A woman with in­flu­ence Gena Row­lands

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takes a lot of liv­ing to achieve the stature of a liv­ing leg­end. It takes a lot of ac­com­plish­ment, too. Gena Row­lands has both of those items on her ré­sumé. On Satur­day, Oct. 17, on the stage of the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, the eighty­five-year-old screen icon will re­ceive a Life­time Achieve­ment Award from the seven-year-old Santa Fe In­de­pen­dent Film Fes­ti­val. The cer­e­mony will be fol­lowed by a show­ing of John Cas­savetes’ 1974 A Woman Un­der the In­flu­ence, for which she was nom­i­nated for an Os­car. On Nov. 14, she will re­ceive a Gover­nors Award pre­sented by the Academy of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences.

Does it feel like a vic­tory lap? A swan song? “It makes me ner­vous,” Row­lands ad­mit­ted in a phone con­ver­sa­tion from her home in Los An­ge­les. “Act­ing is a lot dif­fer­ent from speak­ing in public to a lot of peo­ple. But it doesn’t change any­thing. I don’t ex­pect I’ll be do­ing movies till I’m one hun­dred, but I’m very pleased to be an ac­tress, and there’s still time to do it.”

She’s been do­ing it since she left col­lege in 1950 to try her luck in the caul­dron of theater dreams, New York City. But she’s known what she wanted to do since she was a lit­tle girl. “The luck­i­est thing that ever hap­pened to me was to be born to my par­ents,” she said. “At a very early age I got very ill. Off and on till about the sixth grade, I didn’t get a lot of school. But my mom loved to read, and she taught me to read very young. It opened my mind to the idea that you didn’t have to be just you, ly­ing in a bed, tak­ing your tem­per­a­ture — you could live all of these dif­fer­ent, ex­cit­ing lives. I never, ever wanted to be any­thing but an ac­tress.”

When she quit the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin af­ter her ju­nior year, her par­ents gave their bless­ing. Her fa­ther told her, “Gena, I don’t care if you want to be an ele­phant trainer, you do what you have to do.” That fall she found her­self in Man­hat­tan at the Amer­i­can Academy of Dra­matic Arts. “It was down in the lower part of Carnegie Hall, which was quite ex­cit­ing in it­self,” she re­mem­bered. It was a golden age for theater and tele­vi­sion, and a thrilling time to be start­ing out. “Ev­ery­body tried out for ev­ery­thing. It was just at the time when live TV was com­ing in. And live TV at that time was so won­der­ful! It wasn’t quite like any­thing else. It wasn’t quite like the theater; it wasn’t quite like movies. They drew from all of the great writ­ers — Hem­ing­way and Dos Pas­sos — and there were a lot of writ­ers who wrote specif­i­cally for live TV. It was just very ex­cit­ing!”

Pur­su­ing her act­ing ca­reer was all the ex­cite­ment Row­lands had on her mind when she came to the city. The last thing she was look­ing for, she said with a laugh, was ro­mance. “The one thing I knew when I de­cided I wanted to be an ac­tress was I didn’t want to fall in love, I didn’t want to get mar­ried, and I didn’t want to have chil­dren. I just wanted to be an ac­tress. And have ev­ery­body leave me alone.”

But there was a hand­some, in­tense fel­low stu­dent a year ahead of her at the Academy. His name was John Cas­savetes. She first spot­ted him one day in the lunch­room. “I saw him, and I said, ‘Oh, damn.’ And I went back up­stairs. But I would check the room out ev­ery lunchtime, and take a chance on ru­in­ing my whole life. He would come and see the shows that we did — we did plays for our fi­nal ex­am­i­na­tion. He came back­stage, and I thought, ‘I don’t even want to talk to him. I don’t want to get started.’ I didn’t know


We’ll prob­a­bly ask you ques­tions you’ve been asked a mil­lion times.

Gena Row­lands:

I’ll try to come up with dif­fer­ent an­swers.

what to do. But things worked out. I fell in love, I got mar­ried, and I had three chil­dren. And I still man­aged to work in the ac­tress part too.”

