In an industry where bad-mouthing and backstabbing are considered mere sports,
there is one person you will never hear anything negative about. "All
I want to do is just sit at her feet, look at her and burst into tears,"
says one of America's sharpest tongues. "The actress, you look up to;
the woman, you bow to," rhapsodizes another. The lady they both speak
of is Gena Rowlands. Though she's worked with Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch
and Paul Mazursky among others, she remains inescapably linked to the films
directed by her late husband, John Cassavetes, who died in 1989 at sixty.
Co-starring with Marisa Tomei and Gerard Depardieu (who also produced),
she is now headlining another Cassavetes movie -- her son Nick's. Already
a hit on the Festival circuit, "Unhook the Star" opens in New
York and other selected cities November 1.
"Gena has played ENORMOUS roles," says Depardieu in a lively approximation
of the English language. "She has portrayed mad women, drunkards, the
whole range of 'unlikeable' people and God knows American audiences are
particular about whom they like or don't like. Yet every time, they side
with her. They understand."
John Cassavetes' films give a specific image of her: she smokes like a fiend
(all of them), drinks like a fish ("Woman Under the Influence"),
dashes head-on into a both personal and professional turmoil, masking it
all behind huge sunglasses ("Opening Night"), drags a nine-year-old
Puerto-Rican smartass down a staircase, a "gangster gal" more
Stanwyck than Stanwyck in a swirling Ungaro dress ("Gloria").
Freeze frame: "John and I were just back from Italy," Rowlands
recalls with her deep, Midwest-inflected voice, "and we'd eaten every
single pasta in sight. I can't tell you what a genius Ungaro was the day
we tried that dress on."
Quite different is the Gena Rowlands dreamt by Jim Jarmusch, Terence Davies,
or Woody Allen. In "Night on Earth", the "Memphis Train"
director turns her into a Hollywood super-agent riding a cab driven by Winona
Ryder. In "Another Woman", the Woodman sees her as a self-assured
college professor gone on sabbatical to write a book, who subsequently dis-covers
that her life isn't what she thought it was.
"With everything in the movie taking place in her mind," says
Rowlands, "Marion is a mysterious character because she's mysterious
to herself, a total stranger to herself. She's one of those women who believe
that people can intellectually control and develop their emotional lives,
thereby freeing themselves from having to experience real feelings and responses.
She's far removed from any-thing I had ever played before." She pauses.
Doing a 180-degree turn, in last year's "The Neon Bible", Terence
Davis cast her as an immediate post-war chantoose come to seek refuge in
her sister's house, who strongly bonds with her sullen young nephew. "A
proud woman who will not abdicate, even if public opinion is against her,"
says Rowlands who was required to perform live, singing golden oldies from
the 1940s. "'Execute' is more like it. I can't sing. but then neither
can Aunt Mae. It was kind of fun doing it!" She has a good voice, though.
"It's... loud. I wouldn't go too much farther."
In a long interview granted to Playboy Magazine in 1983, John Cassavetes
states that "(Gena) has a terrific sense of humor. And she's beautiful,
a woman I'm always attracted to. I enjoy Gena because she enjoys some of
the same things I do, because she hates some of the things I like and because
I hate some of the things she likes. We keep learning how to play together,
so that I can step on her toes gently and she can step on mine gently and
we can make a lot of noise. I believe that any two people who disagree should
really go as far as they can, and I think we do; screaming, yelling, petty
acts of hostility and cruelty--but it's all meaningless. It's always meaningless
if that essential love is there. Like a rubber band that you stretch out,
no matter how far you pull it--and even if it stings snapping back--it returns,
the love reappears. Our kids understand it to the point where we've all
become some sort of team, a group of people who really enjoy each other."
You never see her come in, but the sudden electricity in the room makes
you aware of her presence. Simple, but regal. An aura, a demeanor, a port.
And a walk. "That's true, I know how to walk," she chuckles. "Unhook
the Stars" shows her in jeans and sneakers (a first), she's still regal.
That walk is like a mini-biography: the moment she steps into the frame,
it gives you the character's entire background. Only John Wayne and Robert
Mitchum ever achieved that.
"I appreciate the compliment, 'cause I love Mitchum," she comments.
"But I never think of the character's walk or appearance. It has to
follow the emotion, and what happens happens. It's only at the very end
of the shoot that I discovered what I looked like in 'Woman Under the Influence.'
