Gena Rowlands: performance from the inside out

An ode to the legendary actress, written for our October 1995 issue.

Faces (1968)
This article first appeared in the October 1995 issue of Sight and Sound

With her bold bone-structure and the cur­tain of her wheat-gold Jackie O coif, Gena Rowlands is the classic Hollywood icon that got away.

Had she been born into the Studio era of the 1930s or 1940s, one suspects that she would have sewn up a career running across the grand roles, from the toughboots molls through to stoic mothers and peppery femmes fatales. She has the angular hardness which typifies the best of them in that period – one can imagine her, as easily as Crawford, Davis, Stanwyck or Bacall, starkly lit, dressed in Edith Head or Adrian, shoulderpads, Grecian pleated drapes, wedge slingbacks and all. Perhaps it’s just the poised way that she lights and smokes her cigarettes, that classic clinch between the lips, but she has a profile that seems to demand a portrait by Clarence Sinclair Bull. There is something solid yet also slinky and malleable about her, sometimes tangible but also allusive. This strong visual style carries through into her performance.

However, her career kicked off in the 1950s, when sex had become polarised. It was the time of Monroe, and a bosomy, soft-and-sweet, doe-eyed vulnerability was the order of the day. Rowlands’ mature persona and stone-crafted beauty hardly fitted this picture. Consider the fate of similarly singular actresses of her generation, such as Ellen Burstyn or Angie Dickinson: their filmographies flicker with extraordinary moments, but their movie careers bear testimony to talents ultimately kept at bay. One sees all too easily here what might have happened to Rowlands if she had not worked with director (and husband) John Cassavetes and given her career substance.

When David Thomson suggests provocatively in his entry on Cassavetes that she is a test case for the writer/director’s approach, he poses the following question: “Was she a great actress, a prisoner in her husband’s films, or the chief recipient of Cassavetes’ assumption that performance was a metaphor for life?” (Rowlands has no entry of her own in Thomson’s book, though Ben Gazzara – another Cassavetes regular – does.) [The latest edition of David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, published in 2014, does include an entry on Gena Rowlands.]

A Woman under the Influence (1974)

The fact is that her work with her husband – from the gruelling and raw A Woman Under the Influence (1974), in which she plays an ordinarily mad housewife, to the almost romantic Gloria (1980), where she is cast as the brassy New York gangster’s gal turned reluctant guardian angel to a six-year-old wanted by the mob – allowed her to enjoy artistic freedoms, stretching her in extraordinary directions that few of her American female contemporaries have experienced.

Light of Day (1987)

In Cassavetes’ films, she played those durable and imposing roles of the 1930s and 1940s – the toughboots moll and the stoic mother – but she unravelled them, messed them up and brought them kicking and screaming into the present. Her subsequent performances for other directors only further convince one of her stature: these include the mother who discovers that her son has Aids in John Erman’s TV movie An Early Frost (1985); the mother who wants to do right by her children in Paul Schrader’s underrated study of a blue-collar family Light of Day (1987); Marion, the buttoned-up academic in Woody Allen’s Another Woman (1988); and now the tender Aunt Mae, a gorgeous fading bloom of a woman, in Terence Davies’ exquisite adaptation of Southern writer John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible, an achingly sad novella set in the Bible Belt South during the 40s.

What’s striking about Rowlands, and what makes her so iconic a figure, is how little her physical appearance changes in each film. Certainly she is not of the hat-and-accent school of acting. Only with Another Woman’s Marion, this philosophy professor on the verge of redefining her life , is there a notable cosmetic departure – Rowlands’ hair is slightly darkened and tightly drawn away from her face, to suggest the sobriety of the role.

Not that such touches are needed, for as Marion, Rowlands acts with her whole body, which itself seems buttoned up and tightly drawn away from the world. Her movements are slow and deliberating, as though bound by the past that she must reconsider. One immediately discerns that this is a woman to whom emotions are something embarrassing, yet under that resolute surface one can intuit just how painful that in itself is to her, as Rowlands pulls together the fragile contradictions of the character.

