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11 Influential Facts About A Woman Under the Influence

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You can't talk about the history of independent film without talking about John Cassavetes. The New York-born writer/director/actor was successfully making and distributing his own films decades before the indie boom of the 1990s, nearly always to critical acclaim, and sometimes even for financial gain. The most prominent was 1974's A Woman Under the Influence, one of eight movies he directed that starred his wife, Gena Rowlands, and the only one for which they were both Oscar-nominated.

Though they didn't win, Rowlands's performance as a housewife having a nervous breakdown is still regarded as a master class in acting, and Cassavetes's sensitive, naturalistic style influenced everyone from Jim Jarmusch to Martin Scorsese. Here's a peek behind the scenes of one of the 1970s' most celebrated dramas.

1. IT WAS GOING TO BE A PLAY, BUT IT PROVED TOO INTENSE.

John Cassavetes first wrote A Woman Under the Influence as a stage play intended for Rowlands, who'd said she wanted to do a play about the difficulties faced by modern women. Rowlands loved what her husband wrote but realized it was too intensely emotional for her to perform it night after night without having a nervous breakdown herself. Cassavetes retooled it into a screenplay, sparing Rowlands's sanity.

2. JOHN CASSAVETES DIDN'T APPROACH IT AS A STORY ABOUT A CRAZY PERSON.

Asked if he did any research into mental illness or nervous breakdowns when he wrote the film in an interview included on the Criterion Blu-ray, Cassavetes said, "No, because I don't think it's about that. I'm half crazy myself, and I think almost everyone is verging on some kind of insanity. I believe very strongly that all women who are married for any length of time—and if they love their husbands—they don't have any place to put their emotions, and that can drive them crazy ... This particular woman, I don't think she's crazy ... I think she's just frustrated beyond belief. More than being crazy, I think she's just socially inept."

3. NOBODY WANTED TO FINANCE THE MOVIE.

You'll probably file this in the "I didn't know that but it doesn't surprise me" category: Though Hollywood studios were taking risks in the 1970s, giving directors more free rein than they'd had previously, nobody wanted to spend money on a film about (in Cassavetes's words) "a crazy, middle-aged dame." Instead, Cassavetes mortgaged his house and took up a collection among actor friends to finance the film.

4. PETER FALK PUT UP $500,000 OF HIS OWN MONEY.

Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

Half of the film's final budget came from Cassavetes's longtime friend Peter Falk, who was then starring in TV's Columbo. (Cassavetes had guest-starred a couple years earlier.) Falk was so taken with the screenplay for A Woman Under the Influence that he not only co-starred in it, he turned down another movie (The Day of the Dolphin) and ponied up half a million of his own Columbo dollars to get it made. (Perhaps that’s why he gets top billing over Rowlands.)

5. IT REQUIRED SOME STOLEN ELECTRICITY.

Making an independent, low-budget film means being resourceful. For one outdoor scene, Cassavetes powered his equipment by hijacking a municipal power line.

6. IT ALSO REQUIRED SOME UNPAID LABOR.

Cassavetes was then serving as the first filmmaker-in-residence at the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Film Studies, in Los Angeles. That gave him access to eager young people who wanted all the practical moviemaking experience they could get. Most of his crew consisted of these students, working for free or for deferred salaries, some of whom quit before it was over (hey, you get what you pay for).

7. IT WAS ONE OF THE FIRST MOVIES TO BE SUCCESSFULLY INDEPENDENTLY DISTRIBUTED.

Not only did none of the studios want to finance the film, they weren't interested in distributing it when it was finished, either. Ever the do-it-yourselfer, Cassavetes personally called theater owners to get them to book it, relying on his good reputation in the art-house community (A Woman Under the Influence was his seventh film, his fourth as an independent producer). He also booked screenings on college campuses, where he and Falk would appear to do Q&As. It wound up making $6.1 million (as of 1976, according to Variety), all of which went back to Cassavetes, his investors, and the cast and crew, none to any studio.

8. MARTIN SCORSESE ENGAGED IN A BIT OF BLACKMAIL TO GET IT SEEN.

A Woman Under the Influence's big break came when it was screened to great acclaim at the 1974 New York Film Festival, some 18 months after Cassavetes finished it. But even that almost didn't happen: the festival rejected it. In desperation, Cassavetes called his friend Martin Scorsese (there was a lot of mutual admiration between the two), whose documentary Italian-American was already on the festival's roster. Scorsese threatened to withdraw his film unless the festival organizers gave Cassavetes's film a chance. (Note: In some tellings of this anecdote, it was Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, also playing at the 1974 NYFF, that he threatened to withdraw. The most reliable firsthand or almost firsthand account we could find, however, says it was Italian-American.)

9. GOOD THING SCORSESE'S GAMBLE WORKED, OR CASSAVETES MIGHT NEVER HAVE MADE ANOTHER FILM.

Watson/Express/Getty Images

Cassavetes gave a long interview to journalist Judith McNally at the New York Film Festival, after he'd spent 18 months trying to find a distributor. He was also burned out on making four movies in a row without studio help. "I can't like making films anymore if they're this tough," he said. "The pressures are too unnatural. I'm not crying, because I enjoy it. But I am saddened by the fact that I have physical limitations."

Yet working with profit-minded studios was hard, too, since Cassavetes refused to bend on his artistic principles. "If that means I'll never make [a] film again, then I'll never make another film again," he said. McNally followed up. "You don't have any plans at all for another film?" He replied: "Right now all I can hope is that [A Woman Under the Influence] is extremely successful. And if it isn't, I won't make another one—that's all. Which in itself is no great tragedy." He did, in fact, go on to make five more films before his death in 1989.

10. IT FEELS IMPROVISED, BUT IT WASN'T.

Rowlands and Falk give very naturalistic performances, often seeming like they're having unscripted conversations. When an interviewer asked Cassavetes about that, he gave a succinct, unambiguous answer: "No, the entire script was written and there were no improvisations whatsoever."

11. RICHARD DREYFUSS HELPED PROMOTE IT.

During an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show that Falk was co-hosting, Richard Dreyfuss was asked if he had seen the movie Falk was there to promote. Dreyfuss replied enthusiastically: "It was the most incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie. I went crazy. I went home and vomited." (Falk piped up, "It's also funny! It's a funny movie!") During the commercial, Falk telephoned Cassavetes in a panic—"He's telling everyone how terribly dark and scary the movie is!"—but the director laughed and said, "He can say what he wants."

Additional sources:
Interviews and commentary on the Criterion Blu-ray.
Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film, by Marshall Fine

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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.

2. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.

4. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.

8. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.

10. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

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Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC

At its best, San Diego Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’s Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY


John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of 2016 and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Just a few months later, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE


Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

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