Alongside her film career, Gena Rowlands worked constantly in television (and this was true from her earliest days in the 1950s.) Her husband John Cassavetes also worked constantly in television and film, with key roles in (famously), The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby, although there were more. The couple used their salaries to finance their independent films, independent films that completely changed the landscape of American film. So it was a two-track career for both of them, and it was both practical and idealistic. They were in sync on that. Rowlands has always been attracted to bold stories, brave stories, about human beings in conflict, human beings struggling to get what they need or deserve. She was nominated for two Best Actress Oscars, both under her husband’s direction (one for A Woman Under the Influence and one for Gloria), but she gave equally great performances in his other films, Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, Opening Night, Love Streams.
But all along, Rowlands worked elsewhere. (David Thomson says in his entry on Rowlands in his Film Encyclopedia that, essentially, he felt it was a shame that Rowlands associated herself so much with her husband’s work because it kept her out of the running for other major roles. Malarkey. That represents a grave misunderstanding of what acting is all about, what an acting CAREER is all about, and how acting careers can take MANY different forms. I saw on Twitter a while back some article with the dumb headline along the lines of: “Why isn’t Rachel McAdams a movie star?” Anyone who writes like that, headline, OR article, does not understand how careers happen. They are mostly organic phenomenon. They are rarely micro-managed. You can’t MAKE someone a “movie star.” And besides, actors struggle so much in the beginning that for the most part when they get jobs they are bathed in relief because they remember the years of obscurity. You think the “grateful to be nominated” thing is bull shit? It’s not. Acting is HARD. And careers meander, peaks, valleys, especially those in it for the long haul. To assume that Rachel McAdams only wants to be, say, Julia Roberts, or some mega-watt movie star is ridiculous. Such words reveal more about what the critic values (mega-watt movie stardom) than the actress’ actual experience of her own career (I enjoy working with this director, let me try this now, what’s next, oh THIS is next …) McAdams gets good parts. She gets leads. She works with good directors. She’s having a career, you know? That’s her career. You may like her, you may not like her, but that’s irrelevant. Back to Thomson, his view of Rowlands’ work is similarly blinkered. I love his stuff, but when he’s off the mark, he’s WAY off.)
Rowlands’ television work was as bold and pioneering as her work with Cassavetes, although it took a more “issue of the week” format. She was not afraid. She was not self-congratulatory. She followed stories that interested her. And these were stories that were ahead of their time.
In 1979, she co-starred opposite Bette Davis (who was experiencing a very late career Renaissance, thanks to television) in the TV movie Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter. Talk about an event. Rowlands was already a star, an Oscar-nominee, and had appeared in Cassavetes’ brilliant Opening Night just two years before. In Strangers, Rowlands plays a terminally ill woman who tries to mend her relationship with her bitter old-dame mom, played by Davis. Watching those two go toe to toe is absolutely exhilarating. (The whole thing is on Youtube, albeit cut up into 10 parts.)
In 1983, she appeared in Thursday’s Child, another television movie, this one about a child getting what was a new thing at the time, a heart transplant. I remember watching that one when it aired. Rowlands was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance.
Then of course there was An Early Frost, a groundbreaking television film about AIDS, in 1985. An Early Frost came almost 10 years before Philadelphia. If you were alive then and aware, you will remember the furor around An Early Frost. It aired in the midst of the crisis, during an intensifying wider awareness of it, and it aired during Reagan’s presidency, whom, as we all know, never acknowledged publicly the plague ravaging HIS land. There was gigantic silence from Washington on the issue during this time, so the film was HUGE in portraying the problem, in portraying the disease in a human way, putting a human face onto it to those who didn’t know anyone who was afflicted, or who thought “well, who cares about those people, they aren’t ME.” An Early Frost confronted ALL of those prejudices. Rowlands is very proud of being associated with that film. Rowlands was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, and she was nominated for an Emmy as well.
In 1987 came The Betty Ford Story, where Gena Rowlands won the Golden Globe for her performance as the alcohol-and-drug-addicted first lady. Another huge television event, with a typically bold and fearless performance from Rowlands at the center.
There was the 1991 television movie Face of a Stranger, with Rowlands playing a widow, destitute upon her husband’s death due to his gambling debts. Rowlands won the Emmy for Best Actress for her performance.
In 1992, came Crazy in Love, with Holly Hunter, Bill Pullman, Frances McDormand, and Rowlands, about the relationships between men and women, ultimately. And again, Rowlands was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance.
Grace and Glorie (1998) was a Hallmark Hall of Fame production, and also really good, and it focused on hospice care for the elderly and infirm. But it’s about relationships. As always it’s the human element of the story that attracts Rowlands. She’s not an activist. She’s a humanist.
Let’s backtrack though. In 1978, Rowlands appeared in the Emmy-nominated television movie A Question of Love. In it, Rowlands plays Linda Ray, a nurse, with two kids, and Linda is in a relationship with Barbara, played by Jane Alexander. It’s 1978, remember, so any superior-snickering about how enlightened we are now is 1. rude and ignorant as well as 2. dismissive and diminishing to the sacrifices/fears/reality of the generations who came before us. Rowlands’ kids are unaware that their mother is a lesbian. They think Barbara is just Mommy’s “friend.” But Rowlands’ elder son, who is a teenager, asks questions. Linda answers honestly. And the shit hits the fan.
Linda’s ex-husband (played by Clu Gulager) sues for custody of the kids. Rowlands’ mother (played by Marlon Brando’s sister Jocelyn Brando) is mortified, incensed, embarrassed. What did she do wrong that her daughter is a “pervert”? Barbara and Linda try to get lawyers to represent them, but they’re turned down repeatedly. Everybody thinks the boy should be with his father. Rowlands is superb (and there’s one scene that could be the best work she’s ever done.) Ned Beatty appears as the lawyer for the ex-husband and he is (of course) excellent.
A Question of Love treats the sexual orientation of Linda and Barbara as a matter-of-fact issue, casual and everyday. We see them ironing, arguing, discussing things late at night. Their sexuality is treated in a “Whatevs” kind of way, pretty radical for 1978. The opening scene shows the happy family, Linda, Ray, and the two kids, moving to a new house, driving there in a truck loaded down with possessions, all of them singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” It’s a beautiful and casual portrayal of a gay relationship, and it’s honest about the fact that Linda was always a lesbian. She had thought her marriage to her husband would last forever, of course she did. But after the divorce, she met Barbara. And they loved each other. As she tries to explain to her embarrassed teenage son, “Barbara and I … care for each other.”
Wrenching, honest, and raw, A Question of Love was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Made for TV. It holds up. And it shows why Gena Rowlands is the actress that she is.
The whole thing is on Youtube, so I wanted to point you that way, in case you’re interested.