Gloria (1980) Directed by John Cassavetes. Gena Rowlands, John Adames, Buck Henry. (123 minutes)
A gun moll (retired) takes a mouthy little boy under her protection when his family is wiped out in a mob hit. His dad was the syndicate’s accountant and has given him an incriminating notebook the gangsters want and are willing to kill to get back. Gloria sets out on an Odyssey across gritty 1980s New York City to save both their lives in this neo-noir. Oscar-nominated Rowlands delivers perhaps her career best performance under her husband’s maverick direction. Among the Big Apple landmarks is an extended sequence in the Belnord, the apartment building which stars in the Steve Martin/Martin Short Only Murders in the Building. “Gloria is tough, sweet and goofy.” (rogerebert.com).
John Cassavetes was one of the most prominent independent filmmakers of the 1970s. He took roles in commercial movies, most notably in my mind, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Dirty Dozen, and immediately repurposed his salary to fund his own directing projects. Working with a cast of friends like Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and his wife, Gena Rowlands, films like Husbands, and A Woman Under the Influence were widely seen on the indy circuit and well-reviewed. I found them fascinating when they came out, but I have to say I have been reluctant to revisit them. Focusing on men behaving badly seems like a topic that would not age particularly well. I could be wrong. But, I’d rather remember them than rewatch them. Gloria is the director’s most conventional film, which meant that Cassavetes was less than enthusiastic about it. It didn’t make much money, although it was popular with critics, and won the Golden Lion at the 1981 Venice Film Festival.
Cassavetes is of course Rowlands favorite director, they had been married for 26 years when they made Gloria. They would remain married until Cassavetes death in 1989. “Of course, we do have our arguments. Any actor will argue with any director. But I would say John is easier to reason with because he’s also an actor” (FIR).
Gloria began as a screenplay called “One Summer Night” which Cassavetes wrote strictly for the money, and for Gena who wanted to do something with a child actor. Ricky Schroeder, who had just made a big hit in a remake of The Champ was available, and then he wasn’t. Barbra Streisand was a possibility for Gloria at one point, but she wasn’t interested, and Cassavetes wanted Gena to be cast, as was the original intention. But he wasn’t really invested in the story, not interested in the gangster world, not interested in showing violence. It’s a New York movie, shot in public spaces, many of which are those of the director’s childhood. He definitely didn’t want it to be Woody Allen’s New York.
Juan Adames was cast after an open call audition. Cassavetes met with hundreds of child actors but decided on him after only two or three days. “Are you sure you really want to do it? Think about it: It will be summer, you won’t be able to go and play with your friends. Making a movie can be boring. If you’re just doing it because someone else thinks you should, but you don’t think it’s such a great idea, it’s not worth it. Adames thought for a minute. How many words will I learn on this movie? Maybe two or three hundred. Three hundred. Three hundred. I go back to school and know three hundred words more than anybody else, beamed Adames” (Charity).
Adames performance was not a critics’ favorite, who felt he was not cute enough. But, of course that was Cassavetes intention. “ The kid is neither sympathetic or non-sympathetic. 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.” (Bu.edu)
Gena Rowlands planned on how Gloria would walk, and she’s a riff on the hard-boiled New Yorker, instinctively antagonistic towards everyone she encounters as her first option. She didn’t look on her as a hooker, a more conventional gangster’s moll. She saw her more as a bagman, a member of the mob and not just a female companion. Her wardrobe is sophisticated. “The clothes from the designer’s (Emanuel Ungaro) boutique collection John Cassavetes chose for Gloria are tough and loud. They are very much Gloria, and very much 80s. They are shiny and bright, made of silk and satin, echoing the disco era and night life of the decade, while the oversized shoulder pads, the knee-long, flowy skirts that move so well, and the wrap dress that Gloria wears in the final part of the movie, they all suggest practicality and power dressing. Gloria means business and she doesn’t seem out of place in them running on the gritty streets of 1980s New York” (classiq.me). She cares about her clothes, hauling them determinedly in a suitcase the whole time she is on the lam with Phil.
Gloria is definitely not a cliched moll-type character. One writer calls her “a post-menopausal feminist icon, symbolically castrating the men who come after her, and as a reluctant Madonna, a son reluctantly foisted upon her. “Charity). One of the themes of the film is whether a woman is obligated to have a maternal instinct, which it turns out Gloria does, but not in the conventional sense, and much to her own surprise.
There were three weeks of blocking and rehearsal. Cassavetes father, to whom he was quite close, died during pre-production, which may account for the death-tinged feeling of the film. The abandoned Concourse Plaza Hotel, 161st Street in the South Bronx is the location of the opening scenes.
As part of his effort to break away from Hollywood clichés, Cassavetes rounded up actual gangsters and various street-people for the scene in Tony Tanzini’s apartment. Cassavetes solicited their opinion about whether this was the way things would really happen. The man Gloria shoots on her way to the elevator, for example, was an actual professional hit man, with fifteen years’ experience, who got into an argument with Cassavetes about how the scene would have really taken place if he were running things. (Bu.edu).
In an interview with Films in Review Rowlands said, “I liked Gloria because she has fixed opinions and behavior. She’s very brave, independent, self-sufficient and prides herself on this. She doesn’t hate children, she just has no interest in them. They’ve never been in her life…her life is arranged perfectly, just where she wants it. Suddenly she’s putting herself on the line for a child she neither likes nor wants to spend time with. She affected by him, and she doesn’t know why. I love a character who finds herself acting without realizing what she’s doing. I think that’s what we all do a great deal. In movies, characters are always thinking things out. It always looks to me like they’re following a master plan that’s working perfectly. I love a character who comes in terrific conflict with her conscious and her unconscious.”
As many writers have pointed out, Gloria is content with her well-organized life, and only reluctantly becomes Phil’s guardian. Part of her contentment is her cat, and when she abandons her pet it does create some never-resolved tension for the cat loving members of the audience.
“The film is titled Gloria and is typical of its director, John Cassavetes, sometimes irritating and confusing but always original and thought-provoking with moments of undeniable brilliance. In a quick shot, or camera angle or movement, Cassavetes eloquently captures the anguish, fear, paranoia, intimacy and hope of his characters.” (FIR.) Another writer remarked on the fact that every closed door reverberates with the danger of the mob’s pursuit of Gloria and Phil.
Rowlands said, “Gloria was an amazing power trip. Taking on the whole mafia in 4-inch heels with a child slung over your shoulder—it was a lot of fun.” (Charity).
All photos except for the poster from Films in Review. John Cassavetes: Lifeworks by Tom Charity, https://people.bu.edu/rcarney/cassoncass/gloria.shtml “Gena Rowlands” by Rob Edelman in the October 1980 Films in Review. https://classiq.me/style-in-film-gena-rowlands-in-gloria