A Woman Under the Influence

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A Woman Under the Influence
A Woman Under the Influence (1974 poster - retouched).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Cassavetes
Produced bySam Shaw
Written byJohn Cassavetes
StarringGena Rowlands
Peter Falk
Music byBo Harwood
CinematographyMitch Breit
Al Ruban
Edited byDavid Armstrong
Sheila Viseltear
Beth Bergeron
Faces International Films
Distributed byCine-Source
Release date
‹See TfM›
  • November 18, 1974 (1974-11-18)
Running time
155 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$6,117,812 (N. American rentals)[1]

A Woman Under the Influence is a 1974 American drama film written and directed by John Cassavetes. The story follows a woman (Gena Rowlands) whose unusual behavior leads to conflict with her blue-collar husband (Peter Falk) and family.[2] It received two Academy Award nominations for Best Actress[3] and Best Director.[4]

In 1990, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", one of the first fifty films to be so honored.[5][6]


Los Angeles housewife and mother Mabel loves her construction-worker husband Nick and desperately wants to please him, but the strange mannerisms and increasingly odd behavior she displays have him concerned. Convinced she has become a threat to herself and others, he reluctantly commits her to an institution, where she undergoes treatment for six months. Left alone with his three children, Nick proves to be neither wiser nor better than his wife in the way he relates to and interacts with them, or in the role society expects him to play.

After six months Mabel returns home but she is not prepared to do so emotionally or mentally, and neither is her husband prepared for her return. At first Nick invites a large group of people to the house for a party to celebrate his wife's return, but realizing at the last minute that this is foolish, he sends most of them home. Mabel then returns with mostly only close family, including her parents, Nick's parents, and their three children to greet her, but even this is overwhelming and the evening disintegrates into yet another emotionally and psychologically devastating event.

Nick kicks the family out of the house, leaving husband and wife alone. After yet another psychotic episode where Mabel cuts herself, Nick decides to put the children to bed. The youngsters profess their love for their mother as she tucks them in. Nick and Mabel themselves ready their bed for the night as the film ends.



John Cassavetes was inspired to write A Woman Under the Influence when his wife Gena Rowlands expressed a desire to appear in a play about the difficulties faced by contemporary women. His completed script was so intense and emotional she knew she would be unable to perform it eight times a week, so he decided to adapt it for the screen. When he tried to raise funding for the project, he was told, "No one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame."[7]

Lacking studio financing, Cassavetes mortgaged his house and borrowed from family and friends, one of whom was Peter Falk, who liked the screenplay so much he invested $500,000 in the project.[7] The crew consisted of professionals and students from the American Film Institute, where Cassavetes was serving as the first "filmmaker in residence" at their Center for Advanced Film Studies. Working with a limited budget forced him to shoot scenes in a real house near Hollywood Boulevard, and Rowlands was responsible for her own hairstyling and makeup.[7]

Upon completion of the film, Cassavetes was unable to find a distributor, so he personally called theater owners and asked them to run the film. According to college student Jeff Lipsky, who was hired to help distribute the film, "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." It was booked into art houses and shown on college campuses, where Cassavetes and Falk discussed it with the audience.[7] It was shown at the San Sebastián Film Festival, where Rowlands was named Best Actress and Cassavetes won the Silver Shell Award for Best Director, and the New York Film Festival, where it captured the attention of film critics like Rex Reed. When Richard Dreyfuss appeared on The Mike Douglas Show with Peter Falk, he described the film as "the most incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie" and added, "I went crazy. I went home and vomited," which prompted curious audiences to seek out the film capable of making Dreyfuss (who is himself bipolar) ill.[7]

Critical reception[edit]

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 90% based on 31 reviews, with a rating average of 8.06/10. The website’s critical consensus reads: "Electrified by searing performances from Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, A Woman Under the Influence finds pioneering independent filmmaker John Cassavetes working at his artistic peak."[8]

