MOVIES : Under a Woman’s Influence : Gena Rowlands inspires effusive praise from colleagues who admit to a struggle with their nerves when working with her


Discussing how she prepares for a performance, actress Gena Rowlands says that at a certain point in the process she begins to dream in character. “The dreams usually have nothing to do with the script either,” she says. “It’s just between me and her.”

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Rowlands’ work--her performances are so deeply felt and authentic they go far beyond what we normally think of as acting. Hailed as “the greatest living film actress” by the late Ida Lupino, whose work had a similar gritty realism, Rowlands has turned in a series of performances, several of which were directed by the late John Cassavetes, her husband of 35 years, that will stand as some of the most powerful captured on film.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 4, 1992 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday May 4, 1992 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Ida Lupino--An article in Sunday’s Calendar erroneously referred to “the late” actress Ida Lupino. Lupino, 74, lives in Hollywood and is active and well, according to her spokesperson.

Lauded by critics for her career-making portrayal of a housewife descending into madness in the 1974 film “A Woman Under the Influence,” Rowlands brings the same brilliance that ignited her work in that film to minor roles in otherwise mediocre pictures. (Her finely nuanced study of a devoutly religious woman struggling to resolve her estrangement from her children in Paul Schrader’s 1987 film “The Light of Day” is a good example of this.)

“Gena’s incapable of an unreal moment,” says Woody Allen, who cast her as the lead in his 1988 film, “Another Woman"--an uncharacteristically effusive comment that’s typical of the response one gets when discussing Rowlands with her colleagues.

“Whatever I say about Gena isn’t enough because she’s so incredible,” says Winona Ryder, who stars with Rowlands in the Jim Jarmusch film that opens Friday, “Night on Earth.” “There’s a nobility, strength and class to her work that nobody else holds a candle to, and she’s so beautiful--you just kind of marvel at the way she moves. The way she lights a cigarette is the best argument I’ve ever seen for smoking.”


Ryder has been a fan of Rowlands’ since she saw “A Woman Under the Influence” several years ago, a film that garnered Rowlands a best actress Academy Award nomination. Long a staple on the art-house circuit, “A Woman Under the Influence” along with four other Cassavetes films, three of which star Rowlands, will be released on video in July by Buena Vista. (“Shadows,” “Faces,” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and “Opening Night” are the other titles set for release.) These films remain somewhat unknown in the U.S., however they’ve long been hailed as masterpieces in Europe; in fact, actor Gerard Depardieu thinks so highly of them that he’s personally financing their release on video in France this year.

Though the films were directed by Cassavetes, who died in 1989 of cirrhosis of the liver, they belong to Rowlands as well, as she played an instrumental role in the making of all of them. As did Cassavetes, Rowlands often took parts in mainstream movies in order to help finance her husband’s films. Rowlands wants Cassavetes’ work to be known and that’s perhaps why she’s agreed to be interviewed--something she usually avoids. However, she prefers not to discuss her husband, whose death she’s still dealing with.

“I don’t do interviews because I’m not good at them,” she asserts during a conversation at a restaurant in West Hollywood. “I can speak English, but I’m not terribly articulate and people like public figures to say outrageous things, but my interests are elsewhere.”

Heads turn when Rowlands enters the restaurant, not just because she’s a star but because at 56 she’s an extraordinarily beautiful woman. Dressed in a crisply tailored tan pantsuit and with her mane of blond hair swept back off her face, she has the glacial elegance of Grace Kelly. However, the thing that makes her so radiantly lovely is the warmth, wisdom and humor one sees in her face.

Rowlands dismisses the subject of physical beauty with the comment “there’s always somebody better looking and somebody worse looking than you, so it’s not something you can concern yourself with. There’s no denying the standard of beauty in Hollywood is incredibly high--all across America, beautiful men and women leave their hometowns and come to Hollywood, and all the girls here are lovely and all the guys are handsome. And yet when I look at people, I’m looking for something else. I want to see behind their eyes and see how they’re dealing with their lives.”

