When Gena Rowlands plays Gloria, look out!



A mob thriller from John Cassavetes?  That’s exactly what the writer/director’s 1980 feature, Gloria, is.  Cassavetes real-life wife, Gena Rowlands, doesn’t just play the title role- she owns it.  Her Gloria is a hardened, aging gangster’s moll living in an apartment with an amazing view of Yankee Stadium in an otherwise shoddy, paint-peeling building.  Rare is the actress who can maintain full-power magnetism while effortlessly and convincingly portraying a “don’t mess with me!!” woman, but the great Rowlands is the lady for the job.

A New York story through and through, Gloria is replete with cab rides, newsstands, dingy diners, unphasable pedestrians, mob guys everywhere, and nary a cop in sight.  It’s one of those movies that’s forcibly dragging cinema’s grungy street aesthetic of the 1970s into the early ‘80s, and not batting an eye about it.  Gloria must go on the run if she’s going to protect six-year-old Phil from the mafia killers who’ve murdered the rest of his family.  Right before his demise, Phil’s mob accountant father (Buck Henry, on and done) entrusts his son with his ledger, which contains enough incriminating evidence to warrant such violence and pursuit.  

Whatever; the ledger’s obviously a dog-eared MacGuffin.  The point of Gloria is that Gloria must find it in herself to do whatever’s necessary to protect this innocent child.  Initially, she wants nothing to do with the kid.  She knows nothing about children, particularly the part-Puerto Rican Phil, whom she’s convinced can’t speak English. (He can and does).  Honoring the dying wishes of his parents, her neighbors down the hall, would mean turning on the very mafia that’s afforded her a life of semi-affluence.  But we know it just like Phil’s dad knew it- Gloria’s the lady for the job.

It sounds quite formulaic, and maybe it is.  (It’s worth pointing out that everything from Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional to Sidney Lumet’s own 1999 Sharon Stone-led remake borrow overtly from Gloria).  But again, Gena Rowlands is undeniably perfect for this role that was custom crafted especially for her.  It’s said that Cassavetes populated certain moments with actual mobsters, sometimes prompting their disapproval of the scene as written.  Instead of kowtowing to that, Cassavetes supposedly came quite close to answering with his fists.  With that kind of passion behind this project, it’s no wonder its blood is boiling even while its heart is full.

Unsurprisingly, some folks got a bug up their butt about the great low-budget indie auteur John Cassavetes putting out a studio-backed $4 million thriller.  (Back then, that was a healthy budget).  But they’re all wrong.  Gloria is a great movie.  Nevertheless, the sharks circled, looking for the lowest of low-hanging fresh meat.  If it wasn’t enough for young Adames to spend the whole of Gloria as a target for criminals, he also became a target for critics upon the film’s release.  In a truly asshole-y display, he was given the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor and was also nominated thusly in something called the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards.  Adames had never acted before and would never act again.  I hope you’re proud of yourselves, Razzie voters.

With the 2018 Twilight Time Blu-ray of Gloria now out of print, KL Studio Classics has swooped in to keep this tough broad with a heart of gold (make that, a heart of $100 bills that no one can ever break) on the streets.  The disc looks remarkably “1980” in terms of grain, color, tactility, and shadow.  Bill Conti’s tense score comes through with real verve on the Blu-ray, although his use of a smoky sax over scenes set in broad daylight doesn’t seem like quite the right choice.  Those hoping for bonus features will be disappointed, unless one considers two theatrical trailers and optional English subtitles true bonuses.  Perhaps the O-card packaging sporting matching case poster art will make up for it?

After years of toiling away on his own dime making small-scale films with large-scale raw humanity, Gloria is an effective shift in an undeniably commercial direction for Cassavetes.  Apparently, the filmmaker was never happy with the movie, as he talked crap about it in interviews after the fact.  But frankly, I disagree.  The PG-rated movie (probably a PG-13 by today’s standards) had me engrossed from the start, something that only waned near the end when the lead characters are separated for a spell.  It may be a formulaic sellout on some very surface level, but as a base effort, the movie hits its targets wholeheartedly, and often by surprise.  In short, if you’re looking for a great movie, play Gloria.