Powerhouse performer still relishes roles with risks
Looking ahead to her Handprint and Footprint Ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theatre frontcourt, Gena Rowlands quips, “I just hope I can pull myself out of the cement.”
But recent co-star Frank Langella (“Parts Per Billion”) warns, “She’s tough, you know. That cement will have met its match.”
Rowlands has never shied from getting her hands dirty. Few actresses have been as formidable, or as durable, and none is better known for anatomizing mental breakdown’s terror.
As an indie pioneer, she may seem an unlikely candidate for the high-Hollywood rite of preserving prints in concrete. But her 10-film collaboration with late husband John Cassavetes, which included such groundbreaking psychodramas as “Faces,” is only part of a 50-year saga involving every entertainment medium, from tiny-budget to megafeature.
Surrounded by countless statuettes, honors and memorabilia in the Hollywood Hills manse where many Cassavetes pics were shot, Rowlands recalls his tireless efforts to test her talent.
When she rejected a stageplay in which she’d crack up eight times a week (“I’m not Superwoman!”), Cassavetes made it a movie. Fragile, manic Mabel Longhetti of “A Woman Under the Influence” became a signature role and cultural touchstone, scoring an Oscar nomination in 1974. She earned another nom in 1980 for “Gloria.”
She explored real-life illness in 1987’s Emmy-awarded “The Betty Ford Story,” though playing a living person is tougher than it looks: “I wanted to be sure I didn’t hurt anybody, or make the Ford children feel guilty about how they’d treated their mother.”
Screen roles can pack a wallop. A stricken fan blessed her for playing a mother coping with her son’s AIDS in 1985’s “An Early Frost,” saying, “You don’t understand, I saw it just in time.”
Rowlands muses, “It sounded like she was going to throw her son out the next day, but we made her realize her love was stronger than all that prejudice.”
Tapped to portray a dying Alzheimer’s patient in 2004’s “The Notebook,” she says, “my mother suffered from dementia in her last days, not so long before we did it, and I wasn’t sure I was up to it.” Co-star James Garner and son Nick, now a respected helmer, provided moral support for one of her most affecting performances.
Whether in edgy indies or slick studio product, Rowlands traverses the emotional high wire of life-and-death stakes with Cassavetes-bred confidence. Once she asked Cassavetes for help interpreting a scene. “He said, ‘I wrote this with you in mind. You read it. You accepted it. Now do it.’ ”
She roars, “That’s the best direction in the world! Because the part’s yours, it belongs to you. … Whatever the motivation is, it comes from you. So, just do it!”
What: Gena Rowlands Handprint-Footprint Ceremony
When: 11 a.m. Dec. 5
Where: TCL Chinese Theatre, Hollywood