Tell me what you want me to be; I can be anything: Female Subjectivity & the Limitations of Liberation in A Woman Under the Influence
I steal a few breaths from the world for a minute
And then I’ll be nothing forever, and all of my memories
And all of the things I have seen will be gone
With my eyes, with my body, with me
But me and my husband, we are doing better
It’s always been just him and me together
So I bet all I have on that furrowed brow
and at least in this lifetime, we’re sticking together…
And I am the idiot with the painted face
In the corner, taking up space
But when he walks in, I am loved, I am loved…
ㄧMitski, “Me and My Husband”
The 1960s and 70s are widely known as an era of rapidly shifting political and social attitudes, when women’s societal roles were constantly being interrogated, destabilized, and redefined. The women’s liberation movement — punctuated by the introduction of the Pill in 1961, the sexual revolution of the sixties, and Roe v. Wade in 1973 — called into question the most fundamental beliefs women had held about sex and about themselves. Radical new ideas about women and their possibilities entered the national consciousness through the writings of Gloria Steinem and NOW Betty Friedan, whose landmark 1963 book The Feminine Mystique gave voice to “the problem that has no name” of widespread unhappiness and dissatisfaction among married women. The influence of feminism began worming its way into the film culture, sparking more stories with nuanced female experiences at their centers, from Klute to Carrie to Norma Rae.
Women were working, marching, and having more orgasms than ever — at least, so it seemed.
Despite the revolutionary flavor of the time, the buzzing activity of the feminist movement was largely centered on elite university campuses, limited to the realm of the young and highly educated. But what of older women, or working-class women? What of their bodies, and what of their Selves?
In this analysis of John Cassavetes’ 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence, I will assess the ways in which Mabel has not been served by the contemporaneous movement for women’s liberation, and how aspirational feminist ideals of the sixties and seventies often failed to filter down to the lived realities of working-class wives and mothers. I also discuss the film’s unconventional trajectory in conversation with other female-centric films of the mid-70s (using three Faye Dunaway movies from the period as examples), situating Cassavetes’ masterpiece as part and parcel of a revolution in female cinematic representation.
A Woman Under the Influence is a film of many contradictions. The story it spins is at once a radical depiction of female subjectivity and frailty, and a testament to the failure of women’s liberation to penetrate beyond the scope of the young, wealthy, and educated.
At the same time, the mere existence of this film is representative of wider changes in representations of women on the silver screen, and a bold defiance of the conventional film world.
Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands), the frenetic, tender nucleus of this tale, is a Los Angeles housewife to Nick (Peter Falk), a construction worker, and the mother of three young children. The fifteen-minute sequence that begins our journey with her aptly illustrates her fundamental struggles.
We are introduced to Mabel as she frantically herds the kids into her mother’s car. After they drive away, she walks back inside, mumbling to herself: “I shouldn’t have let them go.” She is so very alone: she paces, stares out the window, lights a cigarette. Intercut is a conversation between Nick and a co-worker, who suggests that Mabel is unwell. “The woman cooks, sews, makes the bed, washes the bathroom,” Nick replies. “What the hell is crazy about that?”
Later, left to her own devices, Mabel sets off onto the streets of L.A., humming and barefoot, in search of some other source of warmth. She wanders into a bar, pours whiskey down her gullet, and cozies up to a kind-eyed man who drags her soft, drunken body home and sexually assaults her. When Mabel loses her children and husband for just a day, it feels like they are gone forever. In that catastrophic loss, she loses herself.
This sequence, in all its brutality, illustrates both the depth of Mabel’s loneliness, and the extent of Nick’s misunderstanding. Further, the emotional turmoil that consumes her once her children and husband aren’t around demonstrates the fundamental crack in her psyche.
Mabel is an example of Woman at her most utilitarian: a machine for the care of children and the pleasure of men. When these roles are stripped away, she has no sense of self, and her entire psychological universe begins to crumble. To cope with this, Mabel zeroes in on another role she can play, using the little power she’s got left: her femininity. The attack that ensues is difficult to watch, but it is not surprising. After all, to this hungry man, she’s just a body.
As an aging wife and mother, Mabel exists in a world far removed from that of revolution. Regardless of the contemporaneous women’s liberation movement, she is trapped by the rigid roles that have long governed the scope of women’s lives and choices, her autonomy and personhood limited to the archetypes of wife and mother — but it is also those roles that sustain her, and infuse her life with meaning.
Also, as a woman bordering on middle age, she is a ticking time bomb. Once her reproductive gears have been exhausted, the babies have weaned, grown, and left, and her beauty has faded, what is the purpose of her existence? If she can no longer be of service to children or of use to men, she loses her claim to life. If women’s lives are governed by such a system of utility and exhaustion, the worst possible thing, especially for a woman with such a volatile inner world as Mabel’s, is to be left alone. After all, if forced to stay inside while everyone else is out living their lives, wouldn’t anyone go insane?
