“Diseased. A freak. Totally screwed, put together with spit and shit and honey. Impossible to figure, nutty, mean, selfish, crazy, creepy, sick, weak. On a scale of ten million, she’s last. And she’s mine. I can’t believe how lucky we are to find each other.”-Eddie, from the 1987 version of the script She’s Delovely by John Cassavetes
She’s Delovely was written by John Cassavetes in the summer of 1980. Its premise involves a married couple (Eddie and Mo) that lives on the fringes of society, residing in a slum. When Mo is assaulted, her husband Eddie flies off the handle and ends up shooting a clinic attendant Mo had called to subdue the situation. Ten years later, the script picks up with Eddie and Mo’s second husband Joey competing for her affections. In 1987, Cassavetes re-wrote large portions of his script to suit Sean Penn, who had agreed to be in the film (which would have been the first film Cassavetes had made since Big Trouble in 1986). As John Cassavetes began pre-production and location scouting (between 1987 and 1988), the project was shelved. Part of the reason for this was a number of financial problems arising from allegedly unpaid taxes on A Woman Under The Influence (1974), while the other reason Cassavetes had to shelve She’s Delovely was because of personal differences between himself and Sean Penn. In Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes, he attributes their dispute to Penn’s insistence that Madonna play Mo in the film, a casting decision that Cassavetes could not support. As a result, Penn made Casualties Of War (1989) with Brian DePalma, and Cassavetes never returned to filmmaking before his death in 1989.(Carney, page 761)
A decade later in 1997, John Cassavetes’ son Nick Cassavetes directed the script now titled She’s So Lovely. Just as John Cassavetes had intended Sean Penn plays Eddie, though instead of Madonna playing Mo opposite, Penn’s then wife Robin Wright-Penn assumed the role. The part of Joey was delegated to John Travolta, with James Gandolfini and Harry Dean Stanton filling out the cast.
It seems safe to assume that Nick Cassavetes changed a little more than just the title of the script since the monologue featured above does not appear in the final cut of She’s So Lovely. Similarly, there are a number of time lapse sequences in the film, most obviously the pasta scene, that were probably long scripted scenes that are now abbreviated. Scenes such as these are hallmarks of John Cassavetes’ films, scenes like the singing contest in Husbands and the spaghetti breakfast in A Woman Under The Influence. However, scenes such as these do not conform to the contemporary vernacular of American filmmaking, when fast cuts and pigeon holed characters are the norm. Slow scenes designed to build character and present the audience with insights and observations regarding human behavior are not on the agenda for Nick Cassavetes. Instead, Nick Cassavetes deludes these scenes, compressing them to the point where only the most essential superficial information can be given to propel the narrative forward.
It may appear presumptuous to pin the stylistic shortcomings of She’s So Lovely on Nick Cassavetes; it could very well be that Miramax (infamous for their ruthless re-cutting of films) pared the film down. But I don’t believe that is the case. If we examine Nick Cassavetes’ filmography we find a series of commercial dramas designed to entertain or preach some moral issue, not confront the nature of human beings. This is a problem when watching She’s So Lovely because the film beckons the lengthy scenes that are missing from it. In its final version, She’s So Lovely feels lopsided and top heavy. The character of Joey, and certainly Mo and Joey’s children, are under developed, yet are still rich enough in character that they cannot function as archetypes or clichés.
That said, there is still a great deal of the script that is unmistakably John Cassavetes. The words the characters use such as “wacko”, “soft eyes”, “sweet potato pie”; among others are the very trappings of Cassavetes’ own speech pattern. The character models of She’s So Lovely are also standards within the cinema of John Cassavetes. Eddie represents the penchant for violence and the neediness of Ben Gazzara’s character Harry in Husbands (1970). But Eddie is also a romantic, whose selflessness toward Mo recalls Seymour’s relationship to Minnie in Minnie & Moskowitz (1971). Though Harry and Seymour may appear as opposites, their personality traits work together within Eddie, representing the two sides to his personality. Eddie is at times tragically romantic while at other times he is distant or violent. This division in personality, though present in all of Cassavetes’ characters, is much more dramatic in Eddie. Only late in his career did John Cassavetes begin to construct character studies based around such divided personalities. In comparison with Myrtle of Opening Night (1977) and Cosmo of The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976) Eddie’s behavioral divisions appear far less drastic. What are essential to the portrayal of these sorts of characters in Cassavetes work are the mundane and familiar circumstances that trigger these characters to “act out”. Eddie’s penchant for violence only rears its head when he feels his wife has been threatened, just as Cosmo assumes new personality traits as he becomes more and more desperate to save his nightclub.
Even Mo resembles characters that have come before in the work of John Cassavetes. Like Eddie, she is both romantic, sentimental and yet, tough enough to make it on her own. The dreaminess of Mo is not too distant from that of Mabel, the heroin of A Woman Under The Influence, though Mo is much more down to earth. The versatility and adaptability Mo exhibits, that could be perceived as toughness, derive from Jeanie in Faces (1968) and Gloria of Gloria (1980). All three women are stubborn and deliberate in their plays for power, while simultaneously showing a profound tenderness and compassion for those who have won their affections. Consider the dualities of these character’s worlds as well. Gloria and Mo are each attempting to escape their past, but are unable to because the past has become inexplicably tied to their identity. Such comparisons between the characters in John Cassavetes’ earlier works and those in She’s So Lovely could go on forever, even going so far as to compare Joey with Robert in Love Streams (1984).
What these character models represent is a thematic consistency that manages to survive in even an abbreviated version of a John Cassavetes screenplay. In contrast to John Cassavetes’ thematic concerns are those of his son’s, Nick Cassavetes. What She’s So Lovely, The Notebook (2004) and My Sister’s Keeper (2009) all have in common is the depiction of one family member endeavoring to find redemption in the very family they have wronged. Nick Cassavetes’ characters are unable to communicate as manufactured individuals, functioning more like ventriloquist’s dummies, a mouthpiece for his own concerns. This approach is the very opposite of his father’s, and may account for the irregularities in the performances in She’s So Lovely. Ultimately, it is the characters of a narrative film that have to articulate and represent the thematic concerns of the filmmaker. When the characters are imbued with very little dimensionality and there is an absence of the illusion of a real life that extends beyond the confines of the film, then the validity and the readability of these themes becomes superficial. Though John Cassavetes condemned these tactics, the tactics themselves are the defining stylistic tendency in all mainstream American film.
The conflict between the tactics of father and son exemplify the conflict John Cassavetes found insufferable while working with Stanley Kramer on A Child Is Waiting (1963). That so little has been learned from the debacle of A Child Is Waiting is the real shame. Audiences still refuse to be confronted with any meaningful exchange with the filmmaker as an artist, so therefore, films like She’s Delovely become films like She’s So Lovely.