Gloria may have a sordid past in her wake, but she is certainly not a floozy with a few wrinkles too many. She is a tough-as-nails presence that has been around the block plenty of times, unafraid of anything except maybe the cold eyes of death. Gloria is also portrayed by Gena Rowlands, and "Gloria" is directed by John Cassavetes, her husband.
Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes are national treasures, but when your finest pieces of work are confined to ambitiously outlandish independent films, you're bound to only be remembered by the critics who don't have much fun watching Vin Diesel's newest vehicle. They teamed up seven times, but "Gloria" is the closest thing they ever got to the word "conventional." Despite a slightly over-the-top soundtrack, possibly a quirk added by the mercurial Cassavetes, gone are his usual touches of slapped around camerawork and obvious improvisations. With "Gloria," he's an auteur taking a vacation, and it makes for one of his most entertaining, if not one of his deepest, projects.
The movie begins in ruins; Jack Dawn (Buck Henry) has made the mistake of double-crossing the mob. Not only has he been skimming money from the profits of their various crimes, but he has also been acting as an informant for the FBI. He, along with his family, are barricaded in a crammed apartment, attempting to hold off hired guns for as long as possible. Then Gloria, a neighbor, comes knocking on their door. She wants to borrow sugar, but instead gets Jack's son, Phil (John Adames). Then the inevitable happens: Phil is orphaned, and Gloria, reluctantly, is forced to take him in. Problem is, the mob knows about it. After this set-up pulls through, the rest of the film acts as a punchy and darkly funny game of cat-and-mouse between Gloria, her newfound Puerto Rican child friend, and, well, the mob.
"Gloria"'s only downfall is that it becomes a little monotonous after a while - you can only handle Phil running away and Gloria having to chase after him for so long - but it's much too lovable to really get on your nerves. For once, Cassavetes backs off and lets Rowlands be the star of the show; in the past, it was as if Cassavetes and Rowlands were headlining together (not a bad thing), looking like the cool boho versions of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But even Ginger Rogers had to have "Kitty Foyle" all to herself.
Everything about Rowlands - her light but steely Wisconsin accent, her big hair, her hastily put-on red lipstick, her cheap high heels - is dynamite. In her other films with Cassavetes (1974's "A Woman Under the Influence," 1977's "Opening Night"), she has had to pour out every emotion she's ever felt, as if she were stripping naked in front of a crowd. But in "Gloria," it's clear that she's having fun. Rowlands carries a gun with imposing authority, like a street tough that surprises you with their scrappiness. Even better is her chemistry with the loud and unintentionally funny Adames, who spits out every line with bracing liberation. Gloria is engaging but intimidating, but Phil doesn't much care, and when she can't turn her usual tricks to get him to behave, the playfulness of the film climbs every mountain and fords every stream.
"Gloria" runs a little long at two hours, but it isn't without its charms. Rowlands is a wonderful, wonderful actress, and there isn't a second of the film where we don't ask ourselves what we did to deserve a talent this great in the movie business. I adore Cassavetes with just as much fuss, but this time around, it isn't his show. It's hers, and that's not a bad thing.
Portrayed by Gena Rowlands, Gloria is a former mistress of a mobster who is forced to protect a precocious 6 year old child (honestly, the character is one of the most grating I've watched, even for his age) after his family were brutally murdered by the mob in New York.
Cassavetes' style means the emotional journey taken by Gloria and the child, as they go from full-blown contempt to a loving and caring relationship, but in the odd scenes containing the mobsters, Rowlands holds her own as a strong woman who wasn't afraid of firing a few rounds - something that was, and still is to an extent, notably absent in Hollywood.
Overall, this is a great old film and well worth a watch, although it takes a strong will to get past the annoying child that drives the plot.