Gloria Swenson’s a gun moll all grown up. The mob ain’t got time for her no more, and instead of gettin’ her kicks like she did in the good ‘ole days, she lives alone with her cat in a crappy joint in the slums of New York. It ain’t much, but it’s something, and she’s gotta live, ya know? Now get lost.
Gloria may have a sordid past in her wake, but she is certainly not a floozy with a few wrinkles too many. She's a tough-as-nails presence who's been around the block plenty of times, unafraid of anything except maybe the cold eyes of death. Gloria is also portrayed by Gena Rowlands, and Gloria is directed by John Cassavetes, her husband.
Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes are national treasures, but when your finest pieces of work are confined to ambitiously outlandish independent films, you’re bound to only be remembered by the critics who don’t have much fun watching Vin Diesel’s newest vehicle. They teamed up seven times, but Gloria is the closest thing they ever got to the word “conventional.” Despite a slightly over-the-top soundtrack, possibly a quirk added by the mercurial Cassavetes, gone are his usual touches of slapped around camerawork and obvious improvisations. With Gloria, he’s an auteur taking a vacation, and it makes for one of his most entertaining, if not one of his deepest, projects.
The movie begins in ruins; Jack Dawn (Buck Henry) has made the mistake of double-crossing the mob. Not only has he been skimming money from the profits of their various crimes, but he has also been acting as an informant for the FBI. He, along with his family, are barricaded in a crammed apartment, attempting to hold off hired guns for as long as possible. Then Gloria, a neighbor, comes knocking on their door. She wants to borrow sugar, but instead gets Jack’s son, Phil (John Adames). Then the inevitable happens: Phil is orphaned, and Gloria, reluctantly, is forced to take him in. Problem is, the mob knows about it. After this set-up pulls through, the rest of the film acts as a punchy and darkly funny game of cat and mouse between Gloria, her newfound Puerto Rican child friend, and, well, the mob.
Gloria’s only downfall is that it becomes a little monotonous after a while — you can only handle Phil running away and Gloria having to chase after him for so long — but it’s much too lovable to really get on your nerves. For once, Cassavetes backs off and lets Rowlands be the star of the show; in the past, it was as if Cassavetes and Rowlands were headlining together, looking like the cool boho versions of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But even Ginger Rogers had to have Kitty Foyle all to herself.
Everything about Rowlands — her light but steely Wisconsin accent, her big hair, her hastily put-on red lipstick, her cheap high heels — is dynamite. In her other films with Cassavetes (1974’s A Woman Under the Influence, 1977’s Opening Night), she has had to pour out every emotion she’s ever felt, as if she were stripping naked in front of a crowd. But in Gloria, it’s clear that she’s having fun. Rowlands carries a gun with imposing authority, like a street tough who surprises you with their scrappiness. Even better is her chemistry with the loud and unintentionally funny Adames, who spits out every line with bracing liberation. Gloria is engaging but intimidating, and Phil doesn’t much care. When she can’t turn her usual tricks to get him to behave, the playfulness of the film climbs every mountain and fords every stream.
Gloria runs a little long at two hours, but it isn’t without its charms. Rowlands is a wonderful actress, I adore Cassavetes with just as much fuss, but this time around, it isn’t his show. It’s hers. B+
- March 4, 2015