinated with their lives. If they stay with you then you want to do something—make it into a movie, put it on in some way. It was that which propelled us to keep on working at it. Making a film is a mystery. If I knew anything about men and women to begin with, I wouldn’t make it, because it would bore me. I really feel that the script is written by what you can get out of it and how much it means to you, and if it means nothing to you, we start again and try to put ourselves up and communicate with you. The idea of taking a laborer and having him married to a wife who he can’t capture, is really exciting. I don’t know how you work on that. So I write—I’ll do it any way [I can]. I’ll hammer it out, I’ll kick it out, I’ll beat it to death, anyway you can get it. I don’t think there are any rules. The only rules are that you do the best you can. And when you’re not doing the best you can, then you don’t like yourself. And that’s very individual with everyone.” 
John Cassavetes

Here’s a terrific 90-minute John Cassavetes interview from the mid-seventies on filmmaking and his 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence. With Gena Rowlands, and some Q&A with the public. Brilliant stuff!

In 2004, actors Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands sat down in Rowlands’s home to discuss their landmark collaboration on Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, in a conversation for Criterion. In the seventeen-minute dialogue, Falk (who died in 2011) and Rowlands touch on the nature of their working relationships with the legendary director and the intensely challenging roles they took on for this film. In the following short excerpt, Rowlands recalls first reading the script, and Falk describes the first day of shooting.

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More great stories from Peter Falk, back in ’93.

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Here’s a great interview with John Cassavetes conducted in 1975 at the American Film Institute while he was filmmaker in residence there and editing A Woman Under the Influence.

Another great interview with John Cassavetes, March 5, 1975.

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“The music for A Woman Under the Influence is basically about love,” says Bo Harwood, the longtime collaborator of John Cassavetes’s who composed that film’s score. “It’s about loving somebody, loving your family, loving them no matter what.” This purity of emotion comes through in the stirring piano themes that recur throughout the movie, which were inspired by conversations Harwood had with Cassavetes about the emotionally turbulent story. When the director approached Harwood to work on the music, he described the female protagonist—a suburban housewife (Gena Rowlands) who suffers an emotional breakdown—over an impassioned hour-and-and-a-half-long phone conversation. And in the process, Harwood says, Cassavetes “became this woman.” In this new video by Daniel Raim—a follow-up to an earlier piece featuring Harwood—the composer talks about this and other memories from the production of the film, and reflects on how he crafted a sound that conveys the power of love shared by the characters while also evoking their melancholy and loss. —A Sound for Love and Loss: Bo Harwood on A Woman Under the Influence

Backed by Cannon Films, which also made Love Streams, Variety reported, this documentary “by no means stands as a promotional piece, emerging rather as an evocative glimpse of one of filmdom’s genuine mavericks.” Those who revere Cassavetes and his films will embrace I’m Almost Not Crazy… as a rare and invaluable chronicle of their hero doing and talking about what he loved best: filmmaking. Those who don’t should gain new respect for the man, his methods, his passion, and his absolute commitment to his own unique vision of the human comedy. —TV Guide

From the French TV series Cinéma cinémas, a 1983 feature on Cassavetes directing Love Streams (1984).

Enjoy these words from Martin Scorsese on “the Father of American Independent Cinema” and then spark your filmmaking passion with Filmmaking Wisdom from John Cassavetes, 5 tips of cinematic goodness presented by A-BitterSweet-Life.

Omnibus was an arts-based BBC television documentary series, broadcast mainly on BBC One in the United Kingdom. It ran from 1967 until 2003, usually being transmitted on Sunday evenings. During filming in 1970, the BBC followed John Cassavetes and his actors in New York and London making a documentary for their Omnibus strand, examining the unique way this great director made his movies. This is a super-rare look behind the scenes of Cassavetes’ first ‘big budget’ film, Husbands. It depicts several scenes which never made it into the final film, and a few that did. Also great is to watch Cassavetes working out scenes with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, sitting around a table smoking, brainstorming, joking, and singing—just like Archie Gus and Harry!


“I’m taking a gamble making the film. I don’t have any money. I just go to the bank and borrow it. And hope. But what isn’t risky about movies? It’s always risky when it’s original… It’s a very dangerous territory to be in where you can only make a film if your grosses reflect a large gross. I’ve been making films for twenty-five years and none of them has really made a lot of money. But there’s nobody in the world who can tell me we didn’t succeed. And that’s the greatest feeling that I’ve ever had in my life. The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to. As an artist, I feel that we must try many things—but above all we must dare to fail. You must be willing to risk everything to really express it all…” —John Cassavetes

Brian Hamill & Sam Shaw’s photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. Courtesy of Shaw Family Archives © Faces. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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