Rowlands herself was one of those small-town beauties who headed for the big city in pursuit of her muse. Born in 1936 in Cambria, Wis., a town outside of Madison with a population of less than 700, Rowlands was one in a family of three children.

“My people who originally came to America from Wales were farmers and Cambria was a farming community,” she recalls. “My dad was involved in politics in Wisconsin--he was a state senator--and I had a pretty liberal upbringing. People have funny ideas about small towns, maybe because there aren’t many left, but the women in Cambria read Shakespeare every Thursday at the Shakespeare Club and the town had one of the best libraries I’ve ever seen. Cambria wasn’t far from Madison, which had a thriving theatrical community, and before I was born, my mom was involved in playwriting and acting there.” (Rowlands’ mother, Lady Rowlands, now lives in L.A. near her daughter and is a painter who occasionally acts; she portrayed Rowlands’ mother in “A Woman Under the Influence.”)

“My parents were like Myrna Loy and William Powell in ‘The Thin Man'--they were very sophisticated, elegant people,” she continues. “When I was little, I was quite shy and was an invalid who suffered a series of mysterious maladies and I remember being sick quite vividly--it was traumatic and lonely. I wasn’t at all a self-confident child--I was a beige, docile creature and I’m sure my glamorous parents must’ve looked at me and thought ‘oh dear.’

“My parents took me to New York to see Marlon Brando in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ which affected me deeply, and like everybody else I was movie crazy when I was young and saw several films a week. The first actress who made an impression on me was Bette Davis in ‘Now Voyager'--Bette’s attitude really interested me.” (Many years later Rowlands starred with Davis in the TV movie “Strangers--The Story of a Mother and Daughter.”)

Rowlands’ acting career began when she was 14 and her family moved to Washington, where she won a three-year scholarship to the Jarvis Repertory Theater. “Talk about fools rushing in--we did the hardest plays possible,” she recalls. “I was already serious about acting, but after I graduated from high school my parents got stubborn and made me go to the University of Wisconsin, but that lasted for about a minute.”

By the time Rowlands got to college, she’d left her days as “a beige, docile creature” behind her. Recalls Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel, who attended the University of Wisconsin about the same time and became friends with Cassavetes and Rowlands during the ‘70s: “Gena was a ‘Badger Beauty'--in those sexist days the yearbook would do pictorial spreads on five gorgeous co-eds, and Gena was one of them.”

Eager to get on stage, Rowlands left for New York in 1953 to train at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. “The ‘50s in New York was a golden age for actors--it was a fabulously creative place then,” she says. “Live television was just getting into full swing and great writers were creating wonderful new plays--everywhere you looked were plays by Robert Sherwood, Horton Foote and Paddy Chayefsky. We all worked for a dollar and a half but were wildly happy, despite the fact that we had the desperately hard times actors always have in the beginning. Things weren’t expensive then the way they are now--it was all very different.”

Things moved fast for Rowlands on all fronts after she arrived in New York. In 1954 she was appearing in a play at the American Academy and in the audience was a young actor named John Cassavetes who had graduated from the academy three years earlier; four months later they were married. In 1956 Rowlands landed the lead opposite Edward G. Robinson in Paddy Chayefsky’s “Middle of the Night,” a production that ran for 477 performances and led to Rowlands signing a five-year film contract with MGM in 1957--a turn of events that surprised her.

“I like movies but I never planned on making them because all my experience had been with repertory and I felt most comfortable onstage,” she recalls. “When John and I married, I thought we’d be like the Lunts. But around 1956 John became interested in film and started a little class where they did a lot of improvising, and that’s how he came up with the basic idea for his first picture, ‘Shadows.’ By then he was hooked and he sort of dragged the rest of us screaming along behind.”

