Posted by: gdevi | January 24, 2013

Movie Review: Unhook the Stars (1996)

I saw this movie because the cast listed two of my favorite actresses: Gena Rowlands and Marisa Tomei. I love Gena Rowlands very dearly. I remember watching Gloria directed by her husband and fantastic director John Cassavetes years and years ago and being unable to take my eyes off the screen for the entire duration of the film.  It is a long film.  It is one of my prized VHS and DVDs and I show it in some of the classes that I teach. It is an extraordinary movie. So is A Woman Under the Influence, the other movie also directed by John Cassavetes and for which she was nominated for an Oscar, I think. She is one of the greatest actresses of the American screen, bar none.   The only other actress I can think of as being in her category is Giulietta Masina. I think the movies Rowlands made with Cassavetes and Masina made with Fellini are comparable in scope and depth. In a lighter way, Marisa Tomei is also a brilliant dramatic actress. She is equally good in comedy (My Cousin Vinny), and drama (In the Bedroom — just a heartbreaking movie). She plays these completely messed-up women really well. (Another actress that I think of in the same vein is Maggie Gyllenhall.)

Unhook the Stars, directed by Rowland’s son Nick Cassavetes, is a good movie, but Gena Rowlands is great in it. When the movie opens, we see Rowlands who plays Mildred, a fifty-sixty something woman delivering papers to houses in the wee hours of the morning. Later we come to know that she is doing this for her good-for-nothing daughter who is living at her house and displays nothing but unequivocal hostility and contempt for her kind and good-natured mother.  This is really a one-woman show. Mildred is an accomplished, cultured and genuinely kind person.  The scenes between Rowlands and her completely messed-up, selfish daughter Annie (Moira Kelley) are terrific. What makes Annie partly unbearable is her age; but we also find out bit by bit that she also has the opportunistic, user-streak in her. She can be nice to her mother when she wants something.  After a seemingly incomprehensible fight, Annie leaves her mother’s home.  Rowlands plays Mildred, the mother, with the right amount of concern and distance. I could easily relate to her.

The same qualities come into play when she gets to know her neighbors, the Warrens, a loud family that takes their dysfunctional marriage out into the streets. When we first see the couple, they are in their underwear having a loud fight in front of their house yelling obscenities at each other.  They have a five-six year old son who is not cared for by these folks. Marisa Tomei plays Monica, the wife, who, one morning knocks on Mildred’s door to ask her if she would watch the boy while she went to work at the local creamery as her husband has left her. Mildred agrees. The scenes with Rowlands and the little boy are wonderful. People are who they are, and Rowlands takes him to school and picks him up; she reads to the boy from the encyclopedia and teaches him all kinds of interesting things about the world around him, and the boy starts to feel happy and normal. (It was very eerie, but when I was watching this movie, it reminded me of something very inexplicable that happened to me years ago when I was in grad school. One night, my phone rang and I picked it up–it was quite late–around 10:30 or 11 maybe–I was up working on my dissertation–and I answered the phone. There was a little boy on the other side of the phone. The boy asked me, “Is my mom there?” I said, “Excuse me?” The boy said, “I can’t find my mommy.”  “Your mother is not here. Where did your mom go”? I asked the boy.  “I think she went to play bingo,” the boy said. I didn’t know what to say, so I said, are you with any grown-ups? The boy said, yes.  So I said, well, you go and stay with them, okay? Your mom might have been held up with something. He hung up.  He must have dialed my number by mistake. I have always wondered if that boy was okay? Anyway, something about the boy in this movie reminded me of this incident from a while ago.)

