(the 419th of the 424 Best Actress nominees!)
GENA ROWLANDS IN GLORIA (1980)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter
Ellen Burstyn in Resurrection
Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin
Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People
Gloria isn’t the intensely cubist portrait of a woman’s psyche that A Woman Under the Influence was; this film is linear, plot-driven to great extent, and shaded with Hollywood tropes. It even has a familiar setup: a woman unexpectedly finds herself the caretaker of a young child. Of course, there are some unique wrinkles to the formula: the child is the survivor of a mob bookie’s family, brutally erased at the beginning of the film. And the neighbor who takes charge of him is no mere woman next door, but the frumpy, irascible, and infinitely tenacious Gena. I am utterly in love with the character that she plays, a woman whose selfishness and conscience, exasperation and patience seem infinitely at odds when it comes to the grieving child who has become her responsibility. She provides a volatile center for the film, propelling the story forward at every turn even as her conflicted feelings delay her gradual transformation into the ballsiest, most powerful protector in the greater New York area.
The film sustains an odd rhythm throughout, looping around in curlicued cycles as the characters gradually extricate themselves from the apartment building at the scene of the crime (with a spectacular view of Yankee Stadium) and out into the city, hounded at every turn by tendrils of the mob, who are still after the boy and the damning ledger entrusted to his care. The reluctant mother and confused boy must part ways a dozen times in the film, whether she’s casting him off, he’s running away, or they’re split by accident. Each time, they’re drawn back toward each other, continuing their journey for another stretch before repeating the cycle. I think that the central reason for this film to exist is to examine the act of parting and reunion from as many angles as possible, exposing the maternal mechanism that lies deep within this seedy woman whose name, Gloria Swenson, is patterned after the immortal silver screen diva. Unfortunately, Cassavetes’ penchant for untrained actors yields a truly poor performance from the young boy, who occasionally registers a proper emotion but usually delivers his lines in a flat and forced manner. It’s to Gena’s credit that she remains unfazed by the disparity, illustrating her side of the relationship with a coarse charisma. For 1980, my vote goes toward a polar opposite of Gena’s character, the icy biological mother played by Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People, but I’m thrilled to add this remarkable study in threadbare strength to Gena Rowland’s masterpiece of a first nomination.