Quotes By/About Gena Rowlands

These quotes focus on the Cassavetes years. Rowlands has had a vast career outside of that, only it’s just not as well documented.

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“I spotted this doll one day and pretended that I wanted to talk to her about a role. And that was it.” – John Cassavetes

“I was a woman with a plan. The only thing that could really stop me from succeeding was to fall in love. In those days, if you got married, you had children and quit what you were doing. I wanted to be an actress bad enough that I would forego the comfort of love. I was going to be very careful. So I went in to lunch and put my books in my locker and I saw John Cassavetes. And I thought, Oh damn, not this. This is just exactly what I don’t want.” – Gena Rowlands, describing the exact same moment

“I was brought up in an unusual situation: My mother was a feminist and my father was a male chauvinist, but they got along marvelously.” – Gena Rowlands

“Everything I know is something my mother told me. She said, ‘Don’t skirt around life or be frightened to do things.’ She told me it was important to put your arms into life, up to the elbows. Do it all – dig in.” – Gena Rowlands

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Gena Rowlands and her mother, “Lady” Rowlands, in “Minnie and Moskowitz”

“I was young. And I felt that everybody had talent. And that for some reason they were being arbitrary and not employing that talent. Because I thought, Well, these people are the giants of an industry, they have a good brain and a good heart and ability. How come they don’t use it? And Gena would say, ‘Look a lot of people just don’t have the same drives, the same desire, the same gun that sparks them, as you do. You’re acting like these people all understand you. Nobody understands you. I don’t understand you. Who the hell can understand you? You’re nuts.'” – John Cassavetes

“I’ll never forget a scene we had together in a Hitchcock movie for TV. I was on the phone and John was sitting behind me. Not till I saw the show did I know that, instead of sitting quietly, John was pulling his ear, looking sharply right and left, looking at his watch. It was very entertaining, but it was my scene. When I told John I was shocked that he would do such a thing to his own wife, he said, ‘Every man for himself.'” – Gena Rowlands

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“My wife and I have a high threshold for pain. If you’re enjoying yourself and you have a lot of friends and they’re all suffering with you, you’re fine. I’d hate to be the only one suffering.” – John Cassavetes

“I couldn’t believe John wrote it. I don’t mean to be sexist because I don’t really believe that women can’t write for men and vice versa. But I really couldn’t believe that a man would understand this particular problem. You can spend an evening with John among friends and think he hasn’t noticed anything that’s going on or heard anything anyone has said. And then later you discover this amazing understanding in his writing. He understands women of all ages.” – Gena Rowlands on first reading the script for “A Woman Under the Influence”. She would get her first Academy Award nomination for her performance as Mabel Longetti.

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John Cassavetes shooting Rowlands’ famous breakdown scene in “A Woman Under the Influence

“With John’s scripts, it’s like being an astronaut on the moon for the first time. The air is very light, you have to wear heavy boots, you have to push yourself out into areas that are very frightening. I suppose I push farther for John than for any other director, not because he’s my husband. It’s because he happens to be the kind of artist and director that he is. I know that other actors feel the same way – and they’re not even married to him.” – Gena Rowlands

“The emotional strain was so great that we never went out socially for thirteen weeks. No movies, no parties, no home entertaining, nothing. At night we’d collapse, make coffee, then start talking about the work. Yesterday’s work, last week’s work, last month’s, next week’s, next month’s. We’d wake up in the night and talk some more. It was that kind of total commitment. One time, I remember, we lived it all so completely that I suddenly became Nick to Gena’s Mabel. She looked at me with those big, glaring, beautiful eyes of hers and said to Peter, “Will you hold him while I hit him?” – John Cassavetes, on filming “A Woman Under the Influence”

“You change your energy and allow another person to haunt your house, so to speak. It’s like being a medium. It left me exhausted and depressed-feeling. Some of the time, when you’re walking out there where the air is thin, you just hope you can walk back again.” – Gena Rowlands on playing Mabel in “Woman”

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Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence”

“I loved Mabel so much that I wanted to do right by her. That’s why, above all, I pleaded with John: Please, let’s not romanticize her martyrdom.” – Gena Rowlands on “Woman Under the Influence”

“All I know is that this woman couldn’t speak, she couldn’t express herself. And when you can’t speak, when you’re playing that kind of part and becoming involved in it, then things will start happening with y our body. The human spirit will not take it silently. If you cannot express something verbally, it will come out in some way, and in her it came out in bizarre physical gestures. But I didn’t plan it.” – Gena Rowlands on Mabel’s wordlessness and unforgettable gestures in “Woman”: raspberries, and strike-out hand-gestures, and eye-rolls, etc.

