Thursday, October 24, 2013

GLORIA (1980)

“I’d do anything for you, Jeri, but I can’t take [your children]. I hate kids. Espeically yours.”

Today John Cassavettes seems to be known as either one of two men: the Hollywood tough-guy actor of The Dirty Dozen, or the borderline-avant guarde creator of such challenging studies of the human condition as Mikey and Nicky and A Woman Under the Influence. While his highly-scripted movies seem improvisational thanks to his unique directing style, making them darlings of “serious” film scholars, they were so far from being considered commercially viable by Hollywood that they were almost considered a different species of thing all together. Therefore, in order to raise the funds for these personal explorations, Cassavettes took work when it was offered and even then he wasn’t always successful. Between 1977 and 1984, for example, Cassavettes attempted to finance a number of projects by accepting roles in such disparate films as Brian DePalma’s The Fury, an adaptation of Brian Clark’s euthenasia stage play Who’s Life is it Anyway?, and the inarguably trashy sub-B-monster movie The Incubus

In 1980, he wrote what he considered to be a simple pot-boiler for the sake of a direct studio sale. Originally intented for MGM’s meal ticket Ricky Schroeder, mob-moll-on-the-run-with-child screenplay Gloria ultimately wound up at Columbia Pictures. Having written the title role for his wife, Gena Rowlands, Columbia slouched toward the opportunity but only under the condition that Cassavettes also direct. Overnight, the director’s intended sell-off script became his responsibility. Even today, the resulting movie remains an odd duck in his filmography.

Jack Dawn (surprise appearance by Buck Henry) is a mob accountant whose off-hand remark to one of his cronies leads to the discovery that he’s been skimming from the outfit for years. With a price on their heads, the Dawn family is packing up to leave, hoping to be ahead of the button men coming for them—and if it weren’t for the cleaner’s unfamiliarity with the neighborhood, their grace period would have been even shorter—when their middle-aged neighbor, Gloria Swenson, runs out of coffee. Jeri Dawn begs her friend to take the kids with her and hide them, and the hard-nosed Gloria reluctantly agrees, leaving with six-year-old Phil (John Adames). Before he goes, Jack gives Phil a little book, referring to it as the Bible. “This is everything I know about everything in the world. It’s your future. Always be a man. Be tough. Don’t trust anybody.” Phil barely arrives at Gloria’s apartment before his parents’ window explodes out and his father’s voice vanishes from the phone. 

Stunned—and probably more in need of caffienne than before—Gloria is suddenly responsible for a whole other life. “What do I do with you? What do I do? You’re not my family. You’re the neighbor’s kid. You’re probably too young to understand about making a living, but I have a job. I have my own life. My cat…”

With neighbors and cops filing the hallway, Gloria manages to bully her way out of the building with Phil. The kid’s only way of dealing with the situation is to heed his father’s words and “be a man”. Overcompensating, he channels machismo by way of Harvey Keitel, alternately bossing Gloria around and clinging to her out of terror. “Look, I’m trying to tell you something,” he tells her at a flophouse hotel room that night, “You’re a good kid, Gloria. You ever been in love?” Later he gets stuck in a loop, trying to make sense of things. “I am the man! I am the man. You are not the man. You… you are a stupid person. A pig!” 

“You’re not the man,” she tells him calmly, tired beyond words. “You don’t listen. You don’t know anything. You’re driving me crazy.”

It occurs to Gloria just how bad things have become when she realizes that she knows the murderers. Having once been the girlfriend to boss Tony Tenzini, she did time for this relationship. She can’t go to the cops—the media has already painted her as Phil’s abductor—and she can’t go to the crooks. She doesn’t even like this kid, but makes her decision when a car rolls up to them on the street. “We’re not interested in you, Gloria. We just want the kid and his book.” Gloria responds by shooting at them. The car flips and she escapes with Phil on a bus, knowing that she’s in it completely now. 

