Photo: Universal Pictures

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the Academy Awards coming this Sunday, we’re highlighting work by master filmmakers who never won the Best Director Oscar.

Minnie And Moskowitz (1971)

At a key moment in John Cassavetes’ “romantic” “comedy” Minnie And Moskowitz, leading man Seymour (Seymour Cassell) clips off his bushy hippie mustache in a gesture of infatuated desperation. The reluctant apple of his eye (Gena Rowlands) wrestles the scissors out of his hands before he can turn on his ponytail, but it’s a futile move. Both halves of the mismatched coupling that lend this agonizing, fitfully funny film its title express themselves almost exclusively through theatrical, over-the-top outbursts. Rowlands appears to spend the entire film on the brink of tears, evidently warming up for the tour de force in A Woman Under The Influence that would earn her a Best Actress nomination three years later. When she’s not trembling just to contain her internal emotional tempest, she hides behind an oversized pair of sunglasses that make her look like an extremely stylish insect. She’s not cut out for this world, and neither is he, but whether that makes them perfect or toxic for one another remains unclear.

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Love is the primal, consumptive force that’s driven them both to such volatility, as it does to everyone who crosses the screen in this rough-hewn drama masquerading as an offbeat boy-meets-girl story. Minnie moans to her museum colleague early on that Hollywood movies have sold her a false bill of goods with their swells of violins, soft focuses, and tidily resolved endings. The real world has failed to meet Minnie’s fantasies halfway at every occasion, besetting her with human disappointments leagues removed from the celluloid fantasies to which she faithfully clings. There’s her violently abusive boyfriend, unsettlingly played by Rowlands’ real-life husband Cassavetes (and that’s just one part of this family affair, which ropes in Cassavetes’ mother and young daughters as well). Later, a blind date with a fellow named Zelmo (Val Avery) goes from uncomfortable to bad to worse to nearly unwatchable. Their lunch ends with him howling at her to give him a chance in the middle of a diner, a sight that shocks half the audience and incites sorrowful, knowing nods in the other.

Though he never offers Zelmo a pass, Cassavetes conveys the mix of loneliness and need that compels the man to act in such an extreme way, and pays the same courtesy to all of the characters as they flagrantly act against their own romantic self-interest. Minnie knows Clark Gable’s never coming to sweep her off her feet, but she needs to believe in something, or the weight of the world will squash her flat: “I hear ringing tones when I’m alone, frequencies, noises like the bathtub running,” goes the best line. (Seymour’s exclamation that “I think about you so much, I forget to go to the bathroom!” is a close second.) Regardless of whether it’s due to a deficiency in personality or just too many movies, Minnie requires someone else, even if that someone else is the less-than-perfect Seymour. Cassavetes concludes with a shot of what looks like stably happy domesticity, complete with chipper kids frolicking in the yard; he’s mocking the artificial catharsis of Tinseltown’s golden age, casting Minnie one last glance of pity as she settles for the least-shitty of all possible worlds.

Availability: Minnie And Moskowitz is available on DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library.

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