A Woman Under the Influence

This paper was originally presented at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference, 2000.

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In one of his two books on the films of John Cassavetes, critic Ray Carney quotes Cassavetes saying “I won’t call [my work] entertainment” (1). For the most part, critics have tended to take Cassavetes at his word. Maria Viera puts it bluntly, when she writes: “A Cassavetes film defies entertainment” (2). Rather than entertainment, which is viewed as artificial, commercial, and manipulative, critics tend to read Cassavetes’ films as real, unmediated and transparent. Carney, for instance, more egregiously than most, positions Cassavetes’ films as different in kind from “virtually all other American feature film” (3), including not just the films of classical Hollywood hacks but also films by auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. For Carney, Cassavetes’ films are not entertainment but life itself: “Rather than art being a mirror held up to nature that gives back a pale, partial, or distorted reflection of life, in this vision of it, art becomes life itself — life lived at its most intense, interesting, engaged” (4). George Kouvaros, similarly, posits a reality effect in Cassavetes. He writes, “His films enact a constant oscillation between character and actor, a sense that what we witness on screen is not just a matter of cinematic performance, but something that touches the life of the actor” (5).

For these critics, what makes Cassavetes most real is the performance style of his films, often misunderstood as improvisation. After his first film Shadows (1959), which was improvised in its first cut but then re-cut with additional written scenes, Cassavetes’ films are not improvised in any strict sense, but, as Viera argues, “improvisation is what his work is about” (6). Certainly, Cassavetes uses improvisation as a rehearsal technique, much as one might in Stanislavksian or Method-based acting classes and rehearsals, to keep things fresh and to work through difficult or blocked moments. Cassavetes also sometimes includes partially improvised scenes in the finished film. Beyond these small uses of improvisation, Cassavetes’ films look and feel improvised due to a number of factors. In part, as Viera suggests, the improvisational feel is due to loose structure of the films, which tend to operate in segments of real time, avoid narrative causality, resist closure, and emphasize character exploration. Further, as Gena Rowlands points out, the feeling of improvisation stems from the visual style. Rather than doing individual set-ups for each shot, Cassavetes lights an entire space and allows the actors to move freely within that space, using hand-held cameras, battery microphones, telephoto lenses and zooms to capture their actions and emotions without getting in their way (7). This allows a freedom of movement and a degree of spontaneity in performance that contributes to the impression of improvisation. The performances also seem improvised because the dialogue is fragmentary, tangential and chatty rather than goal-oriented. Most importantly, however — and largely the reason Cassavetes is viewed both as improvisational and “real” — Cassavetes’ actors portray characters who seem to be improvising. In Cassavetes’ films, identity is provisional and constantly being enacted. Ivone Margulies identifies this as an “existentialist ethic . . . to improvise, to choose one’s action and behavior on a moment-to-moment basis, which allows one to hold faith at bay, to fully pursue one’s authentic self” (8).

The improvisational strategies of Cassavetes’ characters leads critics to describe “a collapse of distinctions between acting and being” (9) and a sense that “character and person in these films are continually crossing over, thereby eroding attempts to locate the perimeters of the performance text” (10). The impulse to describe actor and character as merged, or “crossing over,” are not inspired by those moments in which the actor disappears into the role and becomes invisible, but, conversely and ironically, by moments in which the character is at his or her most theatrical, when he or she puts on an act. These include moments when characters horse-around, tell jokes, sing songs, dance, and play. Rather than view these acts as artificial and theatrical, critics tend to read them as highlighting the degree to which we are all actors engaged in modes of everyday performance, or what Jonathan Rosenbaum calls “a heightened form of the social activity we all pursue in our various transactions with the world” (11).

