Gena's Accidental Showcase

Gena's Accidental Showcase

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jul 31st 2018

Cards on the table from a maverick moviemaker: “I wrote this story to sell, strictly to sell. I really didn’t want to do that movie. Columbia insisted I direct it, which I really didn’t want. Too commercial. I like to make movies that don’t go. Besides that, I didn’t like killing off an entire family to make a picture. In the end, I decided that it is a story of violence, but less physical than emotional violence.” But armed with a $4-million major studio budget, “the most money John Cassavetes would ever have to work with and the largest and most experienced crew he ever had on a film” (according to Cassavetes on Cassavetes author Ray Carney), a New York-set script – about a resilient ex-moll, a orphaned boy she reluctantly but inexorably is committed to safeguard, and the calculating criminals targeting them both – that was once flirted as the teaming of Barbra Streisand and young The Champ discovery Ricky Schroder became the gritty and galvanic Gloria (1980), which won the Golden Lion Award at that year’s Venice Film Festival and starred the astounding Gena Rowlands, aka Mrs. Cassavetes, in the performance that earned her a second Best Actress Academy Award® nomination. 

Though the guy who thought it up and just considered it “an accident, a very fast-moving, thoughtless piece about gangsters…and I don’t know any gangsters,” many major reviewers who gloried in it and may not have cottoned to previous Cassavetes efforts that “didn’t go” thought otherwise, just like Rex Reed in the New York Daily News: “A titanic entertainment that will make your hair stand on end with tension and excitement. Gloria burns a hole through the screen. Gena Rowlands flames, sizzles and explodes with energy, vibrancy and power. The picture seethes with humanity and spirit and the suspense is breathtaking.” Once committed, the filmmaker did it his way. Carney writes: “As usual, Cassavetes used as many friends in the cast and crew as he could: Meta Shaw (who was the daughter of producer Sam Shaw and had played Harry’s wife in Husbands [1970]) played a waitress, Lawrence Tierney (who had worked with Cassavetes on Johnny Stacccato [1959-60] and Too Late Blues [1961]) played a bartender. Close friend John Finnegan (who appeared in the screening-room scene in Faces [1968], was a construction worker in A Woman Under the Influence [1974], a mobster in Machine Gun McCain [1969], a cabby in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie [1976] and a stagehand in Opening Night [1977]) got a part as a gangster. Val Avery, one of Cassavetes’ regulars, played another gangster. Richard Kaye, Cassavetes’ devoted personal assistant and an aspiring actor, played another gangster. Hugh Hurd (who had appeared in Shadows [1960] and A Woman Under the Influence) was offered the role of the kind cabby but had to turn it down when he revealed that, as a born and bred New Yorker, he didn’t know how to drive. On the other side of the ledger, Seymour Cassel begged Cassavetes to let him play the [ill-fated] accountant, but Cassavetes was determined to use Buck Henry – according to Cassel, telling him, ‘Do you expect to be in every movie I make?’” 

Choosing seven-year old Puerto Rican-American John (Juan) Adames (to play the traumatized but tough Phil, the child Gloria protects) from a casting call of 350 children was also a break-the-mold move that sidestepped the baggage casting a somewhat known quantity like Schroeder would trigger. “The kid is neither sympathetic nor non-sympathetic,” Cassavetes said. “He’s just a kid. He reminds me of me, constantly in shock, reacting to this unfathomable environment. He was always full of excitement and wonderment as to what he was doing, trying to comprehend this fathomless story of a family being wiped out.” Carney also reports that “Cassavetes’ father, to whom he was very close, died on April 26, 1979, during the final weeks of preparations to shoot, which probably contributed to the film’s autumnal feel and its striking emphasis on death.” The picture’s anchor remains Rowlands, of whom Cassavetes was ever in awe: “She’s capable of anything. It’s only because of Gena’s enormous capacity to perform that we have a movie. Give her anything and she’ll always be creative. She doesn’t care if it’s cinematic, doesn’t care where the camera is, doesn’t care if she looks good – doesn’t care about anything except that you believe her. She caught the rhythm of that woman living a life she’d never seen. When she’s ready to kill, I’m amazed at how coldly she does it.” Featuring Bill Conti’s terrific score on an Isolated Music Track, Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray of Gloria – “a great deal of fun, a crime genre film with plenty of action and lots of moody underbelly-of-the-city flourishes” (David Denby, New York) – invites you to share that amazement when it emerges guns blazing on August 21. Preorders open August 8.