John Cassavetes,

Feminist and misogyny

Cult. Love Streams comes back after the death of the director who revolutionised the American cinema. A chance to revisit a paradoxical filmography, between a eulogy to femininity and an obvious crudeness.

By Paola Dicelli

With his penniless and half improvised movies, he influenced Scorsese, Altman or Soderbergh and all the New-York independent cinema. Cassavetes’ cinema is frankly modern and progressive if one compares it to the Hollywood industry of the 60’s, 70’s… Yet, in the light of #MeToo, is it still possible to support the director of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Husbands? It is if we consider the romantic Cassavetes who declared his love to Gena Rowland an hour after he saw her performing for the first time on a New-York scene, and spent the rest of his life with the one who became his muse.

Is Cassevetes a sexist director who needs the three “C” (companions, call-girls, cognac) in order to be fully satisfied ?

With seven movies by his side, she’s the one who better translated her husband’s intentions, who creates major roles for her and pays tribute to powerful femininity through her. Gloria, Sarah (Love Stream), Minnie (… and Moskowitz)… each one of her characters get men out of troubles and do not hesitate to fight to stand up for their interests. Women who do not exist for men, depicted as submissive and inferior. In Opening Night, her partner- played by John Cassavetes himself- confesses, between reality and fiction: “Your are my inspiration. Before I met you, I was an alcoholic prick, I was like Dean Martin but without any appeal”. His movies contrast with the classical cinema’s patriarchy, where male characters had to be the story’s heroes. And there’s also the second wife of his life, Katherine Cassavetes, his mother. Powerful, worthy of her Greek origins, she screams (A Woman under the Influence) and judges his son’s girlfriends (Minnie and Moskowitz). Her genius son grants much importance to his mother, unlike his father, who is almost invisible in his movies. So, Cassevetes, the essence of feminism? Not sure.

Because there’s the other Cassevetes… Very much like Gainsbarre and Gainsbourg. The misogynist and scrapper Mediterranean who drinks and depicts women as psychologically unstable beings. A Woman under the Influence and Opening Night are ambiguous… As for Husbands, its trailer means everything: “Husbands, it’s what women guess but don’t know for sure about their men, and what they hate”. Harry (Ben Gazzara), Gus (John Cassavetes) and Archie (Peter Falk) friends on screen (and in real life as well) just lost their fourth companion. On the spur of the moment, they decide to leave wives and children after the funeral to go out on the town in London. It’s of course necessary to consider the background of the story. The movie was shot in the 70’s when consent issues were not on the agenda. But this first colour full-length movie by John Cassavetes is a moutain of crudeness.

In a hotel room, three men force young ladies to kiss them, hit them when they refuse, and laugh about this little game with a glass of whisky in the hand. What about Faces (1968), where all women are poor call-girls victims of drunk and rude movie producers? Including Gena Rowland.

From today’s point of view, is Cassavetes a sexist director who needs the three “C” (companions, call-girls, cognac) in order to be fully satisfied? Or the moviemaker everyone claims to be a follower of because he created the most beautiful feminine characters of the New Hollywood and knows how to exacerbate his own gender’s flaws in order to build up a detailed picture of masculinity. Certainly a little of both… Shortly afterwards Love Stream came out, his last full-length movie, he confessed “I wanted to make this movie for Gena, so that she will forgive me for having ruining her life for so long, in keeping shooting movies and getting drunk*”. Conclusive, puzzling and paradoxical: “This movie is a tribute to all the trouble I caused her”.

** Cassavetes on Cassavetes de Ray Carney (Faber & Faber, 2001).