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Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence”

“I find it difficult in terms of work to look at any other woman and see what I see in this woman. She’s an incredible instrument. She has incredible excitement and she’s exposed and she has all the attributes of being a great actress.” – John Cassavetes

“I remember going there and John mumbled something about where we should stand, then suddenly the camera was going. I remember saying my lines but I don’t remember having the feeling of acting. It was like I was watching somebody in life. I was riveted. Her descent into madness is the most extraordinary twelve minutes of sustained acting I have ever seen on film.” – Peter Falk, Rowlands’ co-star in “Woman Under the Influence”

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Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands, “A Woman Under the Influence”

“To me, it was moving. I don’t get depressed if I see a picture about some emotional quality someone has. I know some people avoid that but I like to be wrung out.” – Gena Rowlands’ response to Tom Snyder’s question about whether or not Rowlands thought “Woman Under the Influence” was “depressing”

“To hear 1,800 people clapping their hands in unison is glorious. I was so thrilled that I turned around to John – but he wasn’t there. And I knew what he had done. He wanted it to be my moment. My moment entirely.” – Gena Rowlands on the celebrated first screening of “Woman Under the Influence” at the New York Film Festival

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Gena Rowlands in “Opening Night”

“There are vast areas of the female experience that haven’t begun to be tapped and which won’t be except when women start to write about them. For a long time, women were immensely unpopular in this country. However, the receipts from the film indicate a revival of interest in the women’s picture, which might create a market.” — Gena Rowlands on the success of “Woman Under the Influence”

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“I’m a feminist in that I’ve been a self-supporting woman since I was eighteen years old. I am a wife to a husband; I’m a mother to three children. I am not a cupcake actress – though I have nothing against them and I don’t mean that to sound condescending. My emphasis in life is deeply split between these two things – to be an actress and to be a mother. It’s a great conflict in my life.” – Gena Rowlands

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“When Gena and I are home together, we’re husband and wife. On the set, we’re deadly combatants. We have great respect for each other, like enemies do.” – John Cassavetes

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“When I read the script, I knew I wanted a walk for her. I wanted something that, from the minute you saw me, you would know I could handle myself on the streets of New York. So I started thinking about when I lived in New York, how different I walked down the street when there was nobody but me. It was a walk that said, They’d better watch out.” — Gena Rowlands on playing Gloria in “Gloria”

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Gena Rowlands in “Gloria”

“Gena is so absolutely private that – I didn’t know she played the piano for 10 years! I walk in one day, she’s playing – I hear this, I thought it was a record, a fantastic concert. I walked in and I got terribly angry with her. “What the hell are you doing? ! You’re playing the piano! You never told me you played the piano! This is such a double-cross, I don’t understand what the hell is going on!’ I walk out, I get angry, and she got angry back at me, see? And she wouldn’t speak to me for two weeks over this thing. We never mentioned it again.” – John Cassavetes

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“John has a great affinity for characters that are perceived by the world generally as crazy, or cuckoo, or whacko, or at least eccentric. The character that I play [in Love Streams] is one of those characters – that most people think is, well, quite crazy. But we don’t see it that way. But then, I didn’t think Mabel Longetti in Woman Under the Influence was crazy either, where everyone else saw her as patently so. It’s just that they have a different dream – a different thing that they wanted out of life. And they’re confused as to why it doesn’t happen, and how they found themselves in this position where they’re marching out of step with everyone else. Personally, I don’t think anyone is crazy who is cruel. To me, cruelty is crazy. Anything short of that, I wouldn’t consider crazy. Of course, sometimes if you have a very strong dream and you follow it no matter what, you are inadvertently being cruel without meaning to, because you ride roughshod over others. But still, if it’s not actual cruelty, to me that person isn’t insane at all.” – Gena Rowlands

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Gena Rowlands in “Love Streams”

“Once a picture is finished it sort of just … makes a lock in my mind. I only see it once usually at the end, or maybe twice. I don’t want to remember it that way. I still remember it from the inside looking out. It’s very difficult for me to be an audience to it ever. It’s sort of disturbing to me, so I usually don’t see it except just to see how the whole thing turned out. But that’s the last of it. [It’s disturbing because it’s] changing sides, I guess. It’s as if you would be asked to suddenly step out and observe your life. I don’t feel that it’s necessary for me to be an audience – so I don’t see why I have to if it disturbs me. I guess, I wish to think of it on the other side – I wish not to lose the character, the private specific character to me.” – Gena Rowlands

