By Paul Freeman [1985 Article]

“What a lousy audience,” jokes the surprisingly frail-looking man as the San Francisco Film Festival crowd stands and applauds in a long, loving show of appreciation. The exquisite woman beside him is obviously moved. For John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, who have worked so hard to satisfy their own creative hungers, this is a special moment.

The daring actor-writer-director and his supremely talented wife have collaborated on many fascinating films, including “Faces,” “A Woman Under The Influence” and their new picture, “Love Streams,” which recently won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

The couple’s risky, maverick style may not have won them the box office rewards of mass appeal, but it’s obvious from the prolonged, heartfelt ovations they receive that they have had a tremendous impact on a certain segment of the movie-going public.

Cassavetes began his acting career during the golden age of television. He appeared on shows ranging from “Omnibus” and “Playhouse 90” to his noir, jazz-tinged detective series, “Johnny Staccato.”

As an actor, his films include “Crime In The Streets,” “Edge of the City,” “The Killers,” “Brass Target,” “Rosemary’s Baby” “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Fury.”

His directorial debut came in 1961 with the experimental “Shadows.” Cassavetes tentatively tried to adjust to the Hollywood mainstream for Paramount’s “Too Late Blues,” which flopped. He drove forward with personal films - meandering, eccentric, often lacerating character studies - such as “Minnie and Moskowitz,” ”Husbands,” “A Woman Under The Influence” and “Killing of a Chinese Bookie.”

As part of this tribute, the Festival presented his rarely seen 1977 film, “Opening Night,” which features a superb performance by Rowlands as an actress whose mid-life crisis leaves her lost in a netherworld between reality and the theatre stage. Joan Blondell, Ben Gazzara, Zohra Lampert and Cassavetes himself provide sterling support.

Cassavetes caught his first glimpse of Rowlands at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she was doing a play. They married shortly thereafter, in 1954.

Rowlands was discovered by Joshua Logan while appearing in a teleplay by Reginald Rose and shot to stardom by co-starring with Edward G. Robinson on Broadway. She was brought to Hollywood by MGM’s Dore Schary to star opposite Jose Ferrer in a comedy - “The High Cost of Loving.”

Among subsequent movie roles are “Lonely Are The Brave,” “Tony Rome” and “Light of Day.”

Her numerous TV credits include “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” “Tuesday’s Child” for Hallmark, Faerie Tale Theater’s production of “Rapunzel,” “Columbo,” “The Betty Ford Story” and “U.S. Steel Hour.”

Her work under the direction of her husband has brought her universal acclaim. For her role as the gun-toting “Gloria,” Rowlands was flooded with honors, including an Academy Award nomination. She lives with Cassavetes in a rambling house high in the Hollywood Hills. They have three children, Nicholas, Alexandra and Zoe.

Cassavetes, preparing to answer questions from the audience, looks battered and weary from decades of clashing with the establishment. His filmmaking style is unbowed, still uncompromisingly independent, but he’s not as combative these days.

“We don’t fight the system anymore. It’s just a waste of time,” he says, slipping on his engagingly crooked smile. “Before any picture is made, conferences are held and all the reasons the picture shouldn’t be made are given. It’s mind-boggling.

“The one thing I can’t stand is people saying, ‘You can’t.’ They’re used to saying ‘no’ to everything. It becomes automatic.

“Anytime a director says, ‘Okay, we’re ready to shoot,’ he really doesn’t know if they’re going to finish the picture. You can never be sure - that’s on any picture.”

His disillusionment with the Hollywood hierarchy came early in this career, with the release of the poignant 1962 film, “A Child Is Waiting,” which starred Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster.

“That was a wonderful experience,” recalls Cassavetes. “Burt called up and said, ‘You’ve got to do this picture. It’s a public service film.’ The script read well and I accepted.

“I wanted to use real retarded children, which was not what the studio had in mind. I went to different institutions. I looked and looked, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. I couldn’t find any humor in the children suffering. I got to the point where I didn’t want to do the movie at all.

“Then I went to the Pacific State Hospital. It’s closed now - due to political blundering. It was a warm place with warm people. There was this kid - he had a tiny body and an enormous head. I didn’t know how to relate to him. I was going to leave. Then this nurse rushes in and says, ‘You son of a bitch, get over here!’ Then she grabs him and gives him a huge hug. They had such fun. I finally had the perspective. These kids have a great sense of humor. And they’re all individuals. It was fantastic working with them.

“At the end of the picture, United Artists made it clear that making films in a structured system has to do with making money. They were furious about the film’s lack of commercial potential. It was heartbreaking to see a studio behave that way over a public service film. I never wanted to make another film for a major studio.”

