MASTERCLASS ON THE MED – CANNES 2006
by Harlan Kennedy
The Cannes Film Festival does a great thing every year. It frees a film star from celluloid, snipping away the sprocket-holes and unsnapping the frame, and presents him or her alive, well and, if at all, possibly kicking.
In 2004 we had Max von Sydow, in 2005 Catherine Deneuve. Both delivered insights into their craft and pearls of perception. This year’s celeb, giving her own masterclass in the form of an hour-long onstage interview, was Gena Rowlands.
What a treat. Longtime fans have wondered if Rowlands isn’t the Great American Screen Actress (LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, GLORIA): a woman so amped-up she can be mistaken for camped-up, yet who delivers time and again everything from the grand gesture to the mythopoeic minutia. She can do anything with her voice – purr, snarl, charm, croon, hiss – while the looks are bombshell blonde with a touch of class. What a Blanche DuBois she would have made (if we can imagine Rowlands ever rendering herself small enough to convey the sluttish frailty under Blanche’s loony grandiloquence). What a Gloria she did make. (Forget the Sharon Stone remake). And what a diva she was, in countless films in countless years, for actor-filmmaker-husband John Cassavetes.
Less-longtime fans know this actress as a kooky, feline presence, clothed in elusive majesty, who wanders through recent films like THE NOTEBOOK. But even in sentimental tosh she is irreducible. In many modern roles she looks as if she came from playing Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra to take an option on a cockamamie cameo, entirely for her own profit and amusement.
She swept onto the stage of the Salle Bunuel wearing a Chanel-style white jacket over black blouse and slacks, finished off with a black scarf tipped with scarlet. The scarlet matched her fingernail colour. Her gold frame specs with tinted lenses were le dernier mot. The blonde shoulder-length hair completed the portrait. No one could look this good unless they had (a) money, (b) taste and (c) flair. Rowlands has the last two, and we assume the late John did not leave her destitute. If he did, she has an army of fans waiting for these guest appearances and ready to throw a million Euros into the hat each time.
She was interviewed by Henri Behar, a French moderator with the gift of disappearing into the scenery; so it was a virtual Gena monologue. (And yes, the name is pronounced Jennah). There was a surreal start. When a clip from OPENING NIGHT was flung onto the screen behind her, the French subtitles were intercepted by the seated Rowlands form: this became a whirl of luminous letters, although the human lightning rod herself classily disguised her momentary discomposure.
She talked of her childhood in a Wisconsin farming community, of her dad who was a Senator for the Progressive Party, of coming to Washington during the war (where statesmen slept on the family’s sofa) and of encountering Cassavetes just when she did not – repeat not – want marriage, romance or any roadblock to an acting career. “All I wanted was to be left alone in New York City. ‘No, no, no, I’m not meeting that man’ I said.” She modulates to a lower key: “My masterplan was so flawed.”
In the 1950s Cassavetes was a medium-talented actor earning medium-big TV money. He played the title role in the slick cop serial JOHNNY STACCATO. (Or so my parents tell me). He was in serious television too. After being prompted by Desi Arnaz of all people, the mini-Mex impresario and husband of Lucille Ball (relates Rowlands), tele-companies embraced the eureka idea of putting drama on film. Previously they had taped it, then binned it. So small-screen America got big with the idea of auteurdom and the next step for low-budget, high-art thinkers was: why shoot films for TV when you can shoot films for theatres?
“It was a big surprise when John said he wanted to direct,” says Rowlands. She and his friends were frankly aghast. Experimental movies? Independent? Something called SHADOWS?
“We were all very reluctant to go along with him,” she purls. “Our garage” – by now, after a whirlwind courtship following the early doubts, John and Gena had married – “became the editing room for the rest of our lives.”
Things soon came up roses. This was America. Expect the unexpected, dream the undreamable. SHADOWS was a success. So were FACES and HUSBANDS. And “we were able to make films with our own money ‘cos I acted and John acted.”
