I am glad I rediscovered this film after seeing Opening Night and am once again surprised that such a relevant film has never been mentioned in any list of older women in film that I have come across. Nick Cassavetes in his interviews declares that the film is a tribute to his mother . “I started thinking about my own mom, about my own childhood… If there are any redeeming qualities to my personality, I owe them to her.”
As opposed to family melodramas, Nick Cassavettes’ film is simple, gentle, subtle. It features an ordinary woman in ordinary circumstances. The story is told in a simple way both narratively and cinematically. It touches on many aspects of women ageing.
I traced the title and Lauper’s song that concludes the film to Street Scene (1946) Opera by Kurt Weill with Lyrics of Lonely House by Langston Hughes. Cindy Lauper introduces to Hughes sad song about loneliness a positive slant:
With time on my hands I can make a new start I just didn’t want to stay here and unhook the stars
Thus the title and closing song point to what we now call the empty nest, and the need for a new start older women experience when the children have left home. The film addresses aspects of how ageing affects women, aspects that the classic cinema has dealt with in often sexist and ageist family melodramas.
The mother/daughter conflict which in films from Now Voyager to The Mother is usually accompanied by emotional outbursts and vicious characterisation is here expressed as the not uncommon difficulty of separation from mother. It is dealt with in two brief sequences at the beginning and the end of the film. In the first one the daughter – Annie – expresses her rebellion in harsh aggressive words and gestures and decides to leave home. Mildred – the mother- nevertheless hugs her and offers her help. In a bar, after a few drinks, Mildred explains to Monica her young neighbour : “She is at an age I can’t stand… she does everything wrong… I don’t blame her.” In the later scene, Annie having sorted herself out and ‘doing things right’ comes back home expecting her mother and the house to be there for her. She is outraged that Mildred has already sold the house. While Annie takes her mother for granted and divulges that they have never been close, Mildred is shown to love and understand her daughter but asserts her rights too. In the last scene it is Mildred who is going away to a mysterious destination and she asks Annie to share her excitement at starting a new life.
The mother/son relationship is also treated with insight. Ethan is Mildred’s favourite child: “I always preferred my son, everybody knows that”. Again two sequences expose his bullying, selfish nature. At a thanksgiving supper he does not let his wife express herself. In San Francisco Ethan invites his mother to live with them help his wife who “does not know anything about babies”. He finds it difficult to accept her refusal: “I could not stand any more babies” . “We want you, we need you” he replies annoyed. His wife is more understanding but Ethan soon puts her down by saying it is a matter between him and his mother. Mildred’s more kind response is “I have given him all my attention. I may have done him a disservice. Maybe I spoiled him.”
Two aspects of marital relationships are seen : Ethan’s with his wife as above and Monica’s with her partner who is prone to violent outbursts. Their rows spill into the street and are witnessed by Mildred. Monica does not stand for the abuse and expels the father of her child. A few brief scenes show him making attempts at explaining that he is willing to change. It is only after Mildred’s advice that a delighted, loving Monica does accept him back.
The friendship between the foul-mouthed party-loving single working mother and the staid older woman is seen developing. It is interesting to note that there is never in the script or Rowland’s acting a hint of judgemental attitude towards her neighbour. Monica’s acting, over-the-top behaviour, her body language, contrast with some gestures that express love and protection for her child. It is Monica who by introducing Mildred to bar life opens up her horizons.
Over this background of relationships it is the Mildred /JJ ‘s warm rapport that dominates the film and thanks to great acting gives it this aura of care and love. Rowlands as ordinary grandmother stand-in is all discreet, selfless love and understanding. She shares knowledge rather than instructs. She declares to her son that JJ is her best friend. She introduces JJ to poetry, stories, songs, nature. She buys him a bicycle and gets him to help with delivering the daily papers. There is respect and love between the two characters and a certain equality. JJ blossoms and he is direct in declaring his love on Valentine’s day and very touching in the goodbye scene. The issue of the lack of a father figure is not avoided. It is expressed in a powerful scene when Mildred is teaching JJ to play baseball. Rowlands trying to play as a male is grotesque and painful to watch. This scene does prepare for the separation and Mildred’s final liberation.
When did Mildred first feel a need for change? Certainly we see, in the bar, a more relaxed open Mildred when she drinks with Monica and her three male friends. It is clear that the gentle giant Depardieu’s Big Tom is attracted to her. But she is rather drunk and replies “it would not be right” to his request of calling her again. It is after the announcement that she is going to be a grandmother and that she was needed to help with the grandchild that Mildred for the first time expresses a desire for change. She is very hesitant and talks of reincarnation – not when you are dead – but in this life. On her return she is rather sad to see that JJ does not need her anymore since his father is back home. But she is liberated and free to do as she pleases. The reappearance of gentle restrained Big Tom and their sexual chemistry suggest a future of sexual life for her more than any graphic images of sex. This attraction between an older woman and younger man seems natural and not exceptional.
As in Opening Night it is difficult to dissociate the director from a character in the film. However Nick Cassavetes does not only give a child’s view of family relationships but also shows an understanding of the experience of an ordinary ageing woman who we presume is very different from his extraordinary successful actor and mother.
To quote him again “I love people … the only reason to make a film is love”. This film is not a superficial feel good film but a realist film that deals with family conflicts that are managed, common mixed feelings about relationships. It is a good contrast to the usual demonizing, ageist and sexist portrayal of ‘mothers’ in feature films.