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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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The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
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Disney/Marvel

If you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction and your pile of Arthur C. Clarke books has been exhausted, you could do worse than to tune in to Netflix. The streaming service is constantly acquiring new films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that should satisfy most fans of alternative futures. Here are five of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now.

1. CUBE (1997)

This low-budget independent film may have helped inspire the current "escape room" attraction fad. Six strangers wake up in a strange room that leads only to other rooms—all of them equipped with increasingly sadistic ways of murdering occupants.

2. METROPOLIS (1927)

Inspiring everything from Star Wars to Lady Gaga, Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a revolt among the oppressed people who help power an upper-class city remains just as visually impressive today as it did nearly 100 years ago.

3. TROLL HUNTER (2010)

A Norwegian fairy tale with bite, Troll Hunter follows college-aged filmmakers who convince a bear trapper to take them along on his exploits. But the trapper fails to disclose one crucial detail: He hunts towering, aggressive trolls.

4. NEXT (2007)

Nic Cage stars a a magician who can see a few minutes into the future. He's looking to profit with the skill: the FBI and others are looking to exploit it.

5. THE HOST (2006)

A slow-burn monster movie from South Korea, The Host has plenty of tense scenes coupled with a message about environmental action: The river-dwelling beast who stalks a waterfront town is the product of chemical dumping.  

6. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2 (2017)

Marvel's tale of a misfit band of space jockeys was a surprise hit in 2014. The sequel offers more Groot, more Rocket Raccoon, and the addition of Kurt Russell as a human manifestation of an entire sentient planet.

7. STARDUST (2007)

Director Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel features Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro as supporting players in the tale of a man (a pre-Daredevil Charlie Cox) in search of a fallen star to gift to his love.

8. KING KONG (2005)

Director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) set his considerable sights on a remake of the 1933 classic, with the title gorilla pestered and exploited by opportunistic humans.

9. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

What will a teenage mope do when a giant rabbit tells him the world is about to end? The answer comes in this critical and cult hit, which drew attention for its moody cinematography and an arresting performance by a then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal.  

10. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

Soon we'll have a movie for every single major or minor incident ever depicted in the Star Wars universe. For now, we'll have to settle for this one-off that explains how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the plans for the Death Star.

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9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences
King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.

1. KING LOUIS XV WAS KIDNAPPING CHILDREN.

In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.

2. LONDON WAS GOING TO BE DESTROYED BY AN EARTHQUAKE.

Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.

3. JEWS WERE POISONING WELLS.

A deep well
iStock

Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.

4. BRIGANDS WERE TERRORIZING THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE.

In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.

5. GERMAN-AMERICANS WERE PLOTTING SNEAK ATTACKS ON CANADA.

Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade
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Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.

6. THE INDONESIAN GOVERNMENT WAS HUNTING HEADS FOR CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS.

In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.

7. POWERFUL APHRODISIAC GUM WENT ON SALE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum
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In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.

8. SORCERERS WERE PLAGUING INDONESIA.

In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.

9. OBAMA WAS INJURED BY A WHITE HOUSE EXPLOSION.

These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

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