A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

A woman after my own heart.

The Film: Cassavetes’ examination of a suburban marriage under strain

The Potable: Three glasses of Knob Creek rye whiskey, on the rocks

I don’t know about you, but most of my movie nights are spent alone. A time of complete immersion in the craft of film and quiet reflection, due in part to the fact that my fiance often has little to no interest in my entertainment choices. Suggest watching the 10-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah one time and suddenly I “don’t like fun movies.” This week, I convinced – begged – her to watch a film of my choosing, and she reluctantly agreed. Within 20 minutes, she was asleep. We’re getting married; this will become a familiar scene in our lives.

Left awake with Lady Liquor, I began to wonder what makes a marriage successful. Thankfully, my selection that night, John Cassavetes’ 1974 A Woman Under the Influence, is a perfect how-to guide for wedded bliss!

The movie opens with Gena Rowlands – Cassavetes’ real-life wife – struggling to get their three kids off to grandma’s for the night. Her construction worker husband has been working too much and tonight, he promised, is their night.

The husband is played by TV’s Columbo, who, sigh, I’ve had run-ins with before.

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But tonight is also the night, wouldn’t you know it, that a sewage pipe bursts beneath the local Bass Pro Shop. Columbo’s gotta do what Columbo’s gotta do, so date night, much to Rowland’s disappointment, is put on hold. Left alone, the wife gets herself under the influence of some Jim Beam and heads out to a local bar. When she wakes in the morning, she finds she’s slept with a dorky creep who may or may not be related to Senator Jeff Sessions.

Already I am seeing great tips for both me and my future bride. For me: don’t promise the moon and delay delivery over waste management. For her: never trust a politician.

Columbo only makes things worse. After working through the night, he arrives home with 20 of his coworkers and asks his wife to cook an enormous pot of spaghetti. An amazingly natural dining scene follows. How does Cassavetes manage to capture these lifelike moments? I can only assume that he invited over some buddies, loaded his camera, and asked his wife to make some spaghetti. Caught between the expectations of husbands both fictional and legal, it’s no wonder Rowlands is stressed.

This psychological strain comes to a head when Rowlands single-handedly hosts their daughter’s birthday party and ultimately suffers a nervous breakdown. There’s only one other child in attendance, but kids are exhausting, and one sympathizes. Concerned by Rowlands’ erratic behavior, the father of that child refuses to leave and keeps making small talk about baseball. Again, one sympathizes. When Columbo gets home, he’s confronted with the unavoidable: his wife needs help and must be sent a psychiatric hospital.

Guilt-ridden weeks later, Columbo pulls the kids out of school for the day, takes them to the beach, and lets them drink beer on the way home. It was the ‘70s, a different time. In the 21st century, I would never waste good beer on a kid. To my future son, Remington Corvette: don’t even ask!

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A Woman Under the Influence legitimately features one of my favorite scenes in cinema. The day arrives that Rowlands is set to return from the institution, and Columbo, boyishly giddy, has arranged a surprise party. He rallies his coworkers and they rush home, the men changing into suits one article at a time as they stumble across the construction site. They arrive at the house where dozens more have already gathered. Everyone drinks, mingles, and tells Columbo how excited they are to see Gena again. The film spends a good ten minutes setting this scene, only to have Columbo realize at the last minute how wildly inappropriate the whole thing is. In a fit of panic, he tells the crowd he loves them but that they’ve got to get the hell out. It’s honest, bizarre, funny, and tender. Almost a Simpsons bit, except it’s not played as a joke, and is completely in keeping with his character’s habit of using external distractions to avoid reality.

Tensions ratchet up and down from here, the happy couple hitting some considerable lows during the film’s last 20 minutes. But I choose to focus on this earlier scene and what it illustrates about being a decent husband. About doing what’s best for someone you love, even if it’s difficult.  About making grand gestures, even if they end up awkward and disastrously imperfect. About making sacrifices and accepting when you’re wrong. Columbo has a lot of faults, God knows, but he loves his wife and they make an odd kind of sense.

I looked at my empty glass, at my fiance asleep on the couch. As long as I’ve got a tumbler full of malt liquor, I thought, she can pick the next movie.

But I won’t blog about it.

Verdict: on which anniversary should we watch Faces?

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