A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Family is an integral aspect and concept inhabiting human existence. Conflicts among those closest to us are inevitable, and their eventual resolutions may be civil or volatile. We also depend on familial relations for support, love, and resiliency. Joyous occasions, such as a birth, can facilitate immense celebration and happiness. An illness in a family member can create fear, panic, reflection, yet enhanced connectivity. Thus, it is quite evident that the idea of medicine extends beyond physical and mental illness to encompass the vital component of familial coping and interaction with their loved ones. “A Woman Under the Influence” is a brilliant 1974 drama film directed by John Cassavetes, demonstrating the wide array of familial emotions in the midst of a loved one’s illness.

Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) is a hard-working construction worker married to Mabel (Gena Rowlands) and father to three children. He is quite preoccupied with others’ perceptions of Mabel’s eccentricities, and serves to exert a great deal of control over her decision-making and her behaviour. Mabel is acutely aware of this power dynamic, and puts a great deal of effort in trying to be a great “hostess”. She is greatly disturbed and confused by others’ expectations of her behaviour, manifesting into odd mannerisms and occasional outbursts. A variety of events over the course of a day including questionable conduct at a children’s party to a heated confrontation with her mother-in-law Margaret (Katherine Cassavetes) led to Mabel’s certification and involuntary psychiatric hospitalization for six months. Upon her return home, the familial expectation was complete cure (i.e. acting within the norms of society). It quickly became apparent that illness in any shape or form involves recovery – experiencing life in the present and using healthy coping strategies to deal with daily challenges.

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This film has multiple assets which effectively conveys the stressors involved in living with mental illness. The acting is absolutely sublime. Peter Falk palpably harbours anger, confusion, and discontent with the reality of his ideal vision of family. The supporting cast’s emotions greatly increase the intensity and concern of their loved ones. However, I feel that it is Gena Rowlands’ acting talent and complete engulfment into Mabel’s world which makes this film a classic. She epitomizes the central struggle of a fragile individual living with a strained marriage and mental illness. As well, the long scenes feel improvised, allowing the viewers to watch an encounter where individuals’ behaviours evolve. Emotions heighten, and behaviours may become more unhinged and disintegrative in realtime. This enhances the fidelity of the film to many real-life circumstances, whereby the snowball effect leads to a potential familial crisis and an eventual intervention.

I believe that the title of the film lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Specifically, how was Mabel under the influence? Were her behaviours a manifestation of alcohol use, true mental illness, her personality, her reality, or her family’s expectations? In truth, a multifaceted lens needs to be adopted in understanding anyone’s behaviour. Psychiatry as well as other areas of medicine operates under a biopsychosocial model, in which biology, psychology, and social factors contribute to wellness or illness. Culture is another component influencing health care professionals’ and the public’s opinions on the manifestations of mental illness. Mabel’s behaviours and eventual hospitalization were not solely from an organic basis. They culminated from many aspects and ideas of our Western societal and cultural perception of illness, norms, and wellness.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

I do not own any of the images in this post. This post is also a part of a blogathon I am hosting between May 26 – 28 related to Medicine in the Movies! Please check out other related posts over the next few days as we discuss the impact of the medical field on cinema!

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Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

The art and direction of conversation fuels our daily interactions. They may consist of information relating to trivial banter, joyous or disastrous news, brainstorming a new idea, or securing a promising sale. Grammar, tone, and phrasing are just some components necessary to convey persuasion and importance to ensure a successful sale. While some are genuine in selling a product, others use manipulation and deception. Tactics used in selling a product may all be influenced by personal communication styles, product practicality and cost, work environment, and mode of pay. “Glengarry Glen Ross” is a 1992 drama directed by James Foley which explores the differing strategies and attitudes of four salesmen working in a real estate agency under extreme pressure from a more powerful company but also for themselves.

Rio Rancho Real Estates is a struggling real estate firm umbrella’d beneath a larger company named Premier Properties. Blake (Alec Baldwin), a cocky, wealthy salesman from the more esteemed business, delivers a masqueraded, vile ultimatum to the disillusioned agents. The top grossing salesman wins an El Dorado, the second best wins a set of steak knives, and the bottom two will be fired by week’s end. The top two will also gain access to the coveted leads of Glengarry Highlands and Glen Ross Farms. This prospect cultivates the salesmen to individually and sometimes collectively to achieve their goals with less-than-ideal leads via various means – night-owl home visits, a robbery, and careful coercion via alcohol and crafty wordsmith skills. Greed, family dependence, deception, jadedness, facades, ego, yet survival all fuel the salesman’s quest for success. However, they harbour desperation, loneliness, emptiness, and longing for a less arduous existence at their core.

The ensemble acting is the beating heart of this film. Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Jonathan Pryce, and Jack Lemmon deliver razor sharp dialogue with a mesmerizing tempo. They separately represent men with varying and sometimes polar opposite character traits. Together, they are dynamic, explosive, and clever but also vacuous. Of note, Jack Lemmon was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role of Shelley Levine, a once prominent but now poor-selling salesman with an ill family member. He embodies many emotions so convincingly in this character, from feeling desolate, pitiful, anxious, frightened, shocked, weary, and overjoyed. Lemmon was a veteran and absolute legend at this point in his career, and mutual respect amongst the actors (especially towards Lemmon) palpably exudes from the screen.

The title refers to two important lead prospects, as mentioned previously. Their potential possession dangles in front of the salesmen, creating salivation and yearning for even more monetary gain. The whole idea of giving the most substantial leads for real estate lands to the greatest closer is preposterous. It does not allow those who are struggling to harness their potential with greater material in their initial pitch to buyers. This creates a larger wage gap and animosity between members of the same group, spiralling out of control as long as this setup continues. It is a reminder of the importance of workers’ rights. Decent humanity and protection of these rights will lead to a more productive work and home environment.

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I do not own the above picture.

This blog post is a part of the Jack Lemmon Blogathon hosted by Critica Retro and Wide Screen World. Please check their pages over the next two days to check out wonderful posts about the endearing and wonderful Jack Lemmon!

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