The only time I really cared about the walk was for 'Gloria'. l wanted her
to walk like a man. A woman who was not afraid of New York's mean streets,
who sent out signals that you'd better not mess with her."
"Funny," she continues, "when I was a kid, I was clumsy and
shy. As soon as I became an actress, among other actors, there was no problem."
Gena Rowlands was born in Cambria, Wisconsin. She later moved to Virginia,
where she won a scholarship to the Jarvis Repertory Theatre in Washington,
D. C. While still in her teens, she enrolled in New York's American Academy
of Dramatic Arts. At the end of the year, she was appearing in a showcase
production of 'Dangerous Corner.' A graduate of AADA who had come back to
see this production, John Cassavetes came backstage after the performance
and introduced himself. They were married two months later.
Discovered by Joshua Logan while appearing in a Reginald Rose teleplay,
she was cast by the "Picnic" director as the female lead opposite
Edward G. Robinson in a Broadway production of Paddy Chayefsky's "The
Middle of the Night." After 18 months on Broadway, she was brought
to Hollywood and made her feature film debut opposite Jose Ferrer in "The
High Cost of Loving."
Soon followed such films as "Lonely Are the Brave" and "A
Child is Waiting" in which she was directed by her husband, the first
of seven such collaborations that include "Faces," "Minnie
and Moskowitz", "Opening Night" and "Love Streams",
and for which she got two Oscar nominations and innumerable international
A dirt road leads to the Cassavetes house in the Hollywood Hills. There's
no sign down the path, no name on the mailbox. Yet film students often show
up. Sometimes Rowlands invites them in, but then defuses the Pilgrimage-to-the-Shrine
aspect to the visit. "Anyone who walks into the house has a feeling
of deja-vu. No wonder: in practically all our films, there are scenes that
were shot here."
In the early 1990s, Gerard Depardieu, a Cassavetes fan, acquired the rights
to five of his films and turned into a distributor. "We were very moved,"
Rowlands says. "It was the gesture of a true lover." Though she
knew who he was - "of course!" - at the time, Rowlands had never
met the effusive French actor. They did at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival:
Depardieu was president of the jury and the Festival had decided to show
"Opening Night" as a tribute to Cassavetes. Gena Rowlands came
with her three children, Nick, Zoe and Zan; Depardieu was joined by daughter
Julie and actor-son Guillaume. "We immediately had the feeling we belonged
to the same family," says Depardieu who had been looking for years
for a film they could both star in. When he happened on Nick Cassavetes'
script of "Unhook The Stars", he decided to produce it, giving
himself the (relatively small) part of a Canadian truck driver.
"The world should not be divided vertically, but horizontally,"
Rowlands says, quoting Jean Renoir, whom she had met at his Los Angeles
house. "I am sure I'll feel more at ease with Chinese actors whose
language I don't speak than with, say, American scholars, scientists or
mathematicians. Common experience."
Funny how often Rowlands has appeared in dysfunctional family stories: she
was Bette Davis's child in "Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter"
("one of the greatest experiences in my life"), she was Michael
J. Fox's and Joan Jett's cancer-ridden mom in Paul Schrader's "Light
of Day"; in "An Early Frost", her "son", played
by Aidan Quinn, discovered he had AIDS; and in "A Woman Under the Influence",
she plays a middle-class housewife stifled by her Italian-born contractor-husband
(Peter Falk), her mother-in-law, and her three kids, whom she loves but
that will drive her to the insane asylum. A good chunk of the Cassavetes
(and Rowlands) families play small parts in the movie. Talk about blurring
the line between fiction and reality.
"Unhook the Stars" - the shooting - was also a family affair.
The son of John and Gena, Nick co-wrote the script and directed the film
in which younger sister Zoe plays a librarian. Actor David Thornton is married
to Cindy Lauper, who penned and sings a couple of songs on the soundtrack.
"Zan, my eldest, was touring the West Coast with her band. It hurt
to think she wouldn't be part of this but, hard as I tried, I couldn't think
of a way to work her into the movie." (They found a way. In a bar scene
where Rowlands, Marisa Tomei and Depardieu are shooting some pool, Zan's
band can be spotted on the television set.) Cinematographer Phedon Papamichail
is the son of production designer Phedon "Poppa" Papamichael (the
different spelling is intentional) -- who'd worked as such with John Cassavetes
on all his films since "Faces". Moreover, twenty years ago, Phedon
Jr. directed "Cold Chicken", a short he shot on video over a weekend
*chez* John *with* John, Gena and "Poppa". Gena and Poppa don't
remember, Junior does. It was a series of vignettes, each of the participants
was asked one question: "If you smoke, why do you? If you don't, why
Freeze frame: Gena Rowlands quit smoking about two years ago. "Don't
ask me why, or I'll go back." She still waxes nostalgic about that
prop which was almost like her signature. "It makes the gestures very
slow, very beautiful. And the smoke softens the contours of your face. It's
very seductive." Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich and Anna Magnani said
the same thing.
