Defending Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence

If people tell you you’re crazy often enough, there’s a good chance you’re going to start to believe it. In John Cassavetes’ 1974 film–oft considered his masterpiece–A Woman Under the Influence–Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) suffers the anguish of perpetually being told she’s too “off” or “different” in comparison to other women/mothers. Her behavior, while certainly unusual, is hardly anything to consider worth being committed over–especially by today’s standards. In fact, her husband, Nick (Peter Falk, of Columbo fame), is prone to hot-tempered fits of judgment that actually make him seem more like the insane one.

Smoking to cope
Smoking to cope
At the beginning of the film, Mabel exhibits her first sign of “instability” by going to a bar to get drunk after Nick informs her he isn’t going to make it home because of work–even though Mabel expressly made arrangements for their kids to stay overnight with her mother so they could be alone together. This incites Mabel’s insecurities about being good and attractive enough to maintain Nick’s attention. Thus, it makes sense that she would turn to the affections of a stranger for some source of ephemeral comfort.
Enjoying the kindness and attention of a stranger at a bar
Enjoying the kindness and attention of a stranger at a bar
After bringing the man from the bar back to her house, Mabel instantly regrets it, and tries to get him to stop his pursuits, but, of course, it’s too late. The next morning, she awakens rueing her indiscretion and gets rid of the unwanted one-night stand as soon as possible. Nick, meanwhile, gets all of his co-workers to accompany him to the house as a sort of defense against Mabel’s wrath. When he finds that she’s nothing but sweetness toward him (due mainly to her guilt in committing adultery) and ends up asking the others to stay for spaghetti, he feels relief–that is, until she starts getting what he deems to be too flirtatious with some of the men at the table.
A tortured romance
A tortured romance
A few more idiosyncratic displays such as these lead Nick, with the strong support of his overbearing mother, to call a doctor and have her committed to a mental institution. The quickness with which Nick is willing to put her on lockdown says more about him than it does her. For one, to rip a mother from her children–particularly children who happen to like her zany spirit–is far crueler than subjecting them to the occasional bit of unconventional decorum.
Acting eccentric near Wilton Place
Acting eccentric near Wilton Place
For Mabel to have been justifiably committable to a loony bin, she would have needed to act far more delusional and dangerous than she does in the story. But because everyone is so ready to pounce on her every action and scrutinize the minutiae of her behavior, obviously she’s going to come across as crazy. We all would if someone watched us closely enough.