Though John was asked to direct, and Gena to act in, a commercial movie, that movie – A CHILD IS WAITING starring Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland – put them off Hollywood. John punched producer Stanley Kramer after a row about final cut and “after that we just went into our own films so quickly.” Whenever the money ran out Gena did a mercenary acting gig and so did John. When he came down with hepatitis one time, she rang a producer pal and got put in TV’s PEYTON PLACE, the soap of soaps: “I thought I’d better put on my tapdancing shoes.” When John recovered, he got put into ROSEMARY’S BABY, the cult of cults in that movie year.
The Salle Bunuel is packed. We are eating out of her hand – with the exception of the couple who walk out at one point right past Gena, along the front aisle, while she carries on talking without flattering them with a glance. The imperturbability of the super-trouper. (Later that night, it was rumoured, the bodies of these exiters were found hanging from two Croisette lampposts).
After the brisk life story, and the polite put-offs to prying questions about her marriage with JC (“I don’t think so” she says when asked, three times, if she was ever miffed by John stealing episodes from their private life for his movie scripts) interviewer Behar tries to coax Gena into some Thoughts About Acting. We in the audience try to coax her too.
She doesn’t need much coaxing. The cat-eyes widen and narrow – Gena Rowlands’s eyes can do both – and the voice becomes crisp, sassy, confidingly articulate. If she learned her acting trade at the Actors Studio, she refined it, or more accurately loosened it up, in her films with Cassavetes. She tells how body-mikes were used by his actors “so we could go anywhere on the set. There was no such thing as a chalk mark. We moved where we wanted and the camera followed us.” The actors were forbidden to discuss their roles with fellow actors. “If there was to be interaction or discovery or revelation, John said ‘Let it happen on film.’”
An audience member asks her about all the smoking and drinking she did on screen, especially in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE. “Maybe John was trying to kill me.” Under a rain of questions from the auditorium, more statements of belief sprout up. “You can’t think one thought on screen that the audience can’t see. With the camera, you’re right into people’s irises.” “I never plan any action for the body (asked if she fits a character out with tics or mannerisms)”. “The writer is the number one artist”. (This from the queen of notionally improvised cinema. But Cassavetes, we learn, put a lot of pen-work into his supposed extemporizings). “The contradictions in a character are what give you a chance as an actor. They’re what make you think and question and explore.”
She reads a new script 15 times as open-mindedly as possible. “I try to have no opinion on the role.” Then she does the research or preparation. She researches all the time, mind you, like any good actor. She’ll look around a restaurant and notice a quarrelling couple who aren’t openly quarrelling. “You’ll see them trying to hold it together.” Rowlands does a split-second simulation of a couple bursting with the unsaid, frigid with the suppressed, in a polite, upscale eatery.
There are roles that are nearly impossible to play, though, aren’t there? (asks someone). How do you do the research, or find the touchstone, to play a murderer?
“All of us have everything in us,” she says. She tells us to think of nights when we’re kept awake by a mosquito, by that moaning menace you can’t see, and can’t swat, but can only hear as it drones like an incoming plane over and over. You think about it; then try not to think about it. You lie awake; then try to sleep. You turn the light on, then off. “All of a sudden you’re not asleep any more. You’re a murderer.” Laughter all round, truth-and-recognition laughter.
She has to cup an ear once or twice to catch a question. She explains her hearing difficulty. She took out a protective earplug while firing a gun in GLORIA. The shot half-deafened her. She spent much of the film guessing what other actors were saying. It didn’t show – or perhaps it did. Perhaps the laser-keen avidity of that performance, the wit and élan, the in-the-momentness, was down to an actress having to compensate for one out-of-wack aural antenna.
But I don’t think so. I think it was just Gena doing her stuff. I think the Cannes audience thinks that too. They wouldn’t have been at the masterclass, adoring at the shrine, if they didn’t believe this actress capable of hitting the heights over and over. However high directors have asked her to jump, she has always got there, or higher. What do you say of such a performer? She was – she is – she will always be – some kind of a woman.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.