"Unhook the Stars" - the movie - is also a family story. Mildred
(Rowlands) is a widow. Her son Ethan is married, her daughter Ann Mary Margaret
still lives at home but their rapport is so tense the girl packs up and
leaves. Moving into the house across the street is Monica (Marisa Tomei),
a young woman who, following one spat too many with her husband, throws
him out and decides to raise her six-year old child J.J. (Jake Lloyd) alone.
One day, having to go to work and unable to find a baby sitter, she entrusts
J.J. with Mildred. The film soon focuses on the rapport, perhaps a tad obsessive,
between Mildred and J.J.
"Three or four years ago, I was going out on my morning jog - 'cause
I'm a health fanatic" says Nick Cassavetes, lighting up a cigarette
(go figure!), "I saw a car pulling up - it was very cold -, a kid ran
out of the car, threw a paper on some doorstep and ran back into the car.
As I jogged by, I saw the mother at the steering wheel. That image struck
me. I started thinking about my own mom, about my own childhood... That's
how the idea for the film came about. I think I was fortunate enough to
catch the last end of the old-school type of upbringing, where moms were
expected to be moms and not expected to be much else."
Which certainly was not the case for Rowlands.
"My mother is a brilliant actress," Nick continues, "but
still she had that dedication to that old-school way of raising children
which kind of fascinated me. I remember her reading me the Encyclopedia
cover to cover. I remember her, even though she had a career, spending so
much time with me, and really just giving above and beyond herself to me.
If there are any redeeming qualities to my personality, I owe them to her.
"As far as the actress is concerned, she is such a luxury to a writer.
She can really do anything, so you can write anything; you know you're working
with somebody who's going to cover your behind. She'll overcome the worst
difficulties if whatever she has to say or do makes emotional sense.
"And she worked beautifully with the boy. He's brilliant. Tougher than
any of the adult actors. I looked at Gena during the shoot; sometimes, she'd
throw her A+ material at him, he wouldn't flinch! Just looked at her. He
reminds me of River Phoenix when he was at that age."
Freeze frame: when he directs her, Nick Cassavetes calls his mother "Gena"
- not to set her apart, he says, from her fellow actors. Yet, at the end
of a take, he may very well say, "Well done, mom!"
"He hasn't called me mom for years!," says Rowlands chuckling.
"At the beginning, I was wondering what had got into him."
Made bold by the amount of alcohol she tanked in, Monica (Tomei) asks Mildred
(Rowlands) why her daughter hates her so much. Staring at her ball on the
pool table, Mildred says (we quote from memory): "I don't think she
hates me. She's at an age I can't stand. She hates to be told to do anything,"
she hits the ball, "and she does everything wrong." The ball hits
another one, which rolls toward the corner. "I don't blame her."
The ball falls in the pocket. "I always preferred my son, everybody
knows that." ." Tomei looks up: shouldn't you love all your children
equally? Bending over the pool table, Rowlands replies. "You should."
She hits the ball with her queue. "But you never do." And another
ball falls into the pocket.
Hold it: considering the personalities involved, doesn't this sound like
a personal squaring off?
"My sisters and I talk about it freely and we laugh about it,"
says Nick Cassavetes. "Different people have different favorites. My
dad's favorite was my sister Zan. And although, when I was growing up my
youngest sister Zoe wasn't around much (she was so much younger), it was
clear - to me at least - that Mom preferred me over my middle sister. And
later, when I left the house, Zoe became the surrogate Nick, and she and
Mom developed a relationship that maybe even supersedes the relationship
that she and I had. I know Mom will vehemently deny it, but..."
No, she won't.
"It's true, you always have a favorite," she says. "I preferred
Nick, John preferred Zan, then Zoe. In fact, they're all your favorite,
but at different times. Adolescence is total insanity, you just have to
sit it out. Then one morning, they just get over it, they become interesting
again. Actually, no; they always were, sometimes unbearably so."