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“Gena is subtle, delicate. She’s a miracle. She’s straight. She believes in what she believes in. She’s capable of anything. It’s only because of Gena’s enormous capacity to perform that we have a movie, because a lot of people would be a little bit too thin to work on it. Gena is a very interesting woman and for my money the best player that is around. She can just play. Give her anything and she’ll alway be creative. She doesn’t try to make it different – she just is – because the way she thinks is different from the way most actors think. She goes in and she says, ‘Who do I like on this picture? What characters do I like, what characters am I so-so about?’ I picked up her script once and I saw all these notes, all about what reaction she had to the various people both in the production and the story. It was very personal to her, and I felt very guilty that I’d snooped. Then I watched her work. She sets the initial premise and follows the script very completely. Very rarely will she improvise, though she does in her head and in her personal thoughts. Everybody else is going boom! boom! boom!, but Gena is very dedicated and pure. She doesn’t care if it’s cinematic, doesn’t care where the camera is, doesn’t care if she looks good – doesn’t care about anything except that you believe her. She caught the rhythm of that woman living a life she’d never seen.” – John Cassavetes

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During an interview, the interviewer, clearly in awe of her, babbled on for a bit, and then said, “I’m not sure – what I’m trying to say.” Rowlands said, “I’m so glad, because I never know what I’m trying to say either.”

Sources: Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the Independent Film, by Marshall Fine. Cassavetes Directs: John Cassavetes and the Making of Love Streams, by Michael Ventura. Cassavetes on Cassavetes. Documentary footage of interviews given by the two of them, found all over the place. A 1993 (or maybe 92?) interview with Gena Rowlands that I cut out of a magazine back then and saved.

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6 Responses to Quotes By/About Gena Rowlands

  1. mutecypher says:

    That story about playing the piano was my favorite!

    /..she wouldn’t speak to me for two weeks over this thing. We never mentioned it again./

    Ha! What a wonderful marriage they had.

    • sheila says:

      Isn’t that hilarious?? I love that they never talked of it again.

      She must have been like, “You lunatic, will you let me get back to my Scarlatti?”

      He was a handful! They were married almost 40 years.

  2. Melissa Sutherland says:

    I love that you love them so much. Even better than my loving them, somehow. (is that even grammatical? no worries)

    • sheila says:

      Well, I’ve also just been full-immersion in them in the last 2 weeks. There’s been nothing else!! Thankfully, yes, I love “hanging out” with them reading their words about one another.

      Honestly, there’s not much “out there” about her, outside of her movies with him – I mean, her stature is huge – but still – there’s just not a lot out there. Hopefully this Lifetime Achievement Award will help correct that. This was a collaboration – this wasn’t Cassavetes “giving” her anything – and he himself always made that very clear. Unfortunately many film critics who are only able to focus on the directors … they just don’t get it. They understand her performances in the movies are amazing, but they can’t help but just credit JC for that. It’s wrong.

      He’s been dead for 40 years. She’s been working ever since. And she’s always excellent, even in second-rate-ish material. I just watched Another Woman again yesterday – (it’s a favorite of mine) and was struck again by just how damn good she is – and on a level different from other actresses – AND by the fact that there is zero resemblance between that character in Another Woman and anything she ever played for Cassavetes.

      Hugely responsive actress, to the mood/style of the director – whatever director it was. Associating her solely with Cassavetes does her a great disservice, although those movies are part of the reason I love movies and acting at all. :) I would never dismiss that collaboration.

      The last couple of years have been a very exciting time for Gena fans – and even better: she’s still alive! We aren’t celebrating her posthumously. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me!!

  3. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Has he really been dead for 40 years? OMG. Time do fly. Sad though. Funny the people we miss. (And those we don’t.) Thanks for all of this, and congrats again. You deserve it.

    • sheila says:

      Right?? Well, he died in 1989, so not quite 40 years – but the two of them were married for almost 40 years, and she’s 85, so it’s something like that.

      He died so young. And cirrhosis of the liver … you have to really drink all day every day to die of that as young as he was. Just so sad.

      But what he was able to do when he was alive!!

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