Films

The Cassavetes' queen

A film artist’s widow and son carry his torch

Brian D. Johnson February 24 1997
Films

The Cassavetes' queen

A film artist’s widow and son carry his torch

Brian D. Johnson February 24 1997

The Cassavetes' queen

Films

A film artist’s widow and son carry his torch

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Only the naïve expect justice from awards. But with last week’s announcement of the Oscar nominations, there was a sad omission. No, not Madonna (who would need a special category for best lip-synch artist), or even Courtney Love (who did deserve recognition for The People vs. Larry Flynt). No, what seems most regrettable is that the Academy managed to overlook a stellar performance by Gena Rowlands, the most prodigiously talented American actress of her generation. Rowlands, 62, has been nominated twice— for A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Gloria (1980), both of which were directed by her late husband, John Cassavetes. But she has never won an Oscar. Her latest film, Unhook the Stars (which hit U.S. screens last year in time to be eligible), would have afforded a perfect opportunity. Directed by her 37-year-old son, Nick Cassavetes, she delivers one of the most personal, and touching, performances of her career. And Cassavetes, an actor taking his first turn behind the camera, shows flashes of his father’s brilliance.

Rowlands stars as Mildred, a suburban widow facing an empty nest. Her married son lives in another city, and her rebellious teenage daughter (Moira Kelly) has suddenly moved out. But before Mildred has time to adjust to her new solitude, a distraught neighbor named Monica (Marisa Tomei) comes knocking on her door seek-

ing instant child care. Monica’s husband has just deserted her, and she needs someone to look after her shy six-year-old son (Jake Lloyd) while she works a split shift at a factory. Mildred gets a second lease on motherhood. And, in an amusing subplot, she parries the advances of a French-Canadian truck driver played by Gérard Depardieu (with a French, not a Quebec accent).

A sensitive drama with comic twinges, Unhook the Stars throws a spotlight on the kind of character who has been shunted to society’s fringes, and is rarely represented among movie heroines—a woman who feels abandoned after outliving her usefulness as a mother. Without descending into pathos,

Rowlands invests the dilemma with inspiring fortitude. And Tomei, whose career nosedived after the Oscar coup of My Cousin Vinny (1992), redeems herself as Monica, a dirty-mouthed, proletarian spitfire.

Rowlands is an immensely vivacious presence both on-screen and off. She shows up for an interview elegantly attired in a black suit, flame-red scarf and matching fingernails, a crust of diamonds flashing from a large ring. And she levels the interviewer with a penetrating gaze that manages to be both warm and imperious. Her son, she

says, wrote Unhook the Stars specifically for her, and the role cuts close to home. “There are always parts of you in everything you play,” she allows. “But certainly this one is easily identifiable. I have [three] children who are grown, my husband’s dead, and I’ve reached that wall that people reach that you have to jump over or walk around.”

At one point during the shoot, she recalls, she questioned the director about the many scenes in which her character reads to the child from an encyclopedia. “I said, ‘Nick, this child is too young to be reading an encyclopedia.’ He said, “Mom, you read me an encyclopedia from the time I can remember. You’d tell me to go put my finger on something and you’d read it to me.’ ” Rowlands laughs. “I realized that it was part of that mother madness, that you want to teach your child every single thing in the world.” Nick Cassavetes grew up around movies, for his father often used the family home as his set. And some of the talent seems to have rubbed off. “Their way of handling actors is very similar,” says Rowlands. “Both John and Nick are crazy about actors. They’re very warm and expressive, very pleased when you do something they like. But Nick is much stricter about sticking to the script.” Tomei, meanwhile, recalls that the ghost of John Cassavetes seemed to hover over the filming of Unhook the Stars. “Nick and Gena would always be talking about him,” she told Maclean’s. “They’d say, ‘He’s watching us now,’ or ‘He’s laughing at us now’— you know, if something went wrong.” The style of Unhook the Stars is sweeter and lighter than the raw psychological drama patented by John Cassavetes. But Nick, shooting without sets on location in Salt Lake City, creates a domestic realism reminiscent of his father’s work. And his second film, She’s de Lovely, which he just finished shooting with Rowlands, is based on a script by his father, who died in 1989.

John Cassavetes pioneered independent American cinema. Working as an actor in such Hollywood movies as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), he used his fees to finance his own low-budget films, usually starring his wife. He shot in a documentary style, with actors who built their characters out of improvisation. Since the 1960s, American independent cinema has become as much a part of the mainstream culture as “alternative” rock. It is easy to pick out the milestones—Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989), Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). But it all began in the 1960s with Cassavetes—and an extraordinary actress who is still proudly carrying the family torch.