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A Wonderful 'Weekend With Gena Rowlands'


With her blond beauty, Gena Rowlands might well have become the next Lana Turner, but instead she became the finest American actress of her generation. There will be ample evidence to back up this sweeping claim when the American Cinematheque presents "A Weekend With Gena Rowlands," Friday through Sunday at the Directors Guild.

The event will be highlighted by the two films that brought her Oscar nominations, "Gloria" (1980) and "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974), in which she was directed by her late husband, John Cassavetes. In the first, a hectic action comedy, she's a tough gangster's moll on the run with the loot and a kid as unwanted baggage; in the second, she's a blue-collar housewife struggling to maintain her delicate mental equilibrium. (The first screens Saturday at 9:15 p.m., the second, Sunday at 6:45 p.m.)

Rowlands has triumphed on stage, screen and television without ever becoming a superstar or appearing in a mega-hit. For cineastes she will forever be associated with the films she made with Cassavetes, which include "Faces" (1968) and "Love Streams" (1984). Yet Rowlands has reached a far wider audience in television, and the Cinematheque's Dennis Bartok, in assembling this tribute, has shrewdly emphasized Rowlands' TV work over her films. For nearly 40 years she has acted in the quality drama shows, from the Golden Age of TV in the '50s to some of the finest TV movies of the past two decades.

To watch Rowlands hour after hour in an array of work spanning the decades is not merely a pleasure but is also to come away with a renewed awareness of how very much she is the complete actress (and was from the start). All of the women she plays may look alike and more often than not possess Rowlands' unpretentious personality, yet each has an inner life of her own. (No wonder Rowlands, on sleepless nights, says she has been able to start wondering what happened to some of these women she has brought to life so convincingly.) Rowlands moves easily between tough cookies, glamour girls and grande dames, with suburban housewives in between--just as easily as she has been able to shift between Cassavetes' shoot-from-the-hip style of filmmaking to the tight schedules of TV.

With Cassavetes' loose, highly collaborative way of making films, Rowlands, as have others in Cassavetes' informal company of actors, has been able to peel away more layers in the pursuit of truth than with any other writer or director, yet there is a shining truthfulness and distinction in her work in such major TV films as the 1979 "Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter" (Saturday at 8 p.m.) and the 1985 "An Early Frost" (Sunday at 2 p.m.). In the first she is the estranged daughter of a crusty New Englander (Bette Davis), who returns home for the first time in 21 years determined to win the love of her mother, always jealous because her late husband always seemed to put his daughter first. With Milton Katselas' taut direction and Michael de Guzman's luminous script, "Strangers" becomes a memorable teaming of two great actresses. In the second, directed by John Erman and written by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, she is a well-off housewife who must absorb the double whammy of learning that her adult son (Aidan Quinn) is gay and has AIDS--and who must also deal with her macho, homophobic husband (Ben Gazzara).

The early TV work is a special joy, as a discovery (or rediscovery). In the 1955 half-hour "Time for Love" (Friday at 7 p.m.), Rowlands and Cassavetes are teamed for the first time--she as a humble small-town girl swiftly swept off her feet by Cassavetes' traveling salesman. In another appearance with Cassavetes, the 1965 "Won't It Ever Be Morning?" (which follows "Time for Love"), she's a jazz singer, who's terrific on stage but who must struggle to express herself when a lawyer (Cassavetes) puts her on the stand in defense of her devoted manager (Jack Klugman), wrongly accused of murder.

Rowlands will make several appearances throughout the weekend. Information: (213) 466-FILM.

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