If you set aside questions of morality and sexuality, there have always been strong women characters in Hollywood movies. (They didn’t call them femme fatales for nothing.) Strong women with guns too. Blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s 1949 classic Gun Crazy is but one particularly gun-centered example. Even so, the mid 1970s were a turning point. Enter Princess Leia, Ellen Ripley, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones and more. But none of these dames had anything on one particular lady who appeared in 1980 packing more than lipstick and mascara in her purse . . .
In Gloria, mob accountant Jack Dawn (Buck Henry) is talking to the FBI. The cosa nostra wants to make sure Jack doesn’t turn over his record book to the coppers. They put him and his family on a hit list. Before the bad guys can rub out their double-crossing bookkeeper and his family, Jack gives his little black book to his young son Phil (John Adames). Jack places the boy in the care of his next door neighbor, Gloria (Gena Rowlands). She reluctantly agrees to protect the young Puerto Rican child (can someone say Leon, The Professional).
Subservient to dominating men in her past, Gloria is now middle-aged and hard around the edges. She’s an ex-con and ex-gangster’s moll who played by man’s rules. When Phil shows up she’s got nothing to show for her life but some cash and a cat to keep her company. The boy’s appearance serves as the catalyst for Gloria’s newfound purpose. With maternal instincts set on “kill,” she stands up to the very species that had suppressed her… with a snub-nose .38 Detective Special.
From the seat of a car that pulls up in front of her, a gangster orders Gloria to “take a walk” so they can “take care” of the kid (who is standing behind her). But for this previously chained junkyard dog (Gloria), the shackles have now broke. Gloria equaled the playing field with New York’s most powerful crime syndicate with only the snap of a purse’s button and the draw of her shiny silver snubby.
Gloria takes it’s gun-play seriously. Although RF would disapprove of Gloria’s handbag carry, it certainly adds impact. When she rustles through her handbag to find her heater, the audience knows what’s coming, even if her target doesn’t. Clearly, Gloria’s just as comfortable handling her six-shooter as applying lipstick; our heroine displays an expert stance before pulling her revolver’s trigger and rushes towards her targets.
Gloria has Dirty Harry-class nerves of steal. After one mobster takes a shot at her Gloria fires back. She retrieves the bad guy’s weapon from the floor soon-after. “You had to shoot me with a Magnum?” she asks.
Gloria’s trigger-finger prevented her from being a victim of a male chauvinist society. No longer was she at the mercy of these men. The little boy “gets it.” “Gloria,” he chides “you can’t keep shooting everybody that comes knocking on your door.”
The young boy’s acting skills are at best, tolerable. Rowlands gives a subtle, gutsy, powerhouse performance that deserved an Academy Award (she was nominated). Rowlands’ then husband and indie filmmaker John Cassavetes wrote and directed the film with a sense of gritty, clear-cut splendor.
This small and many times overlooked motion picture is a straightforward, rock-hard movie with compassion and violence bundled together. It’s not blatantly feminist, but the message is there: “Ya let a woman beat you!” Gloria yells. No one “let” Gloria win. She earns her victories through grit, determination and a simple, reliable gat.