So he took a different path, making complex, intimate films, free from the edicts and expectations of the studio system.

“We spend a lot of our own money. Filmmaking is a very expensive hobby. We’ve taken lots of work to pay for our home movies,” Cassavetes quips.

“When we’re acting in other people’s films, both of us try to work as hard as we would work on a project to which we’re passionately devoted. Anything else would be cheating.

“Actually, we have a lot of fun working on other artists’ pictures. Working with Polanski [on “Rosemary’s Baby”] was a terrific experience. Working with Robert Aldrich on ‘The Dirty Dozen’ was great fun.”

“And Paul Mazursky,” interjects the captivating Rowlands, referring to their stint on “Tempest.”

“We don’t want our films to be judged by their commercial value,” explains Cassavetes. “I’m only interested in what’s inside people. I like to see a face through the camera and not let it off the hook. The rhythm and pacing are unlike what you’d find in the ordinary film.”

Yet Cassavetes doesn’t believe his work is only for a select audience of intelligentsia, cinema buffs and film students. “We played ‘Woman Under The Influence’ and everyone said, ‘We understand it. We liked it. But no one else would.’ I’d like to show it to blacks and Mexican-Americans in the poorest part of town - where they only play Clint Eastwood movies - I really think they’d like it.”

Rowlands likes the way her husband handles actors. “He’s just the greatest director who ever lived. I shouldn’t have said that. We promised each other never to say anything nice about each other. We don’t want to put the evil eye on ourselves.

“But John sets a climate. In movies, actors are usually 25th on the list of importance. Everything else comes before actors - camera, makeup, hairstyling, lights. When you’re waiting hours and hours, sitting around reading the trade papers, you begin to wish you were home.

“John reserved that. He tortured the other people, instead of us. He allows actors freedom of movement. And the camera better get it right. The sound may not be as perfect as it would be, if the actors were nailed down, but it’s a great improvement for the actors.”

The couple downplays their use of improvisation. “As a director,” Cassavetes says, “I never look at a script during shooting. But you don’t see actors anxious to change lines that they went to great trouble to learn.”

Adds Rowlands, “When we started, it was fashionable to use The Method and to change the dialogue to whatever we were comfortable with. Eventually, I became offended. I decided if I did that for the next 20 years, I’d be doing the same part, basically. It wasn’t out of respect for the writers. I was young and selfish. I forced myself to accept the discipline of dialogue. You have to find the mystery within the lines.”

She’s asked about Bette Davis, with whom she made the CBS television drama, “Strangers - The Story of Mother and Daughter.” “I grew up watching Bette Davis films,” says the radiant Rowlands. “I found her fascinating and I didn’t know why. What made her different? As I grew older, I realized that she was one of the only actresses of that period - or any period, really - who was independent, who did what she wanted to do. She wasn’t just reacting to the male leads. I must have seen every performance she gave 20 times. I owe a debt of gratitude to her.

“She was my absolute favorite. so when they asked me to do the show with her, I didn’t want to. I thought, ‘What if she turns out to be a pussycat? What if she’s really sweet?’ John said, ‘I wouldn’t worry about that.’ I did the show and she was no pussycat. She’s the real goods. She’s one of a kind, the queen of them all. We came to be great friends by the time it was over.”

Cassavetes and Rowlands, whose relationship clearly draws from a bottomless well of mutual respect and affection, are asked to reveal the secret of their successful marriage. “Blind luck,” responds Cassavetes. “We like each other. We get the same ennuis, the same problems as everyone else. But we have a sense of balance. We just grit our teeth and go on. Besides, she’s one terrific lady.”

Cassavetes isn’t looking for new technologies. He’s found his medium. “I hate video. I hate everything it stands for. I don’t like the look of it. I don’t like the feel of it. It’s just a way of making money. It’s too impermanent.

“There’s something about working with film that’s special. There’s something wonderfully archaic about loading the camera with film. What comes out always surprises you. Making films is a way for everyone who works on them to put their signature on something.

“A movie is like a painting - it’s there for a long, long time. And it’s a new experience whenever you see it.”

Rowlands offers a bit of cogent advice to budding filmmakers: “Protect what’s important to you. Don’t let people make it less. Don’t let them bruise it. Keep it private. Keep your individuality. Don’t adopt a style just because it’s fashionable. That’s the kiss of death, creatively.”

Cassavetes and Rowlands have influenced and inspired countless independent artists. That’s because these two greats have never followed trends. They’ve bravely ventured into uncharted cinematic seas. And they’re still exploring.