Mental illness as theater.
How this sits with you is a matter of personal taste, but there’s no denying that A Woman Under the Influence—John Cassavetes’ go-for-broke vehicle for his wife, Gena Rowlands—sees emotionally instability as a stage. Rowlands plays Mabel, a mentally unbalanced mother of three. Jittery and overly excited on an average day, Mabel also has outbursts of inappropriate affection or impatient anger. We meet her scattered and babbling on her front lawn, frenetically ushering her kids into their grandmother’s car, hopping on one foot when she loses a slipper. Something is clearly amiss. The movie doesn’t offer a specific diagnosis beyond that given by her husband, Nick (Peter Falk), who says she’s “unusual but not crazy.”
It’s possible that Nick—a well-meaning but abusive partner—may be struggling with psychological challenges as well, given his own erratic behavior (demanding to be left to sleep at one moment; gathering the entire family on the bed for whistling lessons the next). This is Rowlands’ film—note the title—but you could argue that Nick is offered more understanding. We see his anger and violence, but also moments in which he watches Mabel with genuine affection. And a heart-breaking sequence in which he drags the kids to the beach and tries to force a good time captures many things at once: his affectionate intentions, impulsivity, fatherly instinct, and terrible judgment.
In other words, Nick is given dignity. I’m not sure you can say the same of Mabel. She has more screen time, but the vast majority of it is devoted to displays of Mabel’s mania. In Cassavetes’ Faces, the camera had to work to find Jeannie, the introspective escort played by Rowlands. Here, everything Rowlands does is for the camera’s benefit, whether she’s unleashing a tirade front and center or off in the background, bugging her eyes, flapping her hands, and inhaling a cigarette as if it’s been rolled with ground-up chili peppers.
Rowlands’ commitment is impressive, especially given the long takes Cassavetes prefers. But these exhibitions aren’t balanced by other aspects of Mabel’s personhood. There’s only one scene that truly stands out in this regard, in which Mabel waits for her kids’ school bus to arrive on a busy street. Frantically asking passerby for the time, she’s clearly at a loss without them by her side. When the bus finally pulls up, Bo Harwood’s score drops a music cue of enormous relief, matching the elation on Mabel’s face. Here we see Mabel’s blinkered point of view, but also empathize with the motherly impulse at its core.
Nick is given dignity; I’m not sure you can say the same of Mabel.
A bit of that complexity resurfaces in the film’s final third, after Mabel returns home from a six-month stay at a psychiatric facility and has a tender initial reunion with the kids. But before long she’s making strange comments and singing and dancing on the couch, all of which leads to another familial explosion. Cassavetes stages this entire sequence as a suspense piece, first overpopulating the house with random guests (who are ultimately dismissed before Mabel arrives), then dropping little hints that the placid demeanor she’s wearing won’t last. Finally, we get the fireworks.
A Woman Under the Influence made me wonder: What’s the point of only showing a mentally challenged character’s distress? Is it fair to reduce Mabel to her rock-bottom experiences? There’s a scene in 1980’s Ordinary People in which Timothy Hutton’s depressed son is trying to connect with his repressed mother, played by Mary Tyler Moore. When she fails to respond, he resorts to yipping at her madly like a dog. There are plenty of other moments in the film where we see Hutton’s teen differently—flashbacks to healthier times, confessional sequences with a therapist, and other hints at the human being beyond the illness. No such consideration is afforded Mabel. A Woman Under the Influence mostly watches as she yips and yaps, lost and misunderstood.