Though Mabel clearly exhibits symptoms of mental illness, through fits of mania and volatile behavior, her struggle is not merely about mental illness — and to dismiss it as such would be overly simplistic. What the film truly zeroes in on is not so much her “insanity” as the insanity of the world around her. Only she, however, is pathologized, her emotions and difficulties interpreted as delusions.
Her husband, Nick, has anger issues, is abusive, and is clearly ill-equipped to be a parent. After hitting Mabel, he shouts “See what you made me do?”, as though his fury and abuse were her own fault. After Mabel is involuntarily committed, Nick takes the kids out of school to drag them on a beach trip, out of some compulsive need to create a fun memory. This strange, melancholic sequence ends with him giving the kids beer on the car ride home until they get drunk and pass out.
The people around Mabel often misinterpret her intentions, or treat her as though she were far more irrational than she actually is. Nick’s cruel mother, Margaret, bulldozes a moment of intimacy between Nick and Mabel to start shrieking at the top of her lungs — making one wonder if Margaret might need sedation herself. The question arises again and again: Whoever is the real crazy one here?
It is Mabel, nevertheless, who is seen as the eternal Problem. Her idiosyncrasies and erratic behavior frighten others, isolating her. Her failure to conceal the turbulence of her inner world — often revealed through tense moments transpiring around the dinner table, the nucleus of American family life — violates every conventional ideal of what a woman/wife/mother is supposed to be. These are, of course, the same conservative values that were starting to lock horns with the moral disruption the sixties and seventies have come to represent — socially, politically, culturally, sexually.
She is a good-hearted person and a dedicated mother, but the consequences of straying from social convention are grave. When a group of Nick’s coworkers comes over for dinner, Mabel leans a bit too close to one of their faces. This small social error causes Nick to yell at her, rendering a pleasant meal uneasy and hostile. Later, we see Mabel asking several women on the street for the time, but they all walk right past — probably assuming from her frenzied movements and disheveled appearance that she is crazy, or homeless, or both. Mabel is made to pay for her compelling, endearing, frightening, glaring offness whenever she interacts with others in her social world, a world which is not very permissive of such difference. Every atom of her being, every tic and mutter, every extreme emotion is a violation of her role — and thus she is deemed unworthy of respectability, seen as more of a monster or a child than a woman.
There is a decidedly juvenile quality to Mabel, as though her sense of childlike wonder never really died. She waits impatiently for her children to get off the bus, jumping and dancing with uncontained glee. She retreats into fantasy worlds while dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake — demonstrating a naïve, benevolent innocence, and a desire to evade her unkind reality through imagination and escapism. This childlike energy and tenderness towards her children are attributes that, arguably, make Mabel a better mother, as she is able to relate and connect more to them. Largely thanks to Gena Rowlands’ raw, immaculately real performance, we are transported into Mabel’s mindset — one which, though out of sync with the consensus reality on which most of us have settled, seems perfectly sensible from the inside. The film’s treatment of Mabel is one of great sensitivity and humanism — calling into question the true sickness of the world Mabel lives in, and the insanity of the expectations and limits thrust on modern women.
A Woman Under the Influence is a film that was never supposed to exist. When John Cassavetes presented the concept to Hollywood money men, eager to explore fertile psychological terrain long neglected by the film world, he was told that “no one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame.” It was only through an early iteration of what we now call “crowdfunding” that Cassavetes could scrape together the necessary budget: borrowing money from friends (including $500,000 from star Peter Falk), hiring a student crew, and compiling a cast of family members and friends.
A Woman Under the Influence also faced significant obstacles in its distribution, prompting Cassavetes to personally call theater owners and host screenings on college campuses. Jeff Lipsky, a then-college student tasked with distributing the film, emphasized just how much of a departure this was from conventional film distribution: “It was the first time in the history of motion pictures that an independent film was distributed without the use of a nationwide system of sub-distributors” (LoBianco).
The film industry faced massive economic failure in the late sixties, leading to legislative changes (federal tax breaks, largely) that would fundamentally alter the way studios functioned. In another radical alteration of the studio system, nearly all of the major studios were gobbled up by huge international corporations — Universal to MCA in ’62, Paramount to Gulf and Western Industries in ’66, United Artists to Transamerica Corporation in ’67, and so on. Under massive conglomerates to whom profit was most important, and artistic creation a mere means to that end, big studios grew increasingly formulaic, spitting out vertically integrated marketing schemes for maximum profit. However, in “American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations,” Lester Friedman makes an important distinction between the genre-dominated, blockbuster-centered studio system that prevailed in the latter half of the decade, which he refers to as the “post-Jaws American cinema” (21), and the experimental, director-powered American cinema that came to the fore in the first half of the 70s.
A new breed of American film was born during this time: “New Hollywood,” or the American New Wave Cinema. Three elements collided in a perfect, singular synergy: the loosening of production codes and rating systems; the advent of a new paradigm which prioritized directors’ artistic visions over the financial interests of studios or conglomerates; and the festering of American skepticism, turbulence, and disillusionment.
