Gloria (1980) Retrospective

In the South Bronx, Jeri Dawn is heading home with groceries. Inside the lobby of her apartment building, she passes a man whose dress and appearance are out of place. The woman quickly boards the elevator. She is met in her apartment by her husband Jack Dawn, an accountant for a New York City mob family. There is a contract on Jack and his family, as he has been acting as an informant for the FBI. Suddenly, the family’s neighbor, Gloria Swenson, rings their doorbell, asking to borrow some coffee. Jeri tells Gloria of the impending hit and implores Gloria to protect the children. Gloria, a former mobster’s girlfriend, tells Jeri that she doesn’t like kids but begrudgingly agrees. The Dawns’ daughter Carmen refuses to leave and locks herself in the bathroom, so Gloria takes only their young son Phil to her apartment – narrowly missing the hit squad. After hearing loud shotgun blasts from the Dawns’ apartment, a visibly shaken Gloria decides that she and Phil must go into hiding. She quickly packs a bag, grabs her cat, and leaves the building with Phil, just as a police SWAT team are entering with heavy weapons. Meanwhile, a crowd of onlookers and news reporters has gathered in front of the building, and a cameraman captures a picture of Gloria leaving the building with Phil. Gloria and Phil take a cab into Manhattan, where they hide out in an empty apartment belonging to a friend of hers. While Phil sleeps, Gloria has the TV on and hears a news report say that there was a mob hit in the South Bronx, and that the name of the suspected abductor is Gloria Swenson. The next morning, Gloria and Phil sneak out of the apartment just as a group of gangsters close in on them. The gangsters are old friends of Gloria, and confront her on the sidewalk outside, exhorting her to give up Phil and the ledger. In desperation, Gloria empties her revolver at the car of five gangsters, which takes off and flips over. Gloria realizes both her fate and Phil’s are now intertwined, and that they will have to leave New York to survive. Gloria goes to the bank to empty her safe deposit box, and the two settle for the night at a flophouse. She confronts another group of gangsters at a restaurant; she asks for immunity in exchange for the ledger. “Only Mr. Tanzinni can agree to that,” says one of the goons, so she takes some of their guns and flees. The next day, Gloria tells Phil that she plans to send him away to a boarding school. Offended by her intentions, Phil claims he is an independent grown man who can manage alone. Gloria decides to abandon him, and have a drink. She is soon filled with guilt and rushes back to look for him; however, he has been captured by some wise-guys. Gloria rescues him, killing one thug in the process, and fleeing from two other thugs via a taxi and the subway, where several by-standers help her escape from the two mobsters. The two eventually make it to a hotel room, where Gloria laments the mob’s strength and ubiquitous presence, explaining to Phil that she was once the mistress of Tanzinni himself. She meets with Tanzinni, relinquishes the ledger, and then flees, killing one gangster as another shoots down upon her elevator car. Phil waits several hours, then flees to Pittsburgh via rail. At a cemetery, Phil and Gloria, disguised as an old woman, reunite.

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Cassavetes said that he agreed to do the film largely as a favor to Rowlands, who relished the idea of playing a larger-than-life role. The role deeply appealed to her. It tapped into a side of her that captured the way she sometimes thought of herself – the “sexy but tough woman who doesn’t really need a man” personality type that described many of the actresses she had idolized over the years. Or one might say that Cassavetes was having fun with her love for Marlene Dietrich (whom Gloria resembles in many subtle ways).

Though she really wanted to do it, she doesn’t go about this very easily, you know. After the picture was written and the deal was made, she said, “Maybe you ought to get someone else.” [Laughs.] Which is always maddening. On every film that we’ve ever made, she has enormous trepidations before she goes out and acts, but it’s not because she can’t act, but because she doesn’t know whether she’s capable of speaking for a bunch of women who are childless, and she wants to represent them truthfully. She doesn’t want to represent them as caricatures, she wants to represent the people she’s playing with some authenticity as to what they are feeling, what they would feel in a certain circumstance and in a way that not many actresses do. She’s an artist. And her holdbacks are her pain. I mean, she went through a tremendous amount of pain thinking she’s not good enough to play these things. Once she starts going she forgets “I’m not good enough” and the scenes hold her in check and she just keeps on going as long as she can.

