Gena Rowlands gives one of the greatest portrayals of mental illness ever seen in A Woman Under the Influence
Rarely do you see a performance quite as extraordinary as Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ classic 1974 drama A Woman Under the Influence. As Mabel, a housewife rapidly losing her mind (husband Nick, played by Peter Falk, describes her as “unusual, not crazy”), Rowlands is heartbreaking, lovable, and terrifying, often in the same scene. It’s clear that Mabel loves her children, loves Nick, and loves to entertain the hordes of workers he brings home for dinner, yet she struggles to show her love in a way that isn’t intense and intensely uncomfortable. From dancing at dinner and waiting all afternoon for the school bus to return, she nearly always tries despite getting it wrong most times.
The performance, nominated for an Oscar (Rowlands lost to Ellen Burstyn for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), goes beyond traditional big emotions, however, and that’s the real key to the performance. Rowlands acts even when she’s barely visible on-screen, constantly pulling faces and wiggling her fingers hypnotically. Though Mabel’s illness is never fully explained, her performance gives the audience all the information they need, and it’s no exaggeration to say it might be the most convincing portray of mental illness ever put to screen.
Though Rowlands is the main focus point of the film, Peter Falk is equally good in a less showy but even more complex role. Nick is a good man, a hard worker providing for his family, yet he’s far from a saint; he’s short-tempered, even striking his wife multiple times. In many ways, he’s as emotionally damaged and vulnerable as his wife, but knows he’s the one who has to keep everything together. Perhaps that’s the point of A Woman Under the Influence; Nick is the “sane” one but he’s angry and distant with his children, while Mabel is crazy despite being worshipped by her children.
John Cassavates earned his only Oscar nomination for this film, and it’s nice to know he earned Academy recognition for an important career. A Woman Under the Influence doesn’t feature particularly overblown or even noticeable direction, but that’s Cassavates’ style; he gets uncomfortably close to his actors and he lets them loose. It’s quite remarkable, and A Woman Under the Influence is a remarkable film. Even with its long runtime, it’s never boring, and Rowlands and Falk give two of the best performances ever seen in cinemas.
By Harry Ford