Gena Rowlands

By: Jen Collins
June 19, 2010

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1999, I fantasized about spotting GENA ROWLANDS (born 1930). I had recently seen a handful of films by John Cassavetes, and Rowlands’ performance in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) had left me hopeless and sad. I wanted to see Mabel Longhetti safe and healthy, socially competent, wearing appropriate clothing in public. Long before I became a clinical social worker, Rowlands’ portrayal of Longhetti told me two things a therapist should know: Being mentally ill doesn’t preclude a person from being a loving parent, and every problem is a family problem. I think Rowlands knew too. She was vulnerable and creative enough to play Mabel without “acting like a crazy person.” People talk about how the films Cassavetes made with his family and friends blur the lines between fiction and reality. “I see Gena around the house and with the kids and I tape record what I see.” I doubt he saw psychosis (Schizophrenia, possibly, or severe bipolar illness, if I’m ruling out medical conditions or substance abuse), but he did see an actress who could unravel herself in a way that embodies the awkwardness and exhaustion of it. “I remember her, even though she had a career, spending so much time with me, and really just giving above and beyond herself to me.” Substitute “was mentally ill” for “had a career” and that’s Mabel’s kid talking instead of Nick Cassavetes. We shouldn’t call Rowlands a heroine for presenting some dignified and poignant depiction of a mom and a wife who happened to be a nutter. We should be grateful that she didn’t try to.

ALSO BORN THIS DATE: Shirley Muldowney.


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