I would agree with critics who view Cassavetes’ films as being in some way about improvisation and everyday performance. When critics talk about everyday performance in Cassavetes’ films, however, they tend to conflate everyday performance, improvisation, theatricality, and entertainment. Certainly, everyday performance can be compared to improvisation, theatricality and entertainment, but everyday performance is meant to be invisible. It is about maintaining social fronts and performing social roles. In Cassavetes, what we see most often are moments of failure in which everyday performance breaks down and characters experience what Erving Goffman refers to as “expressive incoherence”, a split between the social front and the personal front, between our “socialized selves” and “all-too-human selves” (12). It is precisely in these moments of incoherence that Cassavetes’ characters put on an act that can be viewed as more theatrical or ostentatious and in excess of everyday performance. Jodi Brooks best captures this sense of failed everyday performance in Cassavetes. For Brooks, the “moment to moment” quality of Cassavetes’ characters’ lives reflect the interruption and interruptability of modern life. She views moments of heightened performance as efforts to charge and rupture dead time, as simultaneously staging the crisis of modern experience and attempting to overcome it (13).

Different from everyday performance, entertainment, generally speaking, will be something that amuses, pleases, or diverts, and often will be produced for profit. Entertainment might be theatrical or improvised. There is no reason that theatricality or improvisation cannot be entertainment, but there is also no inherent reason why it should be. As ostentatious behavior, theatricality could encompass dramatic moments, hysteria, comedy, and other performance modes. Equally, most theories of improvisation will urge the improviser to be as ordinary as possible and not strive for originality or amusement (14).

Given that it is the improvisational quality of Cassavetes’ films that makes critics view them as anti-entertainment, what is striking to me is the degree to which Cassavetes’ films are about entertainment and, in particular, musical entertainment. Modes of entertainment are highlighted in every Cassavetes film. Some, like Opening Night (1978), Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Too Late Blues (1962), and Shadows (1959), feature professional performers — actors, strippers, emcees, jazz musicians, singers. More often, however, spontaneous performance is seen as a crucial strategy for everyday life and what I have been describing as a breakdown in everyday performance often leads to impromptu amateur entertainment. Near the beginning of Faces (1968), for instance, when prostitute Jeannie Rapp (Gena Rowlands) brings home Richard Forst (John Marley), and Freddie (Fred Draper), the three dance together, sing songs, tell jokes, and even do a college vaudeville routine. In A Woman Under the Influence (1974), a dinner party with co-workers turns into an impromptu duel of arias, and a children’s party revolves around an impromptu staging of “Swan Lake”. In Opening Night, when Myrtle Gordon’s (Rowlands) stage performance breaks down, her stage partner, Maurice (Cassavetes) improvises a song.

Critics often align Cassavetes’ improvisatory modes with musical modes. Kouvaros, for instance, locates an operatic quality to A Woman Under the Influence, “undercutting what could be discerned as the film’s more realistic elements and serving to frame the events as a spectacle or performance” (15). More commonly, Cassavetes is linked to a jazz aesthetic. Margulies says, “John Cassavetes’ cinema summons a mythical image of America, one that mixes inexact quantities of jazz, scotch and emotion” (16). Carney elaborates: “There are profound similarities between Cassavetes’ sense of art and that of a jazz composition, and these scenes have a jazz-like quality to their form . . . As in a jazz improvisation, there is no foreseeing where each beat will lead. As in a jazz performance, impulse is not suppressed in order to maintain a straight line of development” (17). To be sure, this view highlights a structural similarity between an improvisatory jazz aesthetic and Cassavetes’ loose narrative structure and view of provisional character formation. It is no accident, however, that critics choose jazz as the parallel to Cassavetes since myths of authenticity and genius dominate our understanding of both forms.

Without denying that the comparison to a jazz aesthetic may indicate something about the films’ style and acting, I would like to suggest a different musical antecedent that, I think, best captures the value that characters in these films place on impromptu entertainment: that is, the Hollywood musical. This may seem a contrary connection. More than any other major film genre, the musical seems singularly dedicated to the artificial and inauthentic. In Jane Feuer’s famous formulation, “peel away the tinsel and you find the real tinsel underneath” (18). Yet, if we recall the close ties between jazz and the musical, perhaps it will not seem so strange to consider the musical as a residual form of entertainment in Cassavetes’ films. On the one hand, I want to suggest that what is often seen in Cassavetes as “improvisation” can be read as a generic displacement of musical modes. On the other hand, I want to use Cassavetes as a lens through which to consider those myths as improvisatory modes applicable to a more sweeping concept of performance. In particular, I want to look at musical moments in Cassavetes’ films through a lens provided by Jane Feuer and Richard Dyer in their separate analyses of the musical.