Cassavetes was always in awe of what Rowlands could do with a script – even a weak one. Gena is subtle, delicate. She’s a miracle. She’s straight. She believes in what she believes in. She’s capable of anything. It’s only because of Gena’s enormous capacity to perform that we have a movie, because a lot of people would be a little bit too thin to work on it. Gena is a very interesting woman and for my money the best player that is around. She can just play. Give her anything and she’ll always be creative. She doesn’t try to make it different – she just is – because the way she thinks is different from the way most actors think. She goes in and she says, “Who do I like on this picture? What characters do I like, what characters am I so-so about?” I picked up her script once and I saw all these notes, all about what reaction she had to the various people both in the production and the story. It was very personal to her, and I felt very guilty that I’d snooped. Then I watched her work. She sets the initial premise and follows the script very completely. Very rarely will she improvise, though she does in her head and in her personal thoughts. Everybody else is going boom! boom! boom!, but Gena is very dedicated and pure. She doesn’t care if it’s cinematic, doesn’t care where the camera is, doesn’t care if she looks good – doesn’t care about anything except that you believe her. She caught the rhythm of that woman living a life she’d never seen. When she’s ready to kill, I’m amazed at how coldly she does it.

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Cassavetes’ father, to whom he was very close, died on 26 April 1979, during the final weeks of preparations to shoot, which possibly contributed to the film’s autumnal feel and its striking emphasis on death. Three weeks were reserved for rehearsals. Shooting began at the former Concourse Plaza Hotel on 161st Street in the South Bronx, which was the set for the seedy apartment building at the beginning of the film. In the 1960s, it had become a home for welfare families, but it had been abandoned for four years at the point Cassavetes found it. An apartment house at 800 Riverside Drive (at 158th Street) served as the location for three of the nice apartments: Gloria’s sister’s place; the final hotel room Phil waits in; and mob leader Tony Tanzini’s headquarters. Cassavetes loved the history both locations wore on their walls and had to struggle to keep Rene D’Auriac and the Columbia set-design crew from cleaning them up or retouching the graffiti on the Concourse Plaza.

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I love New York! I grew up there, and it seemed to me that all the pictures that are made about New York never concentrate on neighbor hoods. And New York to me is comprised of a series of neighborhoods. But I didn’t want people to just say, “‘OK. Now we’re here. Now we’re on 57th Street. Now we’re on 58th Street.” It was very important not to make the scenery be the center of attention, because, I don’t know, I just feel there should be some more respect given to life than to the making of a film.

Producer Sam Shaw helped to select the locations. Since he had been friends with Romare Bearden and written a book about his work, he suggested using his watercolors for the title cards. As part of his effort to break away from Hollywood clichés, Cassavetes and Shaw rounded up actual gangsters and various street-people for the scene in Tony Tanzini’s apartment. Cassavetes solicited their opinion about whether this was the way things would really happen. The man Gloria shoots on her way to the elevator, for example, was an actual professional hit man, with fifteen years’ experience, who got into an argument with Cassavetes about how the scene would have really taken place if he were running things.

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The aspect of the film that came in for the most criticism from reviewers was Juan Adames’ performance. They came in apparently expecting him to be cute and cuddly in the Little Miss Marker mode. When he wasn’t, they judged that Cassavetes had failed. What they overlooked was that Cassavetes deliberately worked hard to avoid sentimentality (of which the Sidney Lumet/Sharon Stone remake is guilty).

The kid is neither sympathetic nor non-sympathetic. He’s just a kid. He reminds me of me, constantly in shock, reacting to this unfathomable environment. He was always full of excitement and wonderment as to what he was doing, trying to comprehend this fathomless story of a family being wiped out.