Row­lands be­gan get­ting work in re­gional theater. Her big New York break came when she was cast op­po­site film star Ed­ward G. Robin­son on Broad­way. The play was Paddy Chayevsky’s Mid­dle of the Night. The year was 1956. “You can imag­ine how thrilled I was. He was a great ac­tor, a won­der­ful guy, too. The thing is, the play ran a long time, be­cause ev­ery­body in the world wanted to see Ed­ward G. Robin­son. That would leave me busy at night. And John, who was do­ing very well as an ac­tor in live TV, had noth­ing to do in the evenings. So he got a bunch of peo­ple, ac­tor friends, to­gether, and they started do­ing im­pro­vi­sa­tions. [Bob] Fosse lent his stu­dio, and they worked very hard on these im­pro­vi­sa­tions. And that’s where the first film that they did, which was en­tirely im­pro­vised, came from. It’s called Shad­ows.”

Out of those im­prov ses­sions came the Cas­savetes style of cinéma vérité, which cap­tured the ba­sic hon­esty of hu­man emo­tion in or­di­nary peo­ple. Shad­ows (in which Row­lands ap­peared in an un­cred­ited bit part) won the Crit­ics Prize at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val in 1960. It was 10 years be­fore Cas­savetes and Row­lands were able to scrape to­gether the re­sources to make another fea­ture. When it hap­pened, it was called Faces (1968), and it sent shock waves through au­di­ences and crit­ics with its raw orig­i­nal­ity; the film gar­nered three Os­car nom­i­na­tions. Cas­savetes and Row­lands made seven films to­gether that he di­rected; she re­ceived Os­car nom­i­na­tions for two of them. Row­lands be­came the lead­ing lady of the enor­mously in­flu­en­tial com­pany that gal­va­nized the in­de­pen­dent Amer­i­can film move­ment.

The one thing I knew when I de­cided I wanted to be an ac­tress was I didn’t want to fall in love, I didn’t want to get mar­ried, and I didn’t want to have chil­dren.

I just wanted to be an ac­tress. And have ev­ery­body leave me alone.

Of Cas­savetes’ tem­per­a­ment be­hind the cam­era, Row­lands said, “He wasn’t a bossy di­rec­tor. He wasn’t try­ing to say he knew bet­ter than any­body else. He gave ev­ery­body a great deal of free­dom. In fact, I think one of the best things that he ever said to m e, as an ac­tor — we were go­ing to do a pic­ture, it was a hard pic­ture, Woman Un­der the In­flu­ence, and my char­ac­ter was not ul­ti­mately nor­mal, but she had the abil­ity to love tremen­dously. She overloves, re­ally — to des­per­a­tion. And I said to John, ‘Lis­ten, honey, I re­ally havea prob­lem with this scene.’ And he said, ‘Gena, I wrote this script with you in mind, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘I asked you to read it, and you did.’ I said, ‘Yes.’

He said, ‘You said you loved it, and you wanted to do it.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well then, do it.’

“It was like a bolt of light­ning to my head. It was so il­lu­mi­nat­ing! I re­al­ized, only you can un­der­stand a char­ac­ter from the in­side out. Only the ac­tor who’s play­ing it. And you can’t go whin­ing around to the di­rec­tor when you got to the hard part and say, ‘I can’t do this, I don’t know what to do.’ You have to fig­ure it out your­self. And I did, and it was very, very hard to do that. But it gave me a sense of the gift that a part is.”

Cas­savetes died in 1989, at the age of fifty-nine. Since then, their chil­dren have made their mark in the film busi­ness. Row­lands has made sev­eral pic­tures with her son Nick Cas­savetes, in­clud­ing the 2004 hit The Notebook, with James Garner. “It was a great sur­prise to me to have three chil­dren who all turned out to be di­rec­tors,” she ad­mit­ted. “Nick’s the first I worked with, and he’s so much like John. He’s a won­der­ful writer, too. He has that same com­bi­na­tion that John did. He’s loose with the ac­tors. I don’t know how to de­scribe it, he loves ac­tors — they both love ac­tors. Lots of di­rec­tors don’t. I’ve done one pic­ture with Zoe; I haven’t with Xan [Alexan­dra].”

Row­lands has made more than 60 movies, both the­atri­cal and tele­vi­sion, in a ca­reer that spans six decades. She’s still at it, work­ing steadily in movies and tele­vi­sion. Her Life­time Achieve­ment Award from the fes­ti­val will be a look back over a glo­ri­ous ca­reer. But Row­lands is still look­ing for­ward.

They had faces then; top, Gena Row­lands with hus­band, John Cas­savetes, 1970s

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