John Cassavetes was at his artistic height by the late 1970s. He directed Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), and Opening Night (1977), and gave his best performance as lower-class narcissist Nicky in Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976). Although largely ignored or even denigrated by some contemporary film critics, Cassavetes’ work grew increasingly sophisticated over the decade.
And then came Gloria, in 1980. The film exemplifies the conflict between Cassavetes’ character-based, “guerrilla” filmmaking and Hollywood’s predilection for action-packed plots. Financed by Columbia Studios, Gloria often submerges Cassavetes’ focus on offbeat, difficult characters within a mainstream production style.
Cassavetes himself was not happy with his script. He claims he wanted to earn some fast cash, but have nothing to do with its filming. Columbia, however, insisted that he direct the film and that his wife, Gena Rowlands, star in it. Cassavetes later claimed, “I was bored because I knew the answer to that picture the minute we began… Whereas Husbands is not simple, whereas A Woman Under the Influence is not simple, Opening Night is not simple. You have to think about those pictures” (Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, 454).
The film tracks the adventures of Gloria Swenson (Rowlands) with six-year-old Phil Dawn (John Adames), after the boy’s family is murdered by the mafia. Phil retains his father’s ledger of the mob’s illegal activities, which might earn him FBI protection. But, because Gloria has a criminal past, she cannot go to the authorities, and instead attempts to make a deal with the mob to hand over the ledger in exchange for Phil’s life.
As familiar as this set up may sound, Gloria doesn’t represent the relationship between Gloria and Phil in clichéd terms. Her ambivalent feelings toward this boy, so suddenly imposed on her life, emerge when they’re in a tight spot, and she instructs him, “Run as fast as you can.” She accompanies him for a few steps, then turns, telling him to go on by himself. “I’m not taking care of you any more,” she says. “I’ve been in jail.” We get a sense here of her frustration with this impossible situation.
Phil’s feelings for Gloria are similarly messy; he sees her as a substitute mother, a tough broad, and a potential sexual interest. His efforts to perform as “the man” in their relationship expose the absurdities of standard hetero-masculine assumptions and behaviors. When, early on, Gloria tries to convince him to leave the murder scene, he resists, repeating while pounding his chest, “I am the man. I am the man. Do you hear me? Not you. I am the man. I do anything I can.” Gloria wipes the blood trickling from his nose and says, “You are not the man. You don’t listen. You don’t know anything.”
Moments such as these between Gloria and Phil expose both Cassavetes and Rowlands’ mutual interests in the nuances of character. He inserts pauses in the narrative, occasional details that draw attention to the struggle within the film — between Hollywood conventions and the filmmaker’s resistance to same.
Sometimes, the struggle is lost: even as Gloria and Phil develop a mutual and complex fondness for one another, the narrative eventually pushes Gloria to play the standard role of mother. One of her old mob-connected boyfriends tells her, “I understand. You are a woman. He’s a little boy. Every woman is a mother. You love him.” Gloria is confused: “I love Phil?”
We are not so confused, however, as the formula seems unavoidable. Worse, emotional interactions between Gloria and Phil are usually underscored by swelling soundtrack music. Or they are just forgotten in the wake of multiple chase scenes through a stunningly filmed Manhattan; these dominate the film, creating excitement and suspense that have little to do with tender moments between fully developed characters.
Still, Gloria intermittently reveals some of the director’s subversive inclinations, not to mention Rowlands’ subtleties. These are visible often enough to make Gloria more intriguing than a standard Hollywood gangster movie.