To add to the toughness of the performance, Gena Rowlands didn’t come out of character between takes and was as cool to Adames when they weren’t filming as when they were. She felt that if she treated him any differently on the set than her character was in the movie, it would only confuse the boy and potentially spoil their scenes. Cassavetes endorsed her decision (and in fact wanted her to be even tougher and harder on him than she chose to be). An aspect of the film that Cassavetes may not have even been conscious of was that Phil, the midget macho man, was an emotional, if not a literal, self-portrait of the artist, and Rowlands’ treatment of the pint-sized Puerto Rican tough-guy was a comical rendition of her real-life relationship with her swaggering husband.

She and the kid found an amazing restraint. Most people today say, “Tell me you like me, tell me you love me.” People need that reassurance, that confirmation of things that should be self-evident. But these characters go on the basis that there are certain emotions and rules that go beyond words and assurances. They just know. I like that part of the movie. The kid is Puerto Rican. The woman is a blonde of a type who might not ordinarily think a Hispanic was the highest member of society. Even when they’re thrown together, they don’t pretend to care about each other because it’s fashionable. So at the end, when they do care about each other, it’s because of their personal trust and regard. And that’s a beautiful thing to see.

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The main interest of the film, for Cassavetes, was the character of Gloria. It was about a woman who beyond her control stood up for a kid whom she wanted nothing to do with. Gena’s character was of a very simple person that loved her life and having to give it up for a Puerto Rican kid in New York City; it’s like if I meet somebody and they say, “Hey man, can you help me? I’m in a lot of trouble, and I’m going to be killed.” It’s one thing to be killed. But it’s another thing to give up everything that you own in life, all your friends, your whole way of life. So I think this woman gives up her whole way of life, and she does it in such a fashion that you believe her, and that’s basically the picture. If that works, then I think the picture works.

Gloria celebrates the coming together of a woman who neither likes nor understands children and a boy who believes he’s man enough to stand on his own. There’s a lot of pain connected with raising children in today’s world. It’s considered a big holdback for a woman. So a lot of women have developed a distrust of children. I wanted to tell women that they don’t have to like children – but there’s still something deep in them that relates to children, and this separates them from men in a good way. This inner understanding of kids is something very deep and instinctive. In a way, it’s the other side of insanity. But we had to be careful how we evoked this in the movie. We avoided anything like a traditional mother-son relationship. Gloria doesn’t know why she’s doing any of these things. She’s lost by it, and that’s the way I feel. I’m lost by life. I don’t know anything about life. If I make a movie, I don’t even understand why I’m making the movie. I just know that there’s something there. Later on, we all get to know what it’s about through the opinions of others.

Interview with actress Gena Rowlands

What about “Gloria”? The ads sold it as an action film.
Gena Rowlands: They did?

Yes, that’s why I went to see it as a kid. I think they took every shot in the movie where you had a gun and put it in the trailer.
Gena Rowlands: Hah! Yes, that’s what they do.

But it turned out to be more of a relationship movie about your character, a gangster’s moll, and this little boy she has to protect, the son of a murdered mob accountant.
Gena Rowlands: You know, I consider “Gloria” a comedy. A gangster comedy. It wasn’t actually written for me, it was written for another actress, but her audience wanted a more glamorous story, and then somebody at the studio said, “Maybe John will direct it.” John was much more serious than I was, I said “No, I doubt he’ll want to do this.” But then he did it, and I was very happy to see what I considered a comedy looming in front of my eyes. I talked John into directing it the movie, we did it, and I had a great time shooting people and dodging people and running after taxis.

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I really liked Johnny Adames, the child who played the boy in the film.
Gena Rowlands: John picked him out from auditions of a great many children of that age. John had them just come in and he met with them, they didn’t read anything. He immediately fell for Johnny, and when I saw him, I fell for him, too. I said to John, “That is an actor I would like to play with.”