Tomei plays Monica with the right amount of aggression, street-smarts, and confusion. She is aware of her sexuality and is not averse to using it. That is pretty much it. The scene where Mildred invites Monica and JJ, the little boy over to her house for Thanksgiving is wonderful. Nick Cassavettes has learned some good lessons in directing dysfunctional family dynamics from his dad, and we see two simultaneous layers of exploitation happening in this Thanksgiving scene. On the one hand, Monica announces that she is over there only until her blind date –“f****** hot date for Thanksgiving,”  as she puts it–comes to pick her up. Mildred’s son and wife are also visiting her, and Marisa Tomei is wonderful in showing how Monica tries to flirt with Mildred’s son in his wife’s presence. My husband left me and I am on the rebound, she tells them. Meanwhile we also see how Mildred’s son and wife are trying to get Mildred to move with them to San Francisco. They want something from her without coming right out and saying it. They are feeling her out. They are all sort of offensive people. Mildred sees it but she does not respond in kind. The scenes with the son feeling her out in a manipulative way at the dining table intercut with Tomei speaking to her blind date on the kitchen telephone where every other word begins with f*** is like something out of a John Cassavettes movie in its persistent uncomfortable focus on the ugly side of human agendas.

Despite the vast gulf in everything between Mildred and Monica, the two women become “friends” with Mildred looking after the little boy.  (There were so many things in this movie that reminded me of the times when I was in grad school. There was this woman I knew who used to ask me to babysit her son. She always told all of us incredibly embarrassing details about her fights with her husband or ex-husband–I couldn’t really tell–in any case, she would say all these things to everyone and it made many of us very uncomfortable. She once showed me her breasts which she said her husband had grabbed and bruised. I was speechless. But what was really interesting was the fact that she soon found out that I was a dependable person to look after her young son. So she would bring the boy over to me in the evenings while she went to the bars with her friends. My real friends used to tell me to say “no” to this woman. After three or four times of babysitting, I did.  He was a good little kid.) The best scenes in the movie are with Mildred and the little boy. The only thing that sort of didn’t tie in that well for me is Mildred’s relationship with Big Tommy, a French-Canadian trucker (played by Gerard Depardieu)  that Monica introduces her to, and who takes a liking to her. There is a considerable age difference between Mildred and Tommy, and this in itself is not a problem, and both Depardieu and Rowlands are great actors, but something just didn’t click for me in their interaction with each other. Perhaps if this angle had been developed more, then this part of the plot would have made more sense.

But the plot comes to a head when Mildred visits her son in San Francisco and learns the true nature of their generous invitation for her to stay with them.  Everybody is trying to make themselves comfortable, and as with her son, Mildred finds out when she comes back that Monica has allowed Frankie, her husband to come back. Now that she no longer needs Mildred to babysit her son, it is a hi-bye friendship. I loved the scene where Monica comes to “help” Mildred pack her things–she is selling her house and moving — and instead of helping her, she stands there talking about all the changes in Frankie, what a wonderful man he is, and the incredible sex they are having now, the champagne, the roses, the make-out music, the time set aside just for her–she talks like one of those self-help books for spicing up your marriage–and we see these tracking shots of Mildred going up and down the stairs and from room to room carrying boxes and labeling things and Monica standing there talking about her new incredible sex life, and it is funny. After a while, Monica notices that Mildred is not responding, and so she asks her–You don’t seem that interested in what I am saying. Do you want me to stop talking? Mildred says, yes, please.  It is quietly hilarious.

Ultimately, this movie offers an interesting glimpse into the things people do to save their own skins, at any cost. And it shows a wonderfully resilient, straight and genuinely independent and kind woman who looks at these people, and politely tells them, thanks, but no thanks.  Normally, in Hollywood movies, there are certain stock women characters. We really don’t see a simple portrait of an ordinary elderly widowed woman who has raised children, helped neighbors, who does not have a professional identity as a doctor or teacher etc, who has no such claims to after-life, who is well-read, educated and an overall fine person to know and cherish in our life. We all know women like this. They exist all around us.  But Hollywood scripts usually have no interest in such women characters because their life trajectory lacks the conflict-ridden angst-ridden male-centered drama that defines much of mainstream characterization of women.  Rowlands plays Mildred with a charisma that I have not seen lately in an actress in some time.  A very interesting movie. See it, if you haven’t.


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