Gena Rowlands, Staring You Down.

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.



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15 Responses to Gena Rowlands, Staring You Down.

  1. Bernard says:

    …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…

    I like your use of the word retreat in this context. Not knowing that much about her, I hesitate to offer an observation other than the general one that having a ‘real’ life was likely instrumental to her make-believe one. It could also be that the world of movie-making allowed a retreat from the hidden pressures or tedium of suburbia. But I readily admit I don’t know.

    I think we trust actors more who seem to be so grounded. Or maybe such examples allow us to harbor the belief that, given the chance, we could act too.

  2. red says:

    I edited my comment (decided to stay focused – my apologies):

    Bernard: Your comment leads to an interesting thing about Cassavetes’ work – a lot of people assume it was totally improvised because it feels like a documentary sometimes. No. There were scripts. They followed the scripts. It’s just that they were all kick-ass artists and imaginers. They were highly skilled. They knew what the hell they were doing.

    I, too, love the image of someone (especially someone like her – who is so NUTS in most of her parts) being able to have a normal life, with a loving passionate husband (who, nevertheless, drank himself to death as quickly as he possibly could) and two kids … and be a normal member of society.

    I think it’s true that Gena’s periodic retreats into obscurity were necessary for her – she always liked to do that … because she holds nothing back in her roles, and to excavate your own craziness like that must be exhausting, unsettling, and draining.

    Rowlands had a lot of insanity in her relationship with Cassavetes – they were a notoriously volatile couple – fighting/fucking/making up/creating films/long scotch-drenched weekends – he was a wild man. She made huge sacrifices in her life to stay loyal to him – she turned down massive roles and, you know, a true career in order to make HIS movies, and support HIM. They were true collaborators, and some of her best work was in his films – but there were definitely some pretty huge sacrifices on her part. She was free to make them, and that was the kind of person she was … but I am really happy to see her continue to work and flourish and BLOSSOM outside of his influence. And I loved to hear Ebert praise her like that – because I think people do sometimes look at Rowland’s work, and how real it seems – how unbearably real – and think that this must be EXACTLY how she is … it’s not acting, that can’t be acting!!

    It’s nice to see her get the props that yes. That WAS acting – it ALL is – and it takes someone with a huge amount of skill and balls to pull it off.

  3. brendan says:

    love gena rowlands…

    have you ever seen ‘paulie’? the movie she does where she befriends a parrot voiced by jay mohr?

    it’s BRILLIANT.

  4. red says:

    Bren – No! I missed that one! Netflixing it now.

  5. ted says:

    She is a goddess! You know how I love “Another Woman,” one of my very favorite films. Amazing how much expression she gave to one of the most repressed characters ever, the flip-side of some of her more expressive mad women. I like what you say about the dichotomy – I always imagine she accepted that dichotomy completely and that’s why her performances told no lies, why she had so much to draw on. She didn’t put boozy wench and sane mommy each in their own boxes on different shelves. It was ALL her, none of it was beneath her or above her. Creating a performance was about getting at her self and making choices. But she didn’t relieve herself all over you, she couldn’t get relief from herself. She could express what was there always.

  6. Bud says:

    Another great Gena performance is in “Hysterical Blindness,” a film that somewhat slipped under the radar because it’s an HBO production. (It did, however, garner Uma Thurman a much deserved Golden Globe. Excellent performance as well by Juliette Lewis.) What makes Gena’s performance particularly touching is her relationship with Ben Gazara, who, as you well know, was part of Gena and Cassavetes’ close circle of friends. Their scenes together in “Blindness” just ooze with genuine love, affection, respect, and history.

  7. red says:

    Yes Bud – that was a particularly spectacular bit
    Of television. I thought Thurman ws fantastic and youre right: it was so so poignant to see gazzara and rowlands act together again. The history!! A really good friend of mine had a small part in Hysterical Blindness so I got some good backstage stories.

    But i’m with you: wonderful work, HBO!!!

  8. Ken says:

    Gena Rowlands was great in Gloria. That’s the one that stands out most to me. When we first got cable back in the early ’80s, we had the Movie Channel (known as Star Channel back then) and I got to see a lot of movies I wouldn’t have otherwise.

    You know, classics like Van Nuys Boulevard, stuff like that.

  9. Junebug says:

    I just found your website recently. I would like to say that I love, love, love Dean Martin. And I stayed in the same hotel that John Cassavettes and Peter Falk were staying in Philadelphia in 1973. I was only sixteen but I was so excited to see them. I got Peter Falk’s autograph. My dad was a big Dean Martin fan and so I grew up loving him too. I have a few posts about him my own self! Hee hee. I am coming back to read some more of your posts. I find them very interesting. I love old movies the best.

  10. red says:

    Ken – I love Gloria! She is a classic gun moll. I love the scene where she goes into a bar to escape from the kid, she sits and has a drink and then says to the bartender, quietly, “Listen. There are reasons I can’t look, but can you tell me if there’s a little kid out there?”

  11. Ken says:

    I remember her taunting the guys chasing her when she got herself and the kid on the train: “You little tiny nothings,” practically spitting the line.

  12. red says:

    Ha!! Love it! She’s such a DAME.

    And what about Buck Henry – in what is perhaps the most bizarre bit of casting I have ever seen in my life!!

  13. red says:

    Junebug – thanks for the comment! I love Dino!! And I’m with you – I love old movies the best.

  14. Mary Eman says:

    Gena Rolands is someone who I think gets better with age, I liked her early stuff, but her later work I really love. She was terrific in Paulie and Gloria and I really enjoyed her in Once Around. She also did a movie on Lifetime, the title of which escapes me right now. She played a widow in the south who ends up with the care and custody of her grandchild. It was a good movie.

  15. Alex says:

    One of the greatest American actresses ever.


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