This combination of renewed respect for the director’s vision, acute awareness of the moral/political disarray in America, and the loosening of restrictions determining what was possible to say or show on film, yielded movies that were unprecedentedly explicit, violent, diverse, political, critical, experimental, and psychologically incisive. From this renaissance of sorts emerged an explosion of female-driven films: portraits of women that weren’t “empowering” per se, but which depicted female characters with more complexity and subjectivity than ever before.
To further analyze this expansion of female characters, as well as its limitations, let’s examine three examples from Faye Dunaway’s filmography: Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown (1974), and Diana Christensen in Network (1976).
Bonnie Parker, Evelyn Mulwray, and Diana Christensen, though widely different in their specificities, are all manifestations of the expanding representation of female subjectivity on screen. They are not exactly “empowering” female characters, and they are not supposed to be. The key to these womens’ stories, rather, is authenticity.
Bonnie Parker, for example, manages to make money, gain notoriety, and find a sick sort of empowerment through a life of crime and murder. The film observes Bonnie’s dissatisfaction, her emotions, her failure to sexually satisfy Clyde, her hunger for something more — but, oddly, never seems to make a moral judgment. Even the bloody ending is its own twisted sort of liberation, as she has achieved the ultimate American Dream: transforming from a nobody into Somebody.
The story of Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown, on the other hand, is a subversion of the femme fatale trope, a tale of patriarchal injustice and powerlessness. In her first meeting with Gittes, Mrs. Mulwray presents herself as a powerful, self-possessed woman. However, her porcelain façade slowly cracks, revealing layers of emotional turmoil. In one iconic moment, while she’s being interrogated about her father’s relationship with a younger woman, Evelyn lights a second cigarette, forgetting in her daze that she’s got another one burning already.
We ultimately learn that Evelyn is trapped: haunted by an evil extending across generations, and rising to the pinnacle of political/economic influence. Not only is she the victim of childhood sexual abuse/incest, but she loses her own (sister-)daughter to the same cycle of trauma and powerlessness. Even the slightest possibility of justice is pulverized by the corruption of 1930s L.A. — after all, “he owns the police!” Evelyn Mulwray is just about as disempowered as a human being can be. In Chinatown, however, her trauma and powerlessness are treated with complexity and dignity. What happened to her is not negligible; and her story exemplifies the injustice and devastation of a world in which patriarchy is so deeply ingrained.
Unlike the first two Depression-era characters, Diana Christensen in Network is the ultimate modern woman. A programming executive at UBS Evening News, she cynically introduces herself as “a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.” Chipping away at the glass ceiling in a male-dominated field and pursuing success with the tunnel-vision zeal of Tracy Flick, Diana exemplifies the nascent American working woman. However, this aspirational image is warped by her willingness to do practically anything for ratings, regardless of the moral/political stakes. This work has rendered her, to quote her co-worker/lover Max Schumacher, “indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy.”
She does, however, grow giddy at terrorist footage, dreaming of boosts in viewership. She can’t stop talking about television — even during sex. “We’ll be on the front page for months!” she screams, mid-orgasm. “We’ll have more press than Watergate!” Even though this ambitious career woman gone horribly wrong may not seem feminist, she is merely as sick as her industry. In her selfishness, hypocrisy and immorality, Diana is a complex, fascinating, and thoroughly human character.
In the honest and raw portraits of women’s inner lives that we have examined, female characters take on an essential new dimension: subjectivity. These women, rather than mere appendages of male protagonists, are radically human, with all of the disempowerment and complexity that comes with it.
Despite the barriers Cassavetes faced in both production and distribution, the creation of A Woman Under the Influence coincided with a time of incremental but notable progress, during which stories of women’s inner lives were being increasingly integrated into American film, with more nuance and authenticity than ever.
A Woman Under the Influence is at once demonstrative of trends in 1970s American independent film, and a bold departure from convention. It is a undoubledly feminist film, nuanced and brutally true in its representation of female subjectivity. At the same time, Mabel’s story of abuse, mistreatment, and loss of identity lays bare the profound disconnect between the ideals of the women’s liberation movement and the lived experiences of working class women.
A Woman Under the Influence. Dir. John Cassavetes. Perf. Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk. Faces International Films, 1974. Film.
Bonnie and Clyde. Dir. Arthur Penn. Perf. Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty. Warner Bros, 1967. Film.
Chinatown. Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston. Paramount Pictures, 1974. Film.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963.
Friedman, Lester. American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations. Rutgers University Press, 2007. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/602
LoBianco, Lorraine. “A Woman Under the Influence.” Turner Classic Movies. http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/138056%7C0/A-Woman-Under-the-Influence.html
Moen, Phyllis. “Transitions in Mid-Life: Women’s Work and Family Roles in the 1970s.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 53, no. 1, 1991, pp. 135–150., www.jstor.org/stable/353139 .
Network. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, William Holden, Robert Duvall. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1976. Film.