Nora Sayre of The New York Times observed, "Miss Rowlands unleashes an extraordinary characterization....The actress’s style of performing sometimes shows a kinship with that of the early Kim Stanley or the recent Joanne Woodward, but the notes of desperation are emphatically her own....Peter Falk gives a rousing performance...and the children are very well directed. But the movie didn't need to be 2 hours and 35 minutes long: there's too much small talk, which doesn't really reveal character. Still, the most frightening scenes are extremely compelling, and this is a thoughtful film that does prompt serious discussion."[9]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film four out of four stars and called it "terribly complicated, involved and fascinating – a revelation." He added, "The characters are larger than life (although not less convincing because of that), and their loves and rages, their fights and moments of tenderness, exist at exhausting levels of emotion. [...] Cassavetes is strongest as a writer and filmmaker at creating specific characters and then sticking with them through long, painful, uncompromising scenes until we know them well enough to read them, to predict what they'll do next and even to begin to understand why."[10] Ebert later added the film to his "Great Movies" list, in which he called the film "perhaps the greatest of Cassavetes' films."[11]

Time Out London wrote "The brilliance of the film lies in its sympathetic and humorous exposure of social structure. Rowlands unfortunately overdoes the manic psychosis at times, and lapses into a melodramatic style which is unconvincing and unsympathetic; but Falk is persuasively insane as the husband; and the result is an astonishing, compulsive film, directed with a crackling energy."[12]

TV Guide rated the film four out of four stars, calling it "tough-minded" and "moving" and "an insightful essay on sexual politics."[13]

In 2015, the BBC named A Woman Under the Influence the 31st greatest American film ever made.[14]

Pauline Kael of The New Yorker,[15] however, condemned this film as a "didactic illustration of (R.D.) Laing's version of insanity.”[16]

Awards and honors[edit]

Restoration and preservation[edit]

The world premiere screening of a restored print was held at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on April 26, 2009, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Gena Rowlands was in attendance and spoke briefly. The restoration was done by the UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by Gucci and the Film Foundation.

Home media[edit]

In 1992 Touchstone Home Video released the movie on VHS.[20]

On September 21, 2004, the film was released in Region 1 – together with Shadows, Faces, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night – as part of the eight-disc box set John Cassavetes – Five Films by The Criterion Collection. The film is in anamorphic widescreen format with an English audiotrack. Bonus features include commentary by sound recordist and composer Bo Harwood and camera operator Mike Ferris and interviews with Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk. On October 22, 2013, the box set was re-released on Blu-ray.[21]

In popular culture[edit]

The Juliana Hatfield Three song "Mabel" was written as a tribute to the character Mabel Longhetti.[22]

The 2020 Charlie Kaufman film I'm Thinking of Ending Things contains an extended conversation and references to the film. Pauline Kael’s criticisms are also mentioned by the character played by Jessie Buckley.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, 7 January 1976 p 46
  2. ^ Seeing John Cassavetes|The New Yorker
  3. ^ Gene Rowlands|Oscars.org
  4. ^ 1975|Oscars.org
  5. ^ Gamarekian, Barbara; Times, Special To the New York (1990-10-19). "Library of Congress Adds 25 Titles to National Film Registry". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-05-15.
  6. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing | Film Registry | National Film Preservation Board | Programs at the Library of Congress | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2020-05-15.
  7. ^ a b c d e Turner Classic Movies
  8. ^ "Rotten Tomatoes". Retrieved 2010-09-05.
  9. ^ The New York Times review
  10. ^ Chicago Sun-Times review
  11. ^ Ebert 1998 review
  12. ^ Time Out London review Archived January 8, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ TV Guide review
  14. ^ "The 100 Greatest American Films", bbc.com, July 20, 2015
  15. ^ The Obsessed|News|The Harvard Crimson
  16. ^ THE CURRENT CINEMA|The New Yorker (December 9, 1974 Issue)
  17. ^ Francis Ford Coppola Wins Best Director: 1975 Oscars
  18. ^ Ellen Burstyn Wins Best Actress: 1975 Oscars
  19. ^ Golden Globes
  20. ^ Amazon.com: A Woman Under the Influence VHS
  21. ^ "Criterion Announces October Titles". Blu-ray.com. July 15, 2013. Retrieved June 8, 2014.
  22. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2011-02-01.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]