Reeling Backward: Gloria (1980)
Gena Rowlands gives a fierce, Oscar-nominated turn as a gun moll out to protect a kid from her mob buddies in this dramatic thriller written and directed by her hubby, John Cassavetes.
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“Gloria” is one of those movies that didn’t make a big impression when it came out, but inspired a lot of other movies and has had a lasting impact on pop culture. It’s now out in an excellent Blu-ray issue from Kino Lorber.
Gena Rowlands stars as the titular character, a middle-aged gun moll who turns against her mob friends to protect a 6-year-old boy whose entire family they have murdered, and want to finish the job.
The film was written and directed by Rowlands’ husband, John Cassavetes, with whom she had already made seven films dating back to 1963, and would collaborate together two more times after. “A Woman Under the Influence” earned her an Oscar nomination, as would “Gloria,” so it was truly a fruitful artistic partnership.
It’s not a typical Cassavetes type of story — really more of a dramatic action/thriller than the moody explorations of relationships and interior crises that were his niche. He occasionally wrote or acted in genre pieces for the studios to make cash for his own low-budget indie projects. He penned the script for “Gloria” in this vein, but when Columbia Pictures cast Rowlands, she asked for and received her hand-picked director.
Gloria is not a saint. She has basically been passed around the New York City mafia dons as a mistress, accepting lavish gifts and support in a sober exchange of goods and services that put her maybe two steps up from straight prostitution. Gloria knows who she is, accepts it and is not ashamed.
Now she is about 50 (Rowlands’ actual age when the film came out), ‘overweight and out of shape’ by her own words, and her current boyfriend is a minor capo rather than the big boss, Tony Tanzinni (Basilio Franchina), with whom she used to go. Still, she’s got a nice apartment — even if it’s not in the best part of town — expensive clothes and jewels, a posh hairdo, a wad of cash in her bank deposit box and a nickel-plated .38 snubnose in her purse.
Things change when her neighbors are targeted by the mafia because the father (Buck Henry), an accountant with the mob, has been skimming $600,000 off the top and turning over information to the FBI. As the story opens he is frantically trying to get his family to flee, without much success between his angry wife (Julie Carmen) and hysterical teen daughter. Gloria pops by to borrow some coffee and winds up taking their 6-year-old boy, Phil (John Adames), to babysit… along with a blue ledger book with all of the dirt on the wiseguys.
The mob enforcers turn up a few minutes later and blow everyone away with shotguns, but can’t find the book or the kid. Unluckily, Gloria is snapped by a news photographer fleeing the building with Phil, her picture plastered across the tabloids as an alleged kidnapper. So now both the cops and the mafia are after them.
They spend the rest of the movie on the run — a series of rides in taxis, subways and buses, hotels ranging from swanky to flophouses, several foot chases and a few shootouts.
This is not the sort of film for interior character exploration or big monologue scenes. It’s an action movie, for all intents and purposes. Gloria and Phil run and run, quarreling in between, at one point mutually dumping each other but in the end deciding they’re better sticking together. Gloria doesn’t very much like kids in general or Phil in particular, who’s a chirpy little Puerto Rican stereotype bubbling with nascent machismo.
But she can’t bring herself to sit by and watch a child murdered — even if it means giving up her entire life and going against her friends, or at least fellow travelers.
I don’t know if Gloria was really considered an archetype before this movie came out. But certainly in its aftermath it became a recurring cinematic theme: a morally ambiguous personality who finds themselves standing up against corrupt/evil forces to protect an innocent life.
You can see the DNA of “Gloria” in 1994’s “Léon: The Professional” or 1998’s “Soldier” with Kurt Russell, or any other number of films in the last 25 years such as “Logan.” A 1999 remake starring Sharon Stone and directed by Sidney Lumet underwhelmed.
The argument could be made that there are plenty of movie characters before Gloria situationally similar to her, from “Shane” to “The Seven Samurai.” But she filled a particular niche in that she was part and parcel of the malevolent forces before turning against them on behalf of a stranger.
Essentially, Gloria betrays her family, for reasons even she cannot understand, but finds herself with a new and unexpected one.
Rowlands is just amazing and commanding in the lead role. She gives Gloria a sort of blowsy charm, someone who’s self-assured but unassuming. She doesn’t feel a big need to prove herself but when pushed hard enough will push back. She has several taunting encounters with mob muscle in which she belittles them, calling them “sissies” and more for being bested by a woman.
The middle section of the movie does have a certain sameness to it — Gloria and Phil run for a bit, then there’s a harrowing encounter, they slip away and hole up somewhere, wake up the next morning and the cycle starts all over.
I found myself doing the thing that happens during horror movies: shouting at the characters not to do such dumb things. It seems to me that Gloria could’ve taken Phil and easily slipped out of the city, boarded a bus to nowhere and been done with all the trouble. But they stay stubbornly inside the Big Apple, where the bad guys are seemingly watching every bus and corner.
At one point, they actually do take a subway out of the city and visit a cemetery. This is for Gloria to give Phil a reason to stand over a grave — it doesn’t really matter whose, she argues — and say a few words of good-bye to his family. Then they stupidly ride back into NYC instead of finding a local bus station and hopping a one-way to Poughkeepsie.
I also found myself annoyed that Gloria never makes any effort to disguise herself or Phil, buying a wig or getting the kid’s abundant Afro a buzz cut. She’s constantly complaining that her feet hurt but never abandons the clip-cloppy high-heel sandals she totters around on.
Maybe Cassavetes just isn’t very adept at this kind of action-oriented plotting; or maybe he made a conscious decision to preserve and underscore outward symbols of her femininity, since she’s facing off with an all-male army of antagonists.
We do have to talk a little bit about John Adames as Phil. It was his first and only screen role, and it shows. He tends to deliver his lines in loud, fast monotones (I’m guessing) designed to cover up the lack of inflection and emotion in them. Again, I don’t think working with kid actors was in Cassavetes’ wheelhouse.
Certainly Adames wasn’t helped by the dialogue he’s given, which is meant to reflect a childlike mentality but often registers as repetitive and just plain annoying: “I am the man. I am the man. I am the man, do you hear me? I am the man! I am the man! Not you, you're not the man! Do you hear me? I'll do anything I can. I am the man!”
Adames isn’t terrible in my book, though others certainly thought so. He won the Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actor and was nominated by the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards for Worst Performance by a Child in a Featured Role, which just seems cruel.
He and Rowlands do have one really good dialogue scene where he expresses begrudging admiration for Gloria after one of their many fights. At first he calls her “tough,” which she objects to as masculinizing, but later changes it to “strong,” which she seems OK with.
And Gloria is incredibly strong… and tough, too. In between all the chase-chase and bang-bang, there are several calmer moments where the mafia guys counsel/warn her to give up her wrongheadedness, stop hurting the people who love you, return to your family, etc. All she has to do is look the other way while a bratty snot kid gets disappeared.
And she can’t. She just can’t.
It’s become a cliche that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to not take action. “Gloria” is the story of a not especially good woman who just needed one moment of empathy to kick her onto a redemptive path.
She loses everything, but gains even more.