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When actress Gena Rowlands arrived in Hollywood in the 1950s, she could easily have opted to take the Hollywood starlet route. But she shared a creative vision with filmmaker and husband John Cassavetes; preferring instead to use her stunning, camera-loving facial features and natural acting style in unglamorous roles in groundbreaking independent films that launched an entire movement. Devoted to the idea of unearthing complex human emotions rather than painting characters with a one-dimensional Hollywood brush, Rowlands was a key factor in Cassavetes' low budget, documentary-style dramas "Faces" (1968), "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974) and "Opening Night" (1977). Whether playing a suburban housewife or a successful entertainer, Rowlands took risks with unconventional characters who dared to look inwards and question the unfulfilled promises of the status quo. From her acclaimed, Oscar-nominated roles on the 1970s art house circuit, Rowlands spent her later career lending authenticity to more mainstream fare, with Golden Globe and Emmy-winning roles as eccentric mothers and middle-aged women in crisis in television movies and theatrical releases.The daughter of a state senator and a painter,...
When actress Gena Rowlands arrived in Hollywood in the 1950s, she could easily have opted to take the Hollywood starlet route. But she shared a creative vision with filmmaker and husband John Cassavetes; preferring instead to use her stunning, camera-loving facial features and natural acting style in unglamorous roles in groundbreaking independent films that launched an entire movement. Devoted to the idea of unearthing complex human emotions rather than painting characters with a one-dimensional Hollywood brush, Rowlands was a key factor in Cassavetes' low budget, documentary-style dramas "Faces" (1968), "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974) and "Opening Night" (1977). Whether playing a suburban housewife or a successful entertainer, Rowlands took risks with unconventional characters who dared to look inwards and question the unfulfilled promises of the status quo. From her acclaimed, Oscar-nominated roles on the 1970s art house circuit, Rowlands spent her later career lending authenticity to more mainstream fare, with Golden Globe and Emmy-winning roles as eccentric mothers and middle-aged women in crisis in television movies and theatrical releases.
The daughter of a state senator and a painter, Rowlands was born Virginia Cathryn Rowlands on June 19, 1930, and raised in Wisconsin. After attending the University of Wisconsin in the late 1940s, she moved to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she made the acquaintance of the man she would marry - actor and filmmaker John Cassavetes. She began her professional career in summer stock productions at the Provincetown Playhouse in Massachusetts and hit Broadway in 1952 in the comedy, "The Seven Year Itch." She made television appearances on serialized dramas like "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958) and "Top Secret U.S.A." (1954). In 1956 and into 1957, she starred opposite cinema legend Edward G. Robinson in the Broadway production "The Middle of the Night." She was brought to Hollywood to make her film debut as Jose Ferrer's wife in "The High Cost of Loving" (1958), and the following year she had a small uncredited role in Cassavetes' directorial debut, "Shadows" (1959) - a film which has since been hailed as the birth of the independent cinema movement. Rowlands went on to a featured role as a deaf-mute in the hour-long police drama "87th Precinct" (NBC, 1961-62) and brought warmth to the Western "Lonely Are the Brave" (1962), starring Kirk Douglas.
In "A Child Is Waiting" (1963), Cassavetes' second feature and a troubled big studio production where the director struggled to incorporate his intimate, realistic approach with stars Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster, Rowlands played a supporting role as the emotionally distraught mother of a mentally challenged child. On the small screen, she landed a recurring role as a gold-digger set to marry elderly Martin Peyton for his fortune on the primetime soap "Peyton Place" (ABC, 1964-69). Rowland returned to film in "Tony Rome" (1967), a revival of the classic 1940s private detective picture starring Frank Sinatra and featuring Rowlands as a wealthy woman who hires him to find her missing daughter. The remainder of the 1960s and the decade of the 1970s, however, brought Rowlands the most acclaim and attention for her work in Cassavetes' impactful films. In the director's "Faces" (1968), another early classic of independent filmmaking, Rowlands was front and center as a prostitute in this film that explored a marital breakdown and the unsatisfying nature of the cookie-cutter American lifestyle that mainstream films blindly celebrated. Rowlands remained a critical favorite with her starring role as a professional woman disillusioned by love until she is romanced by a Jewish hippie (Seymour Cassel) in "Minnie and Moskowitz" (1971).