In her essay, “The Self-Reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment”, Feuer points out how self-reflexive MGM musicals of the 1950s promote their own value as entertainment (19). On the one hand, they demystify bad, often non-musical, entertainment and, on the other, they mythify musical entertainment by associating the musical with the myths of spontaneity, integration and audience. The myth of spontaneity obscures the labor of performance to suggest that musical performance emerges out of a joyous and responsive attitude toward life, and is available to all. With the myth of integration, successful performances are intimately bound up with success in love, with the merger of high and low art, and with the integration of the individual into a community or group. The myth of audience suggests that successful performance will be sensitive to the audience’s needs.

Dyer’s essay “Entertainment and Utopia” offers an overlapping but somewhat different formulation. Dyer takes seriously the usual dismissal of entertainment as “escape” and “wish-fulfillment” to suggest that entertainment responds to real needs in society and claims that the musical offers a non-specific utopian vision — “what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized” (20). The musical combats felt social inadequacies like scarcity, exhaustion, dreariness, manipulation, and fragmentation by offering utopian visions of abundance, energy, intensity, transparency and community.

Interestingly, the myths of entertainment that underpin the musical are also the myths of improvisation. Entertainment and improvisation share the myth of spontaneity (21). In theories of improvisation, as in Feuer’s theory of the musical, spontaneity depends upon a person being open and responsive to experience. Both improvisation and the musical hold the contradictory idea that spontaneous performance is available to all and that some people are more spontaneous or open than others. Similarly, improvisation shares the myth of integration — insofar as improvisational work is ensemble based and non-hierarchical (22). And in its emphasis on audience participation and interactivity, improvisation posits itself as more sensitive to the audience’s needs than other forms of theater. Improvisation also seemingly shares a belief in the utopian dimension of entertainment insofar as abundance, intensity, energy, transparency, and community serve as the ideal for most theories of what constitutes good improvisation. These myths come together in the impromptu entertainments in Cassavetes and, I would suggest, they are simultaneously exposed as myths but also shown as deeply necessary.

Similar to the self-reflexive musical, Cassavetes distinguishes between good and bad entertainment. Often, it is a distinction between entertainment produced for profit and amateur entertainment. In Shadows, for instance, Hugh (Hugh Hurd), a singer, is forced to introduce a chorus line of “floozies” singing a cheesy song with the refrain “a real mad chick”. In this humiliating context, Hugh, who may or may not be talented, bombs. Other films expose the seedy underbelly of entertainment, such as the singing duo and comedian at the nightclubs in Faces, or the strip clubs of Killing of a Chinese Bookie. While entertainment is partially demystified, the myth of entertainment and its utopian possibilities persists in the lives of the characters. Ultimately, what distinguishes good entertainment from bad is what Carney reads as a distinction between canned performances and improvisations and what I would suggest is the difference between non-mythified and mythified entertainment (23). In Husbands (1970), Harry (Ben Gazzara), Archie (Peter Falk), and Gus (Cassavetes) deal with their grief for the loss of a good friend by staging a drunken singing competition in a bar. Polite and accepting of all the singers so far, none of whom are especially talented, the three go into a hyper-critical mode with the last singer. Here, the singer is criticized from a perspective that can be seen as a Method-based critique of artificiality, but that is also a critique inflected by the myths of entertainment — and especially the myths of transparency and audience.

In Faces we can see how the myths of spontaneity, integration and audience inform impromptu musical performance. Here, musical performance functions as entertainment and flirtation. It substitutes for conversation, and both eases and induces tension. Jeannie, Dickie, and Freddie begin singing spontaneously and energetically in a mode that emphasizes community and integration. However, as the scene progresses, a different myth takes over and Jeannie’s transparent feelings for Dickie, expressed musically, offend Freddie, making the entertainment seem insensitive to his needs. He rebels and stops the entertainment. This scene shows both the power of these myths and how difficult they are to maintain.