This all seems like standard thriller material, maybe better suited for Sharon Stone (who starred in the 1999 remake) than the unconventional Rowlands. But it’s Rowlands who makes the journey worth taking. First and foremost, the utter absense of sentimentality raises this above the level of the average kid-com drama. Gloria remains conflicted throughout the film and on several occassions not only entertains the idea of leaving the kid to his own devices, but actually does so at one point. Her crisis of conscience isn’t played for laughs either. She doesn’t return to save him in a gruff-but-loveable way but in a genuine “what choice do I have?” fatalism. The men she’s dealing with aren’t big on the negotiations, so in many cases crisis resolution comes at the barrel of her gun. 

While Gloria is not nurturing, Phil isn’t all that lovable either. Masking his fear behind TV machismo, the little Puerto Rican kid acts like a stunted Freddy Prinze and is frequently obnoxious in a way that only real kids can be. (Fortunately he never sinks to the depths of, say, Shane’s Brandon deWilde, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his glass-shattering whine, lazy eye and Mortimer Snerd overbite. Adames’ performance, however, did earn him a Worst Supporting Actor Razzie award, tying with Sir Laurence Olivier’s whatever-he-was-doing in The Jazz Singer.) We believe his phony bravery and his laughably chauvenistic advances. Yeah, Gloria might pack a gun and talk tough, but she’s still a girl and needs a man. Right? TV says so! “He don’t know the score,” he says of a hotel manager who denies them one of the ritzy room. “He sees a dame like you and a guy like me. He don’t know.” It precisely because he doesn’t burst into wailing tears every few seconds—despite the fact that his whole family has been violently murdered—is what keeps us rooting for him. It’s probably what keeps Gloria from chucking him into traffic as well. 

Despite the winning formula, Columbia started to get cold feet as Gloria reached conclusion. Cassavettes was hardly a box office sure-thing like Friedkin or Scorcese and despite the gritty material, his camera spent more time on characters’ faces than on the gun play or set pieces. Cassvettes feared, and for good reason, that the studio might ultimately shelve the film. Fortunately, a well-timed retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art helped to change their mind. It also helped that its screening at the Venice Film Festival resulted in its tying with Louis Malle’s Atlantic City for the Golden Lion award. “It was television fare as a screenplay but handled by the actors to make it better. It’s an adult fairy-tale. And I never pretended it was anything else but fiction. I always thought I understood it. And I was bored because I knew the answer to that picture the minute we began. And that’s why I could never be wildly enthusiastic about the picture—because it’s so simple. Whereas Husbands is not simple, whereas A Woman Under the Influence is not simple, Opening Night is not simple. You have to think about those pictures.” Cassavetes on Cassavetes, By John Cassavetes 

Ironically, the same critics who’d savaged his previous movies for being too esoteric now praised Gloria for its mainstream appeal, while his supporters accused him of pandering to a “Hollywood” audience. “For once, his characters aren't all over the map in nonstop dialogue, as they were in Husbands, the talkathon he made in 1970 with Peter Falk, Gazzara and himself,” wrote RogerEbert. “Gloria is tough, sweet and goofy. […] Well, it's a cute idea for a movie, and maybe that's why they've had this particular idea so often. You start with tough-talking, streetwise gangster types, you hook them up with a little kid, you put them in fear of their lives, and then you milk the situation for poignancy, pathos, excitement, comedy and anything else that turns up. It's the basic situation of Little Miss Marker, the Damon Runyon story that has been filmed three times.” 

(Then there’s this from Jonathan Rosenbaum, who reminds me that film criticism is often, by its very nature, an exercise in masturbation: “According to some local scribes, this all takes place in Never Never Land, unlike such alleged True-Life Adventures as An Unmarried Woman, Manhattan, and Kramer vs. Kramer. I’d argue, on the contrary, that it’s merely a fantasy serving different class, race, and temperamental interests, which include separate definitions of what’s real or important. Recalling Godard’s equations of cinema and voyeurism. I often wonder if “taste” in film criticism is any more than a rationalization of unacknowledged erotic preferences. From this standpoint, Gloria gets me off in a way that middle-class chic never could.”)


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