First Time Watch: A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

By Christian DiMartino

Every once in a blue moon, a feeling comes over me when I am watching a movie. That feeling being, that this is among the greatest films I have ever seen, and that I want to revisit it as soon as possible.

John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence brought on such feelings.

It has been said that when Richard Dreyfuss attended a screening of it, he found it so harrowing that it caused him to vomit. Here is a feeling that I can certainly understand. A Woman Under the Influence is, by no means, an easy film to sit through. It’s uncomfortable, to say the least, but also deeply sad. Perhaps it’s because what Cassavetes pulls off here feels really believable. So why, you may ask, would I want to revisit this film again? Simple: it’s a tale of fascinating characters and large ideas. It feels small in scale, but it’s a film that will linger and haunt you long after it’s over.

The film focuses on a married couple, Mabel and Nick Longhetti (Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk). Here, I believe, is one of the most fascinating couples in cinema. There is something about them- they really truly feel like a married couple, even if you do not want to believe it. When Mabel and Nick are alone together, we get the sense that these two really love each other. They have a particular look in their eyes in which you can feel their passion for one another. It’s whenever other people are around in which things get a little bizarre.

We meet Mabel Longhetti some years into their marriage, and basically we are left to sort of wonder how she ended up the way that did. Mabel, as we gather, is mentally ill. What she suffers from is never fully discussed. Yet when she is around others, you can not only sense the discomfort that the others feel, but you can also feel your own discomfort. My guess is that Mabel has long been a wife, and a mother, and has forgotten, or maybe never been, herself, so when she is forced into social situations, she doesn’t know how to go about them. Whether it be friends, family, or even her own children. She often tries too hard, to the point of awkwardness. Take, for example, a scene in which the kids next door come to visit with one of the neighborhood dads. While listening to “Swan Lake,” she urges the kids to dance along, explaining the premise of the ballet, and by the end of the sequence, she is yelling, “Come on now children, die! Die!” I knew what she was trying to do, but also, in the eyes of others, it definitely seems pretty bizarre. The neighbor ultimately tells her that he doesn’t feel safe leaving them alone with her.

When you hear a title like A Woman Under the Influence, one would assume that the title character is a drinker. We do gather that Mabel has dabbled in alcohol, but the title has another meaning. Essentially, the title refers to a woman who is, quite unfortunately, under the influence of those around her (particularly her husband), hence why she doesn’t know how to handle herself.

Nick is of course madly in love with her, yet there is only so much he can handle. We see him snap at her whenever he believes that she is getting out of control, and soon her mental illness becomes too much for him to handle. So he sends her away to institution for six months. The dynamic between these two characters is really interesting to me, not just because of the details mentioned above, but also because while she is obviously ill, he isn’t exactly the embodiment of mental health, either. While Mabel comes across as socially awkward and uncomfortable around others, Nick has angry bursts, temper tantrums, and even has a tendency to smack Mabel around a bit. Seeing Nick, one can also deduce that this marriage is also what caused the drastic change in Mabel, but it’s interesting that she gets put in a mental institution for her behavior, while he goes on, taking his children for an awkward day at the beach, and shares a six-pack of beer with a group of 5 year olds … and she is still the crazier one. Is it a matter of gender? Or is it the fact that Nick knows how to handle himself a little better than she does?

The film also follows them after her stint at the institution, but I will not dive into the details of that. What must be discussed though is the performances at the center of it. These two were essential in getting it right, but Cassavetes knew he was in good hands, seeing as Rowlands was his wife, and Falk was a good friend of his (if you haven’t, I highly advise you seek out Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, starring Falk and Cassavetes, on HBO Max). Cassavetes’ direction and screenplay feel very lived in and in the moment- the way that he drops us in the middle of this possibly toxic marriage and leaves us to pick up the pieces of it is ingenious. Yet the glue holding it together, of course, is the two performances.

I have never seen Falk do anything like this before. Tender and loving one minute, a rage-filled monster the next, Falk lines a beautiful line of charming and slimy… and yet still caring. However, it is Rowlands who owns this film. This is one of the greatest performances I have ever witnessed. One of the most complex characters I have seen in a long time, here is a woman who causes extreme discomfort, and yet there’s also sympathy within it. Anyone watching this film will feel for her, because we can have an understanding of her and what she is struggling with, seeing as nobody else around her appears to. Rowlands gives a performance that will haunt you long after the film is over. Forget about Mabel and Nick; Gena and John were the real deal.

Note: I wrote this a few weeks ago and I intended for this to be under my “Great Movies” segment… but shoot, I could write about this movie twice. 

Streaming on HBO Max

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