Perhaps Rowlands' and Cassavetes' finest movie collaboration and another significant filmmaking achievement was "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974), in which Rowlands portrayed a mentally unbalanced housewife whose husband (Peter Falk) eventually has her committed to a mental institution. While critics carped about the film's length, all praised the central performances, with Rowlands earning a Golden Globe Award and her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. She earned a second Golden Globe nomination for "Opening Night" (1977), where she gave another bravura turn as a famous actress on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The film ran into distribution difficulties, though, and only played in L.A. on its initial run until 1991 when it finally received a wide release. The new art house film darling ventured into long form television movies in 1978 in the appropriately groundbreaking "A Question of Love" (ABC), portraying a lesbian fighting for custody of her children. She starred in William Friedkin's comic crime caper "The Brink's Job" in 1978 and gave another strong, nuanced performance as Bette Davis' estranged daughter in "Strangers: The Story of a Mother and a Daughter" (CBS, 1979), more than holding her own against the formidable Davis.
In another Academy Award-nominated leading performance, Rowlands played a tough gun moll who reluctantly becomes the protector of a child in Cassavetes' "Gloria" (1980). In her final film collaboration with her husband and one that was devoid of his trademark film techniques, "Love Streams" (1984), she and Cassavetes paired onscreen in another portrait of failed marriage. By the 1980s, Rowlands' respected career in emotional, reality-anchored films made her very much in-demand by more mainstream dramatic fare, and she was tapped to play the mother of AIDS patient Aidan Quinn in "An Early Frost" (NBC, 1985) and won an Emmy for her portrait of a former First Lady coping with addiction in "The Betty Ford Story" (ABC, 1987). She lent a patrician and strong, yet not domineering, screen presence in Paul Schrader's "Light of Day" (1987), where she played Michael J. Fox's dying mother, and was well-cast in Woody Allen's "Another Woman" (1988) as a middle-aged woman facing a series of crises. In 1989, Cassavetes died from cirrhosis of the liver. The following year, indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch's paid homage to Rowlands' significant role in avant-garde cinema by casting her in a segment of "Night on Earth" (1991), where she played a film executive who thinks she may have "discovered" a fresh young talent in cab driver Winona Ryder.
Rowlands took home another Emmy Award in 1991 for playing a wealthy widow who befriends a homeless woman in "Face of a Stranger" (CBS, 1991), and a Golden Globe nomination for 1992's "Crazy in Love" (TNT) where she essayed one of three generations of women living on an island in the Pacific Northwest. A 1995 performance as Julia Roberts' genteel mother in Lasse Hallstrom's "Something to Talk About" earned critical kudos, and the same year, Rowlands played a flamboyant singer whose visit enlivens her nephew's life in Terence Davies' little-seen "The Neon Bible" (1995). Son Nick followed in his father's footsteps, casting his mother in the lead as a woman beginning a new life after her husband's death in his directorial debut "Unhook the Stars" (1996). The following year, she made a cameo appearance in her son's "She's So Lovely" (1997), which was scripted by her late husband. Rowlands remained busy in Hollywood throughout the remainder of the 1990s, supporting as eccentric moms and betrayed spouses in hit-or-miss titles including "Hope Floats" (1998) starring Sandra Bullock and the ensemble "Playing by Heart" (1998).
Rowlands picked up a fourth Emmy nomination for her turn as a Southern widow who takes in a bi-racial grandchild in the above-average "The Color of Love: Jacey's Story" (CBS, 2000). In 2001, she received an Emmy nomination for Best Lead Actress for her starring role as an overbearing mother in the domestic drama, "Wild Iris," which featured Laura Linney as the daughter with whom she has a fractured relationship. Rowlands further explored troubled mother/daughter relationships, winning an Emmy for the cable film "Hysterical Blindness" (HBO, 2002) where Uma Thurman co-starred as her flamboyant young adult daughter. After taking a supporting turn in the sub-par erotic thriller "Taking Lives" (2004) starring Angelina Jolie, Rowlands reunited with son Nick and delivered one of her finer performances of the era in "The Notebook" (2004), playing an Alzheimer's-ravaged woman and superbly delivering both heartbreak and elation in her scenes opposite James Garner as the man who stood by her side over the decades. Still the go-to actress for warts-and-all domestic dramas, she played the eccentric wife of a speechless invalid (John Hurt) in the horror dud "The Skeleton Key" (2005), starring Kate Hudson as a young hospice worker sent to their isolated and haunted plantation to care for the husband.
In 2006, Rowlands scripted and co-starred with Ben Gazzara in a segment of the celebrated "Paris, Je T'Aime" and the following year, starred in the filmmaking debut of daughter Z Cassavetes in the comic romance, "Broken English" (2007). The same year, she was singled out for her Emmy and SAG-nominated lead performance in the otherwise overwrought Lifetime telepic, "What if God Were the Sun?" (2007). In 2009, she was in contention for an Emmy Award again, this time in the Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series category for her turn as a compulsive woman who becomes surrogate mother to the neurotic main character (Tony Shalhoub) on "Monk" (USA Network, 2002-09).
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