So it is not surprising that she declares herself an “inside out” actress in her approach to performance. She starts with her lines, preferring to be familiar with them, digesting them before she moves on to think about the character. As she comments simply of that process: “I think it must be like writing, you draw on things that you have wondered about, people in restaurants, things that you have seen, quarrelling at the table, something here, something there, they all come together in one piece.” The characters are authenticated through such commonplace anthropological observations rather than copious research into their profession or situation. Rowlands did not need to hang around the philosophy department of NYU to prepare to play Marion. For the role of Aunt Mae, a torch singer who never quite made the grade, she did not have to haunt the lesser night-club circuits.

Gloria (1980)

The only role in which she admits to contemplating the exteriors first was Gloria Swenson, in Gloria. “I wanted to develop a walk that said everything about the character right away, because she was alone, a tough woman in New York and body language means a lot in that big city.” As she stalks around Manhattan, silky and glamorous in her Emmanuel Ungaro outfits, she is as high and sturdy as a skyscraper on her slingbacks. The character of Gloria is a wonderfully undomesticated woman, who can’t cook to save her life, who hates kids, quipping that she can’t stand the sight of milk, who talks to her young charge as though he were her age and who can pull a gun on a hoodlum-packed car without letting a hair flying out of place.

But she is so much more than just a tough broad with an assured swagger. The internal work that Rowlands did on her character is caught in glimpses – it’s clear that Gloria knows that she hasn’t quite fixed up her life as she would like it, that she is now tired of the fight. It comes through in such moments as when she negotiates with one of the members of the mob. She can still put on her charm routine, and she can still do it right but the exasperation is ever so briefly manifest.

Importantly, Rowlands does not surrender herself to adopt a persona. There is every sense of someone with a firm sense of herself to return to. That is why she does not need disguises, why she can allow herself to be recognisable in each film.

The Neon Bible (1995)

It is also perhaps why she can play such an extraordinary range. Terence Davies states that he knew instinctively that Rowlands was right for the role of Aunt Mae as soon as he read Kennedy Toole’s novella. But to confirm it he watched A Woman Under the Influence and An Early Frost again. “A Woman Under the Influence is very operatic, a wonderful performance, but operatic, but in An Early Frost, she is very quiet, and that rage, she is like a rock, you just know that there is this incredibly strong woman. It is the equivalent of someone being able to sing grand opera and leider.”

Certainly there is something extremely diva-like about Rowlands’ performance as Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence. It is a frightening, difficult and awkward portrait of a woman who has lost her centre, who is only authentic in her madness. In a line that speaks volumes, her husband Nick (Peter Falk) states, “Mabel is not crazy, she cooks, she cleans, she sews, what’s crazy about that?”

Rowlands unravels Mabel till she is a dead nothing, but then scrapes her back together for the finale that finds the Longhettis tragically resuming their little domestic routines, as normal as they ever will be. But even through this candid, emotionally naked performance, Mabel never seems vulnerable. Rather it is the anger that seeps through, albeit in useless fashion – she is a woman who has imploded in on herself. The same could be said for Myrtle Gordon, the actress-protagonist in Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1977), though here the film (in Persona-style) externalises the volatile and damaging conflicts that are raging inside. Grand opera indeed.

In contrast Aunt Mae is beautifully played, as leider that are bursting at the seams to be something more passionate and explosive. As with everything about The Neon Bible, a flood of emotion is there, but held back. Aunt Mae is the glamorous light in the young hero’s austere life, a singer who made it small time because “I looked good in clothes and could carry a tune.” Her chirpy demeanour, however, belies the sense of her own failure. Rowlands tells you all about Aunt Mae – it is there in fleeting moments across her face, in the dull glimmer in her eyes. Which is something that you can’t get with props and accessories. As with Davis, Crawford and the rest, it’s what makes her such a compulsive performer to watch.

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