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Mrs. Cassavetes

The John Cassavetes–Gena Rowlands house, in a canyon off Mulholland, is as familiar to art-house moviegoers as Tara is to those who’ve never heard of these two film artists. The long, steep driveway, the yellow awning over the carport, the window behind the living-room sofa, the dark paneling, even the main-floor bathroom with its witty ladies-in-waiting mural (painted by Gena’s mother, Lady Rowlands), inspire a feeling of déjà vu. They should, for it was in these rooms that Cassavetes shot most of the nine films that made him the father of independent film — a term that hadn’t yet been coined when he first stretched lighting cable across the living-room floor.

Legend has it that this house was mortgaged over and over as Cassavetes and Rowlands scrimped and scrambled to complete the films that were their life. Sometimes it took two or three years to finish a film, with each going off, as necessary, to work in Hollywood or mainstream theater in order to raise the cash to keep their films, as well as their family of five, moving forward. In this marriage, this collaboration, there was no dividing line between work and life. From this unprecedented fusion came films such as Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977) and Love Streams (1984), titles that were never famous but are clutched dearly to the hearts of serious movie lovers.

If Cassavetes caught Rowlands off guard when he fell in love with filmmaking in the late 1950s (she preferred the stage), she was, before long, happily movie mad — because she loves to work and because she loves to be tested, and few actors have been tested as Rowlands was by the roles her husband wrote for her. After he died in 1989 at the age of 59, Rowlands threw herself into work, giving performances that would verify her genius, including Unhook the Stars (1996), a film directed by her and John’s son, Nick. She was also the first major actress of her time to recognize that the strongest roles for women are being written for television, as evidenced most recently in Wild Iris (2001), a Showtime movie directed by Daniel Petrie Sr., who gave John his first big break, in the 1950s. That connection to Petrie is typical of the life she and Cassavetes made, where collaborators such as Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel became lifelong family friends.

A few days after sitting across from her, this writer has to fight the temptation to describe Gena Rowlands’ face with ecstatic adjectives, praise she would deem irrelevant; it’s the work that’s important. So. Just this then: She is simply beautiful. Sitting in an elegant gold armchair, Rowlands takes a deep, bracing breath at the first question. The air around her quivers in that pause, as if a torrent of feeling is attempting to rise up in her, the very thing she does not want. Moved beyond measure, her visitor thinks: She’s still in love with him; the real story here is that this is still a love story. And he understands, suddenly, that in this house, love streams.

 

L.A. WEEKLY: As thrilling as it is that you’ve agreed to talk about John and the movies you made together, it feels funny, as if we’re pulling you back to a place you’ve moved on from.

GENA ROWLANDS: You’re right. I don’t do this very often, because it would be too hard emotionally. But I’m so delighted these pictures are going to come out and that people will see them, especially kids who haven’t seen any of John’s work. I know that a lot of people have seen them on television, but for them to see it on the screen that it was made for and actually sit with other people in a dark room and watch it, I’m delighted.

 

All these movie posters [of Cassavetes’ films] are great, a collector’s dream.

They were all on John’s office walls and I was about to bubble-wrap them and store them and I thought, “No, it’s our whole life. I’m going to put them all over and just look at them.” Every one of them is a very happy memory.

 

One gets the sense, from the early days, of this friendship network that was available to you at all times, that everybody eventually passed through this living room for dinner.

It was so like John to bring home an infinite amount of people to feed, and it was like them to all join in. This house seems so strange to me now, to have it quiet, because it always was packed to the rafters, people cooking in the kitchen, people eating in the dining room. We’d always have at least four or five people who were staying with us, and the whole house had lights set up with cameras you’d fall over. The children just took it as a normal kind of thing. It was a feast. The spaghetti pot was always boiling.

 

 

The movies are tough for a lot of audiences because the characters are so raw. But your lives weren’t emotionally difficult like that, were they?

It was hard . . . financially. That’s always hard, making independent pictures, but the camaraderie of our whole group — Peter and Ben and Seymour, Lynn Carlin, Val Avery — that carried us through. All the people we worked with again and again, we all became such good friends . . . well, I still am friends with them. John’s been dead since 1989, yet I still hear from them every week, they all call and we talk or visit. It’s kind of a lifetime wonderment of friendship.

Did you want to do dangerous work even in the beginning?

I don’t think I thought of it that way. I wanted to be a stage actress, I never thought of being a movie actress. If I had projected what I would want to have been, it would have been for John and me to be a stage couple like Lunt and Fontanne. But in the meantime we were working. While I was in the show with Eddie [in the play Middle of the Night, co-starring Edward G. Robinson], John was doing some improvisation with friends. [Bob] Fosse had given him his studio, and they’d go in and improvise, and they got this story going that they all kind of liked. Then he started shooting Shadows [1959], and I didn’t know what he was doing. I just thought it was something he was doing that held his interest and he was having fun, then he just fell in love with the whole thing. He was in love with film. His way. And, really, he kind of dragged the rest of us in. His own vision was so strong that soon we all became one with his obsession.

 

There’s a documentary by the writer Michael Ventura about the making of John’s last film, Love Streams, called I’m Almost Not Crazy, in which you’re trying to make your husband and daughter laugh. You can see John coming over and sort of whispering in your ear.

All John had written was that she calls the husband and tries to make him and the daughter laugh. And I said, “John, how am I supposed to make them laugh?” And he said, “I don’t want to tell you. Don’t even think about it.” So the day came and we’re there and I said, “John, if you don’t tell me what we’re going to do, I’m going to kill you.” And he said, “Just come on.” So he led me down to this big picnic table filled with all of those things that you find in joke shops, like teeth that clatter and eyes coming out of the glasses and stuff. He said, “All right. Use these to make them laugh.” I said, “Wait, wait, wait! How many shall I use?” He said, “All of them. Okay? All right? Roll ’em.” So I just went like an insane person around that table trying to make them laugh and doing everything I could and, of course, he had told them not to laugh, which was the whole point to the scene. I’ve never been so terrified in my life. But it was fun.

 

Did John believe in happiness as a goal?

I don’t think he ever thought about it. He just loved the work. He had a great joy of life. He had no interest in doing anything except working, watching sports on the weekend and being with his grandson. It was a very closed kind of thing. And work was happiness to him and to all of us. He was a person with a lot of joy, a lot of anger. He was a high-tempered person. Never depressed. Often angry. Often delighted.

 

Some think the Love Streams character is closest to who John was.

I don’t know. It’s so emotional for me, since it’s the last movie. I’ve heard people say that, and yet he didn’t plan to play it at all. No, that’s not the John that I knew, a burned-out kind of guy, not in touch with anything important. But that shot where John waves goodbye out the window with that strange hat on, that’s a killer. Michael [Ventura] was the first one who pointed it out, because I couldn’t even look at it again, and he said, “You know, Gena, when John waves out the window?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I think he was saying goodbye to us.” And I said, “Oh, shit.”

 

 

“Gena and John: A Cassavetes Retrospective” runs at Laemmle theaters from September 1 through November 11. See Film Calendar for further details.

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