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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Guldner

The Queen of Independent Cinema: Gena Rowlands

Updated: Nov 19, 2018

"When I am the director and Gena is acting, disagreement is not a bad thing. It’s really interesting. You don’t want an actor who is always polite and serious. You need someone who gets angry. They call me at five in the morning to insult me and that’s normal… That’s what life is about – for living through problems and for sharing them, isn’t it? "- John Cassavetes

Gena Rowlands: The Queen of Indies

Rarely do we see a middle age woman cracking under the seams with such raw and human anguish as we see Myrtle Gordon played to perfection by Gena Rowlands in Opening Night (1977). This is a woman who is heavily disillusioned as her alcoholism has taken a toll on her health and well being. Her character drinks to cope with ageism and how it affects the only thing she has to give the world- her craft of acting. By accepting the play she is being offered about an aging woman Myrtle feels she will be seen differently by her fans and it will limit her chances of getting other roles. As an independent woman with no family or husband acting is her life. Her alcoholism sets deeper into her soul and she unravels into a dark bottom through the nightmares and thoughts she cannot control after witnessing a young fan fatally hit by a car.

Gena Rowlands has acted out characters whose lives are coming apart at the seams. Rowlands is able to give raw and honest reflections into the lives of women such as her performance as Mabel Longhettiin in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) Mabel may be Gena Rowlands most heartbreaking performance as a woman who has just gone through a nervous breakdown and has returned home from being institutionalized. Rowlands is able to capture the delicate and painful transition home and her inability to cope as a wife and mother.  Rowlands is able to convey such raw and unhinged performances because of her fiercely independent and strong work ethic.

As life inmates art director John Cassavette's wife Gena Rowlands was his muse and his leading lady. Opening Night has three different realities swirling around in its storyline. You have a play and the audience reacting to the performance within the film, the audience watching a film about an actress in a play, and the actress who is outside of herself lost in delusion and grandeur when Myrtle's world is haunted by the death of a fan before she has to perform in the play.

Gena Rowlands gave performances that showed aspects of our humanity with honesty. As hard as it is to see the painful demise of an alcoholic woman we feel for Myrtle. She is a product of a society that has told her she is no longer relevant as a middle-aged woman. The dense layers of Gena Rowlands performance as a woman who has unraveled in a hole of self-destruction may have been too hard for audiences to come to terms with at the time of the film's release in 1974, but in time John and Gena's work has become a huge influence on independent filmmakers.

Instead of relying on heavy scripted stock movie lines in his films Cassavetes wrote parts for his actors with the notion that real life itself was a performance. Opening Night was not improvised as many people may have thought of Gena Rowland's performances instead Cassavetes and Rowlands had a partnership where she was able to give an honest and deep performance because they were working independently away from the pressures of Hollywood yet had their own pressures of having to come up with funding for their films. Yet they stayed together until John's death in 1989. Gena Rowlands has been acting for over six decades and is still going strong at 87 years old.

John telling Gena, "We have to mortgage the house again to make our films"

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