William S. Pechter

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832

It seems I waited too long to write my obligatory piece on "The Vanishing Heroine in American Movies," and events have now passed me by….

Mabel Longhetti, in John Cassavetes's A Woman under the Influence , is neither strong-willed nor independent, but she's assertive beyond ignoring and to the point...

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It seems I waited too long to write my obligatory piece on "The Vanishing Heroine in American Movies," and events have now passed me by….

Mabel Longhetti, in John Cassavetes's A Woman under the Influence, is neither strong-willed nor independent, but she's assertive beyond ignoring and to the point of stridency. What she wants, or believes she wants, is just to be otherwise—not to break out of the housewifely mold, but to fit in—yet she can't. "Tell me what you want me to be. I can be any way you want me," she implores her lumpish, blue-collar husband, Nick, who only replies rather gallantly that he wants her to be just who she is. In some time less enlightened than our own, Mabel's words might be understood to stand in some straight-forward relation to her feelings; now we have the perspective to see them as the symptom of a problem that she, pathetically, can't see for herself. This housewife isn't mad for failure to adjust to her role but because the role itself breeds madness. It's her very trying to live up to her husband's and society's expectations of her good behavior as a wife and mother that proves her undoing.

This, at any rate, is one interpretation of A Woman Under the Influence (though it's subject to others), and it's certainly the interpretation that's winning the movie its current acclaim. (p. 138)

[Though] this depiction of the anguish of being a wife and the oppressiveness of marriage is the work of a director whose previous films have depicted the pathos of being a husband and have celebrated marriage on impulse, it isn't really a case of Cassavetes's new film's exploiting feminist ideas in any opportunistic way…. (p. 139)

What's troubling about this isn't the overrating of the film itself so much as the number of people who are apparently able to see in Mabel's situation an expression of the general plight of women in our society. No doubt, there are women for whom marriage is a dungeon and who feel chained there by the social roles marriage entails. But is Mabel one of them?… Mabel's "madness" is …, in a Laingian sense, creative: a privileged state of heightened insight; and to emphasize her "normality" there's a family gathering on Mabel's release from hospitalization in which all assembled are seen to behave, in ways that are socially acceptable, quite as crazily as anything we've seen of Mabel. But that others may also be crazy in no way makes Mabel more sane.

There is an argument to be made against Mabel's commitment, though it's not, I think, the Laingian but the Thomas Szaszcivil-libertarian one: that others shouldn't have the power to institutionalize Mabel merely because her deviant behavior embarrasses or even distresses them. Yet Mabel's madness does bring her not insight but pain; her behavior produces effects and responses in others different from what she desires; it's dysfunctional. To see her hectoring passers-by in the street, in her little-girl's get-up of ankle-socks and barrette, is to know this, and to aestheticize or ideologize her pain by calling it creative is to turn a deaf ear to it, to practice a species of callousness. And if it seems to us, in our enlightenment, that the roles to which she aspires are in themselves discreditable ones, we nevertheless are, I think, as little entitled to deny those roles to her as we are to deny beneficiaries of the civil-rights movement their right to become American Legionnaires. (pp. 139-40)

Yet what is that identity of Mabel's with which those roles of wife and mother are supposed to conflict? For all that Cassavetes's films are reputed to be centered on people—rather than, say, technique—one looks in vain for an answer to this question. Where the character of Mabel ought to be is a blank space captioned "Victim"; despite her array of colorful eccentricities, she's as much a blank as the personalityless heroine of The Stepford Wives whose fear of being sapped of her personality we're supposed to share. As Mabel's chief victimizer, Nick has at least a few traits one can identify, though this doesn't mean one can reconcile the bluff but "supportive" Nick of the earlier parts … with the insensitive clod who consigns Mabel to shock treatment …; he's simply a different character with the same name brought on to clinch the film's case. It's not that Nick develops; characters in Cassavetes's films don't develop; they shift and swerve into new directions. And Cassavetes's technique—for his films' prolix repetitiousness is a technique—is to make one lose track of what's gone before and accept the new character as a development of the old by dint of sheer reiterative insistence: to bludgeon one into forgetfulness. (pp. 140-41)

William S. Pechter, "Heroines & Their Hairdresser" (originally published in a different version in Commentary, Vol. 59, No. 5, May, 1975), in his Movies plus One (copyright © 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1982 by William S. Pechter; reprinted by permission of Horizon Press Publishers), Horizon Press, 1982, pp. 138-48.∗

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