In the 35 years Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes were married (from 1954 until his death in 1989), she starred in seven of the dozen features he directed and appeared un-billed in two others. With their outsized characterizations and heightened emotions (fueled, more often than not, by heavy alcohol consumption), Cassavetes’ films were showcases for his actors and attracted a stock company of performers who relished being able to go as big as they wanted – as long as they were being truthful. Since the majority of his projects were self-financed and independently distributed, Cassavetes also had no qualms about using unfamiliar faces and non-actors in pivotal roles.
Such demonstrativeness was less common in the dramas Woody Allen started turning out with 1978’s Interiors, his Ingmar Bergman-inspired follow-up to Best Picture winner Annie Hall. By the time he made Another Woman a decade later — 30 years ago this month — Allen had found his own voice as a dramatist, even if he still produced the occasional dud like 1987’s September, the first version of which he scrubbed because he thought changing out some of the actors would help make its leaden story come to life. (Spoiler: It did not.) With Another Woman, though, he gave Rowlands a plum role as a philosophy professor so closed off from her emotions that she’s blind to how others see her and how little she knows about herself.
Compared to Rowlands’ Oscar-nominated performances in her husband’s A Woman Under the Influence and Gloria or her live-wire turn as the emotionally unstable actress in his Opening Night (in which her character is starring in a play called The Second Woman), Another Woman’s Marion Post is as controlled as you can get. This is signified by the tightly braided hairstyle she wears through most of the film, assuring she hardly ever has a strand out of place. In fact, the only times she’s seen with her hair down (albeit in a ponytail) are the flashbacks to the time right before she married her current husband, Ken, played by Ian Holm with an icy reserve to match hers. (Interestingly, at one point Ben Gazzara was considered for the role, which would have doubled the Cassavetes alum quotient.)
The impetus for Marion’s introspection and trigger for many of her flashbacks/memories is an “acoustical anomaly” that allows her to eavesdrop on the therapy sessions being conducted in the apartment next to the one she’s rented to have a distraction-free place to write. The patient she’s most intrigued by is a pregnant woman named Hope (played by Allen’s then-partner Mia Farrow, who actually was pregnant with Ronan Farrow), who is in essence the film’s second narrator alongside Marion, whose voice-overs are used to orient the viewer in her privileged world and identify the people in it. In contrast, Hope uses analysis to express her anxieties and regrets, which mirror Marion’s in ways that surprise her.
Chief among Marion’s regrets is her rejection of novelist Larry Lewis (Gene Hackman), who tried to lure her away from Ken during their engagement party. An awkward situation, to be sure, but it’s nothing compared to the unexpected arrival of Ken’s ex-wife, who’s understandably bitter about the whole thing. “I realize you’ve been hurt,” Ken tells her, “and if I’ve done anything wrong, I’m sorry. Forgive me. I accept your condemnation.” This well-rehearsed speech, intended to neutralize his ex-wife’s anger, is echoed later on in the scene where Marion, having done some soul-searching, confronts him about their nonexistent sex life. This time, however, Ken is delivering it to an audience of one, and she doesn’t realize the almost word-for-word repetition is a sure sign he’s been cheating on her until she actually catches him with another woman.
Marion’s journey to self-realization, however, begins much earlier, with her pursuit of Hope, her own “other woman.” Impulsively following her on foot one night, Marion winds up running into an old friend, actress Claire (Sandy Dennis), who bursts her bubble by telling her point-blank that they didn’t “just drift apart” the way she thinks. “I withdrew,” Claire says, firmly and decisively, leaving Marion to consider how many of her other personal relationships she’s misinterpreted and dropped the ball on. She even imagines that her stepdaughter Laura (Martha Plimpton), who she’s told idolizes her, finds her judgmental. “She just sort of stands above people and evaluates them,” Laura says while a stunned Marion looks on.
As clearly and concisely as Marion expresses herself verbally, she reveals herself the most in the scenes where she’s listening to other people and every emotion she’s feeling has to play out on Rowlands’ face. She makes her greatest breakthrough, though, during the 10-minute dream sequence (which is announced as such in voice-over to head off any potential confusion) that shows how many things from her past have been eating away at her subconscious. (This sequence also allows Rowlands to literally cede the spotlight to Dennis, however briefly.) Then, and only then, is she ready to make a one-on-one connection with Hope, who she meets by chance while shopping for an anniversary present. “Can I help you?” Marion asks, but by this time the viewer is well aware that Marion is the one in desperate need of assistance.
This is brought home in the subsequent scene where Marion overhears Hope telling her therapist about the “really sad woman” she just met. “A woman you’d think would have everything, but she doesn’t. She has nothing.” By saying out loud what Marion has begun to suspect but can’t put into words, Hope gives her the final push she needs to cut the philandering Ken loose and move on with her life. And since her building’s ventilation system has done its job, Marion reports the problem to her neighbor so he can get it fixed and she can write in peace – and with true peace of mind.
At the time of its release, Another Woman received mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office. (After September, it’s Allen’s lowest-grossing film from his Orion period.) And while some of the critics savaged it (Jonathan Rosenbaum declared it a “piece of posturing phoniness,” Vincent Canby called its characters “talking automatons”), they had nothing but the highest praise for Rowlands’ work. Indeed, as Roger Ebert wrote in his glowing, four-star review, “Great actors and great directors sometimes find a common emotional ground, so that the actor becomes an instrument playing the director’s song.”
In spite of the effusive praise she received — or perhaps because of the scandals that rocked Allen’s personal life just a few years later and continue to dog him today — Another Woman turned out to be a one-off for Gena Rowlands. Her one-time director did reprise the film’s eavesdropping theme, though — in an overtly comedic fashion — with 1996’s Everyone Says I Love You. By sheer coincidence, that was the same year Rowlands starred in Unhook the Stars, the directorial debut of her son, Nick Cassavetes, whose biggest hit to date has been — wait for it — 2014’s The Other Woman. Some things you just can’t make up.