Though Rowlands appeared as an extra in “Shadows,” she made her official screen debut after she and Cassavetes moved to L.A. in 1958 when she was cast opposite Jose Ferrer in the romantic comedy “The High Cost of Loving.” She spent the ‘60s adjusting her work schedule around the birth of her son and two daughters (respectively born in 1960, 1965 and 1970), and during those years she appeared in four feature films and numerous television dramas. Her collaboration with Cassavetes began in earnest in 1963 when she appeared in a semi-documentary study of retarded children, “A Child Is Waiting,” and continued in 1968 with her portrayal of a high-class call girl in “Faces,” which also featured Seymour Cassel. In 1971 Cassavetes again paired her with Cassel in “Minnie and Moskowitz,” the story of an eccentric wealthy woman in love with an aging Jewish hippie.

“Gena’s the most honest actress I’ve ever worked with,” says Cassel. “She’s so generous with other actors and listens so well, and nobody comes better prepared. In ‘Minnie and Moskowitz’ she played this screwball Carole Lombard type and if you look at the sunglasses she wears in that picture and the way she did her hair--her choices were just so great.”

After taking a few years off to spend with her children, Rowlands returned to the screen in 1974 playing Mabel Longhetti in “A Woman Under the Influence,” a role she describes as “the most difficult part I ever played. That was an extremely risky part psychologically because when you play a character they invade your life--not to the point that they throw a net over your head, but they do get into your psyche.”

Says Peter Falk, who starred opposite Rowlands: “I’ll never forget the breakdown scene in that film--it was mesmerizing and the way she played it is what makes her unique as an actress. It would’ve been easy to rush into madness in that scene, but Gena made you feel that this woman’s breakdown wasn’t inevitable and you saw her searching for signs--if her husband had said the right thing, if the doctor’s tone had been more genuine. Gena always gives you both sides of the coin, and it was her struggle for normality and her clinging to the hope that she was wrong about her family that made her passage into terror so devastating.”

Rowlands subsequently turned in three more critically acclaimed performances in films directed by Cassavetes, starring in “Opening Night” in 1978, “Gloria” in 1980 (for which she was nominated for a best actress Oscar) and “Lovestreams” in 1983.

Says Sean Penn, who became friends with the couple a few years before Cassavetes’ death and plans to direct an unproduced Cassavetes screenplay, “She’s Delovely,” sometime in the next two years: “John ignited the talent of everyone he worked with in a way few directors are capable of, so it’s hard to separate John and Gena’s sensibilities. Obviously they made a huge contribution to each other, but independent of each other they’re both extraordinarily gifted people. Gena seems to be completely free of self-consciousness and I think that’s central to what makes her the unpredictable actress that she is. And while there’s an incredible kindness about her, she never indulges in artificial niceties--that’s a completely disarming combination.”

Rowlands’ and Cassavetes’ working relationship was not without heated moments. Recalls Cassel: " Gena had done Broadway and there’s a certain theatricality to stage acting, and John had a very different, intimate approach to acting so he could be tough on her. At the same time, I never saw two people who loved each other the way they did--their relationship was so passionate, so full of life, arguments and love.”

Adds Ben Gazzara, who starred with Rowlands in “Opening Night,” and three highly successful runs of the A.R. Gurney play “Love Letters”; “Working with John and Gena on ‘Opening Night’ I was struck by how John knew how to push the proper buttons in Gena to make her even finer than she already was--he could get things out of her other directors didn’t even know to ask for. Finding the humor in craziness was a peculiar talent of John’s and Gena was able to express that with tremendous complexity and sweetness.”

Reflecting on why the films she made with Cassavetes continue to speak to people so profoundly, Rowlands says: “It’s because those films concern things people really deal with in their lives--love, loss, husbands, family. John presented those things at their most problematic and without cynicism, and I think it’s a great comfort for people to go to the movies and discover we’re all struggling with the same basic things.

