Gena Rowlands occupies an interesting position relative to her fellow Governors’ Award honorees. She and husband-collaborator John Cassavetes were true American independent film pioneers, establishing a genre in which the personal vision of a Spike Lee could thrive.
Yet for 60 years she’s been a mainstay on television (three Primetime Emmys) and in Hollywood movies, a major player in the showbiz arena where Debbie Reynolds is a reigning legend.
To Rowlands, it’s all part of “the great surprise” of the acting life.
“Working this long? I didn’t even think I’d be living this long,” she confesses in the roaring, throaty laugh instantly familiar from “Faces” and her Oscar-nominated chef-d’oeuvre “A Woman Under the Influence.”
She made a near-effortless transition from Broadway ingenue to grande dame. “A lot of women, when they can’t keep doing young romantic roles, don’t want to consider character parts and quit sooner. But I just looked at the scripts and kept seeing what I’d like to do, and never worried about it.”
Asked whether she prefers light roles to neurotic ones, she chuckles: “Guess.”
(“Not the miserable, suicidal ones,” she clarifies.) Whether manhandled by brutes in her husband’s movies, or caught up in addiction playing Betty Ford, Rowlands exudes unmistakable joie de vivre. You can’t help but enjoy being in her company, however she suffers.
“Oh, honey,” she tells her granddaughter in mainstream hit “Hope Floats,” “my cup runneth over.” Any of her characters could say the same.
Having starred in “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” last year at age 84, Rowlands says that’s it. “I’m definitely retired,” she insists. “I don’t think I can go on to 100 or anything.” (Never mind her actress mom kept working almost to her death at age 95.) But surely she couldn’t turn down another really good part?
“Well, I’d have to read the script …” and out pours that unfor- gettable laugh.