Mental Health in the Media: A Woman Under The Influence Transcript

Woman Under the Influence is a 1974 film written and directed by John Cassavetes starring Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk.

Over the course of the film, we are invited into the unconventional life of a working-class couple. Mabel, played by Rowlands, is warm and fun with her children, eccentric and charming with her husband; and overall prone to strange behavior.

She is made uncomfortable by social situations and doesn’t behave in a conventional manner around her husband’s friends. This leads to tension and stress in their relationship.

Mabel’s eccentricities build to a point of forgetfulness regarding time and obligations. She lets her children run wild and doesn’t consider social norms. Her erratic behavior causes her husband, Nick to become convinced that she’s a danger to herself and possibly others.

After a disturbing altercation where Nick Slaps Mabel, having admitted that he has never done anything like that before, he decides to send her into a mental health facility for six months, calling the family doctor to sedate her. This scene is full of troubling choices from both Nick and Mabel, both are at a loss as to what to do. Nick is desperate to get his wife back and Mabel is distrustful of his motives. They are both frightened and desperate to find a solution. As are their children who deeply love their mother and are distressed by their father.

Nick has left himself to take care of the children to mixed results. This piece of the film is particularly poignant, due to the fact that it proves that even if someone has mental health issues they can still be necessary in someone’s life.

After arriving back from the mental health facility, Mabel is changed. Small and taciturn, she is welcomed by a group of people, quickly becoming overwhelmed.

Nick quickly realizes what has happened and takes her aside, encouraging her to let her personality out once again. He realizes that he loves her, eccentricities and all. However, after this encouragement, Mabel swings too hard the other way and her behavior once again becomes a concern to Nick.

After another altercation, Nick is left with the truth that if he is to love his wife to the best of his ability he has to accept her whole self. Mabel, in turn, realizes that if she is to love her family fully, she has to attempt to stay stable as much as possible.

Gena Rowlands is staggering in the film, balancing quirky charm with desperation, heartache, joy, and a deep desire to be loved.

It’s never revealed what specific diagnosis she has during the film, but many posit that she’s having a manic episode and is Bipolar. Her performance highlights not just the insanity but the kindness and sensitivity that many of those who have Bipolar Disorder and other mental health issues exhibit. This film paints a very kind portrait of those who live with mental illness. Though Mabel is difficult to deal with she is never cruel and always gentle. Gena balances lightness with subtle moments of discomfort with herself.

What’s also made clear in her performance is the love she feels for her family. That it is this love that makes her feel betrayed by Nick’s decision to have her committed.

Falk brings empathy to a character that could easily be unlikable. Nick’s motivations are never unclear, nor is his love for his family.

This film is also generous to those who are living with people who have people mental illnesses in their lives. That it is difficult to decide what to do. That the decisions you make are often made out of love and are often complicated. That it’s not easy, that it takes to resolve, dedication, and commitment to love and be loved.

In addition to the excellent portrayals of someone with mental health issues and those who love them, this film explores social norms and expectations for women, specifically during the 1970s but also today. Not only Mabel, but also her daughter, mother, and mother-in-law are under the influence of society’s leanings.

It is also one of the few films that takes into account class elements regarding mental health. That because of their class, Mabel and Nick can’t just take days off to deal with this. Nick can’t just hire a nanny, that family is the only support that they have and the complications that, that brings.

This story is one that is propelled by love. It’s a deeply complicated film, specifically due to the nature of Nick’s reaction to Mabel’s behavior. But, overall the film is hopeful and touching. It shows that those who have mental health issues can be good parents, fun, kind, and worth letting into your life.

Hello there! My name is Tristan Miller. I act, podcast, write, and perform stand-up comedy all with a focus towards mental health.