The myth of entertainment doesn’t always fail in Cassavetes. In fact, Cassavetes can be seen as deeply utopian. Failed performance tends to occur at moments when characters lose hope, as in Opening Night when Myrtle Gordon resists playing her role as written, not, as everyone assumes, because she is afraid of playing “old,” but because the play expresses no hope. Often, impromptu entertainments will manage to make the myths believeable, if only for a moment. Here, near the end of Husbands, Ben Gazzara as Harry sings “Dancing in the Dark”. This segment, no less moving and mythical than the same song danced by Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953), suggests that impromptu entertainment can momentarily create the illusion of utopia for the characters and for the audience. These moments remind me of Jimmy Stewart’s characterization of film acting as “pieces of time” that influence the audience and create believability (24).

Far from being unusual in his attention to the mythical power of entertainment, I would suggest that Cassavetes can be bracketed with a long tradition of impromptu entertainment in film ranging from screwball comedies like The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937) to serious dramas like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Mike Nichols, 1966) and post-classical auteurist films like Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973) and Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1991), all of which have “pieces of time” that incorporate the myth of entertainment. Rather than view Cassavetes as antithetical to entertainment or entertainment as antithetical to authentic experience, we might surmise that the myth of entertainment is the invisible ideology not only of much American feature filmmaking but also of everyday performance. And perhaps that is what’s most real about Cassavetes.


  1. Ray Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, p.184. The source of this quote is not entirely clear. Carney indicates that this quote and others come from personal interviews with Cassavetes.
  2. Maria Viera, “The Work of John Cassavetes: Script, Performance Style, and Improvisation”, Journal of Film and Video, 42.3 (Fall 1990), p.37
  3. Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes, p.21
  4. Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes, p.276
  5. George Kouvaros, “Where Does it Happen? The Place of Performance in the Work of John Cassavetes”, Screen 39:3 (Autumn 1998), p.245
  6. Viera, “The Work of John Cassavetes: Script, Performance Style, and Improvisation”, p.35
  7. Gena Rowlands interviewed at Judith Crist’s Tarrytown seminar, 26-28 Sept. 1980; reprinted in Take 22, ed. Judith Crist and Shirley Sealy (Viking Press, New York, 1984) and excerpted in Actors on Acting for the Screen: Roles and Collaborations, ed. Doug Tomlinson (Garland Publishing, New York, 1994), p.482
  8. Ivone Margulies, “John Cassavetes: Amateur Director” in The New American Cinema, ed. Jon Lewis (Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 1998), p.285
  9. Margulies, “John Cassavetes: Amateur Director”, p.276
  10. Kouvaros, “Where Does it Happen? The Place of Performance in the Work of John Cassavetes”, p.245
  11. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Love Films: A Cassavetes Retrospective”, in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, p.161
  12. See Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Anchor Books, New York, 1959. pp.56-57
  13. Jodi Brooks, “Crisis and the Everyday: Some Thoughts on Gesture and Crisis in Cassavetes and Benjamin” in Falling for You: Essays on Cinema and Performance, ed. George Kouvaros and Lesley Stern, Power Publications, Sydney, 1999, pp.73-104
  14. See, for instance, Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, Routledge theatre Arts Books, New York, 1992, pp.87-88
  15. George Kouvaros, “Improvisation and the Operatic: Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence” in Falling for You: Essays on Cinema and Performance, p.60
  16. Margulies, “John Cassavetes: Amateur Director”, p.275
  17. Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes, p.62
  18. Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical, 2nd ed., University of Indiana Press, Bloomington, 1993, p.ix
  19. Jane Feuer, “The Self-Reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment”, in Genre: the Musical, ed. Rick Altman, Routledge & Kegan Paul, New York, 1981, pp.159-174
  20. Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia”, in Only Entertainment, Routledge, New York, 1992, p.18
  21. See Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, pp.75-108 for a discussion of the importance of spontaneity in improvisation.
  22. See Natalie Crohn Schmitt, “Improvising Ensembles”, in Actors and Onlookers, Northwestern University Press, Chicago, 1990
  23. Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes, p.131
  24. James Stewart, “The Many Splendored Actor” in Playing to the Camera: Film Actors Discuss their Craft ed. Bert Cardullo et al, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998, p.205