Truth Teller

GENA ROWLANDS DELIVERS a speech in John Cassavetes's Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) that perfectly captures her (and Cassavetes's) alternative approach to cinema. Her character, Minnie, has just seen Casablanca with a friend, and now she's deconstructing the Hollywood agenda over her umpteenth glass of red wine. "You know, I think that movies are a conspiracy," she says. "Because they set you up, from the time you're a little kid, to believe in everything. They set you up to believe in ideals and strength and good guys and romance--and, of course, love. So you get a job and you learn how to be feminine--quote, 'feminine'--and you learn how to cook. But there's no Charles Boyer in my life. I never even met a Charles Boyer. I never met Clark Gable, I never met Humphrey Bogart... They don't exist, that's the truth."

Rowlands's latest truth-telling movie is Unhook the Stars, a rather sweet summing-up project directed by her son, Nick Cassavetes. It played the festival circuit last year in connection with a string of awards for the actress, acknowledging an entire career of telling it not as we would hope or dream it to be, but like it is. The new film opens with a quintessential Rowlands scene, her character driving down a suburban street at dawn, stopping every two or three feet to get out and deliver newspapers for her adult daughter's delinquent route. Returning again and
again to the car, she mutters, "Kids don't know the value of a job." It's Rowlands's huffy, determined pride at such an undignified moment that makes the character more than just a lovable nut--mirroring how her "crazy" Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) personified the unusually sane, soul-baring art of her late husband.

That said, one shouldn't watch Unhook the Stars expecting the reincarnation of John Cassavetes. Still, his son has made a hugely enjoyable movie with trace elements of Woman's belief in emotional struggle as a way to live responsibly. Rowlands plays Mildred Hawks (!), a suburban homemaker who, now that her husband is dead and her kids are fully grown, finds herself between identities. The Rowlands trademark of yearning for self-improvement at first takes the form of Mildred's carefully contained desperation; she jumps at the chance to care for a six-year-old boy (Jake Lloyd) when his vulgar mom, Monica (Marisa Tomei), practically dumps him on the widow's doorstep. But as Mildred proceeds to teach the kid about literature, art, and history--in fact, about "everything that ever happened," as she says--the actress again reveals a character who can handle anything that comes her way, with poise, even.

Rowlands once said that working with the late Cassavetes was "to be loved by a director... who encourages you to push into areas you fear to risk with other directors." Particularly in his films, she dares to convey the imperfect process of thinking and feeling: a byproduct of the films' improvisatory designs, but also a brilliant strategy for portraying characters whose gift is for living in the moment. Thus, Rowlands has consistently humanized those character traits--devotion, vulnerability, love bordering on madness--that too often appear as stereotypes. In the 1978 TV-movie A Question of Love--a woman-friendly precursor to Kramer vs. Kramer, in which she plays a lesbian battling her ex-husband for custody of their son--she locates honesty even in the face of dialogue like "Why do they call it gay?" To her credit, Rowlands isn't one for either vanity or irony; never does she act above the film she's in.

Occasionally, this fearless emotional investment hasn't been repaid by the filmmaker. But there's a palpable dignity to all Rowlands's characters, and to her character in the singular. On screen, she appears smart but not pretentious, principled but not self-righteous, regal yet accessible, emotional but not cloyingly so, and beautiful precisely for the realism of her beauty. The other striking thing about the women she plays is how fiercely committed they are to being compassionate, no matter the cost. In this way, she's never broken faith with her audience; even her darkest roles avoid defeatism. Her characters strive toward security and happiness, being capable and worthy of it but not quite there yet.

Accordingly, Unhook the Stars gives Rowlands the chance to display tremendous emotional range--and vice versa. The film's complex dramatic arc takes Mildred from losing her defiant daughter (Moira Kelly) to gaining a surrogate grandson and his mom; then, she bravely resists offers of cohabitation from both her rich son (David Sherrill) and a sensitive French-Canadian trucker named Big Tommy (Gerard Depardieu) en route to a self-described "reincarnation." In effect, she unhooks herself from the burden of mothering at the risk of being alone, but with the renewed possibility of freedom.

It's tempting to locate a self-reflexive component in this story of a middle-aged woman leaving the home of her late husband to light out on her own. But in any case, Rowlands's agenda to inspire her audience is certainly as deliberate as any auteur's. "One of the big dangers," she told Interview in 1992, "is that we tend to make pictures that don't encourage feeling and compassion for one another--the technical things are so dazzling--but film is so well suited to letting you live the life of someone else for a couple of hours and to actually feel what they feel. And the next time you see a person like that person on the street or in a restaurant, you have a softer, better feeling toward them." CP

Unhook the Stars is playing at Lagoon Cinema, and will be released on videocassette Tuesday.

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