Just look at that screenshot. Gena Rowlands stops me in my tracks. Time and time again.
There’s something jagged in her. Something ultimately unresolved.
Catharsis – in its classic sense – does not exist for her (or for us, in watching her). Because catharsis implies release, ending, or at the very LEAST a breather. Gena Rowlands, in her best and most enduring roles, has no such breathers built into her work. It is not messy or self-indulgent – but she is an actress on the edge (or, should I say, under the influence …)Her emotions do not line up in easily classifiable buckets: sadness, joy, rage. Everything is mixed up. She cries but you don’t feel grief being released. She laughs and you hear only the wince of pain behind it, no joy whatsoever. She expresses anger and all you want to do is burst into laughter at how absurd she is. Things get a little scary. And yet she is nothing less than 100% specific. Ragged edges and all.
And yet again: in her personal life, she would retreat to Connecticut to the home she shared with husband John Cassavetes and live the quietest of suburban lives – raising her kids, disappearing for sometimes years on end, gardening, driving kids to soccer practice, whatever. There was nothing tabloid-worthy, nothing dramatic even, no divorces or car crashes … Her husband was an alcoholic, but that’s certainly not just a famous person’s disease – lots of people are alcoholics. The two of them fought like cats and dogs (from day one), but they loved each other, too, and respected each other. She did not yearn for the spotlight, she did not keep her name in the papers. She retreated, making sandwiches and playing in the pool with her kids. Before emerging again to put all of that other stuff she had going on, all of that crazy she had going on … into her next role. I love that about her. Her pillbox hat and neat upswept hair, her 1960s fur hat, her white gloves and her kids and her dog … the whole image – compared to what she was able to portray in, say, Opening Night. Holy shit. I LOVE the dichotomy. It is classic Rowlands.
Nobody like her.
What is also truly astonishing is that she doesn’t only play crazy. Just watch her as the repressed elegant homewrecker in Woody Allen’s Another Woman to get the sense of how GOOD she really is. The material dictated her acting. She knew how to dial down the crazy, eliminate it all together, and play that part (to perfection, I might add – it’s one of my favorites of all of her roles). I’ll let Roger Ebert say what I’m trying to say:
There is a temptation to say that Rowlands has never been better than in this movie, but that would not be true. She is an extraordinary actor who is usually this good, and has been this good before, especially in some of the films of her husband, John Cassavetes. What is new here is the whole emotional tone of her character. Great actors and great directors sometimes find a common emotional ground, so that the actor becomes an instrument playing the director’s song.
Cassavetes is a wild, passionate spirit, emotionally disorganized, insecure and tumultuous, and Rowlands has reflected that personality in her characters for him – white-eyed women on the edge of stampede or breakdown.
Allen is introspective, considerate, apologetic, formidably intelligent, and controls people through thought and words rather than through physicality and temper. Rowlands now mirrors that personality, revealing in the process how the Cassavetes performances were indeed “acting” and not some kind of ersatz documentary reality. To see “Another Woman” is to get an insight into how good an actress Rowlands has been all along.
She’s my favorite actress.