I joked about them putting every shot of you with a gun in the trailer, but there really was quite a bit of violent action in that film, as least compared to the sorts of films you were doing around that time.
Gena Rowlands: You’re telling me. Every scene was written with me running somehow. Ungaro did some of the costumes—you know, he’s Emanuel Ungaro in Europe where he lives, but Ungaro, that’s what we call him. There was one scene at beginning where they’re gonna shoot the boy and me, and I had to swoop off all the costumes that I could wear in the rest of the movie, and they were all hanging on a big rack, and so I could only do it with one hand. We were running, and I had a cat, and I couldn’t get the cat to run with us. And I grabbed these costumes with one hand.

How did you do that in the kinds of clothes you were wearing in that film, and the shoes?
Gena Rowlands: Ungaro is a wonderful, wonderful costumer or designer for anybody. He made that skirt I had to run in with high heels in that scene look straight, yet somehow he had worked five little tiny pleats into the back of it, in the hemline.

Any special memories about making Gloria?
Gena Rowlands: I remember it was about 120 in the shade, I had five-inch heels, I had a child slung over my shoulder and I was running a great deal of the time but it was fun. It was fun to feel so powerful and so mighty and then on the other hand to always be thinking, I mean, here was a woman who just didn’t like children, especially this child, and then she came to love him. You wonder is that just built in? It’s a mystery, and a serious thing that you didn’t get into in this kind of movie but still it’s in your mind and it’s interesting to think when did it turn from “I want to punch that little bastard” to knowing how much you cared about him. Yes I liked the film very much. I don’t think I’ve ever seen New York shot better. It just was loads of fun.

Cassavetes’ responses to common critical objections to the film:

John Cassavetes
John Cassavetes

–On why Buck Henry didn’t pack and leave earlier.
You never can leave early. You always think now I’m gonna run out and get out of town, but if you have a wife, you understand that she has to get ready, and if you have a child or two kids, then you realize that they have to get ready. And if you have two kids and a grandmother, there’s an awful lot of packing to be done. So you can say let’s go a million times to your wife and family, and they’re still going to be late.

–On why the gangsters weren’t better organized:
I consider gangsters to be the same as regular people, the only difference is that they’re willing to kill somebody. I don’t consider gangsters anything more than that except they have a deeper limit of what the tolerance of the human spirit will allow. And I don’t think they’re smarter than anybody else. I don’t think they’re smarter than I am.

–On why Gloria wasn’t searched before she met the boss.
I think that’s protocol. I think it’s OK to blow away small mob figures, guys that are trying to kill you, or trying to kill somebody involved with you. But when you walk into the head Mafia guy’s house, and they’re like ten people in the room – and this woman had been the head man’s mistress – I don’t think there’s any doubt that she wouldn’t be searched, because no one in the world would ever expect her to try to walk out of that place. It’s such a come-down in position to search somebody. Can you imagine the Secretary of State of the United States going to Russia to see the top Commissar and being searched? You wouldn’t be searched. Even with them, there’s some kind of politeness.

–On why the gangsters didn’t just shoot Gloria when she came in.
It’s not a bunch of guys that the minute a woman gives herself up, that they take her off and put her in cement and throw her in a river. [It’s] difficult for the head guy, who has bought her jewels, as he says, and he’s gone to bed with her, and who’s lived with her, to just pull the trigger. It’s never easy. I think that it’s only in movies that it’s easy. The hell with it. And I like to deal with people who have a little bit more feeling than just the stereotype – [unlike other movies where it’s] the kiss of death and then it’s over with.

John Cassavetes

Sam Shaw

John Cassavetes

Gloria John Cassavetes
Gena Rowlands as Gloria Swenson
Julie Carmen as Jeri Dawn
Buck Henry as Jack Dawn
John Adames as Phil Dawn
Lupe Garnica as Margarita Vargas
John Finnegan as Frank
Tom Noonan, J.C. Quinn, and Sonny Landham as Mob henchmen
Lawrence Tierney as Broadway bartender

Cassavetes on Cassavetes Book Chapter on The Making of Gloria (1979-1980) John Cassavetes and Ray Carney

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