“Having said that, it seems to me things have changed a lot over the course of my life--for instance, things between men and women are different now from how they were when I was young. The old structures for how to create a home and a family are gone now and that’s hard on people. On the other hand, people often married for the wrong reasons when I was young. Still, to those of us who fell in love before the rules changed, the way people fall in love today seems terribly unromantic. A love affair is really an ‘it’s you and me against the world, baby’ kind of thing--it’s very private, and yet there’s so much advice from friends and the media. I think people should try to carve out a more individual thing between them.”

By all accounts, Rowlands’ love affair with Cassavetes was one of the great ones, and though she’s appeared in two TV movies since his death and three runs of “Love Letters” (of the dozens of actresses who’ve appeared in the play, Rowlands has consistently been the biggest box-office draw), she hadn’t done a feature film for several years before “Night on Earth.”

“I wrote the part for her never dreaming she’d do it, and when she said yes, I was ecstatic,” says Jarmusch. “Because I’m such a huge fan, I was extremely nervous when I first met her, but Gena’s so sensitive to other people that she immediately made me feel at ease and it was great fun directing her. Discussing ideas with Gena is kind of like playing in a sandbox because there’s never any pressure with her.”

Though Jarmusch managed to quiet his case of nerves around Rowlands, her co-star Winona Ryder struggled with hers throughout the shoot.

“I was petrified when I met her--I literally went speechless,” Ryder admits. “Jim and I were waiting for her in this hotel room in New York and she came in with that hair and that amazing voice--I’m sure she could see I was trembling, and she came up and embraced me, which was the most beautiful thing. Having worked with her, I’m just as in awe of her.

“The first few nights we were shooting I kept forgetting my lines because all I could think about was that Gena Rowlands was sitting behind me--I really had to fight the impulse to turn around and watch her,” says Ryder, who plays a tomboy cabdriver who ferries Rowlands home from an L.A. airport. “Everybody on the set knew how I felt about her because it was so obvious, and I think she knew too, but I never told her how much she meant to me--for years before we met I kept a picture of her by my bed because she’s such an inspiration to me. After Jim Jarmusch and I became friends, we discovered that long before we met Gena we’d both done the same thing--at different times both of us had parked in front of her house and just kind of looked at it thinking, ‘Oh my god, that’s the house.’ ”

Rowlands would no doubt be surprised to hear that she inspires this kind of ardent admiration, as she’s a down-to-earth woman who takes a practical approach to her work. Asked if her fundamental understanding of acting has changed significantly over the years, she says: “Like many young actors, when I was in my early 20s I believed that whatever talent I had was rooted in neurosis, but as I grew older I found myself questioning that belief. We used to really rev ourselves up before a part like athletes training for a meet, but at a certain point I realized people aren’t all working from a neurotic base. So I decided it would be an interesting experiment to try to approach acting from as relaxed a place as possible, and having tried that, I didn’t feel it diminished my performance in any way. At that point my approach to acting did undergo a major change.”

In addition to “Night on Earth” Rowlands can be seen later this year in two made-for-TV movies, “Crazy in Love,” which was directed by Martha Coolidge and airs on TNT in August, and “Guests of the Emperor,” which airs in the fall on NBC. This is quite a bit of exposure for an actress who describes herself as “not at all driven to work--John was a workaholic, but I’m not. I love to read and I’ve traveled quite a bit over the past few years. And unfortunately, it seems that everywhere I go, I get a sense of crisis--we’re living in a world in crisis. I sometimes think the problem is that we’re overstimulated by media--there’s so much of everything today. In order to survive with any sense of yourself, you have to keep cutting out a little piece of it in your mind and defending it. You have to figure out what’s precious to you and you have to keep that constant through the years and be willing to go to the wall for it.”

Rowlands has clearly lived her own life by the idea. Asked what she’s had to sacrifice in order to live her life as an artist, she says: “Absolutely nothing--it’s the people who aren’t artists who sacrifice. Artists somehow stumble onto the best life in the world and I have no complaints about this life--maybe my next one, but not this one. Acting, meeting a guy who feels good the way you do, being able to get up in the morning and do what you want during the day and then go to sleep at night--it’s a pretty good thing.”