John Cassavetes isn't feeling well. "I've had a lot to drink in my life," he says, "and my liver just went bananas." But that doesn't matter, not today. Today Cassavetes is sitting in his living room high above Los Angeles, chain-smoking and sipping black coffee. He is on the phone with friends in New York City, waiting for the box office returns of his latest film, Love Streams, a movie about a brother and sister on the brink of nervous breakdowns. Upstairs his wife, Gena Rowlands, 50, who co-stars as the sister, is getting ready for a lunch date.

"Gripping?" laughs Cassavetes, pondering a critic's choice of words. "Does that mean the picture's got a cold?" He hangs up and the phone rings again. "No, I haven't had a drink in four months. I'm trying to be a good boy and learn to like tomato juice." Pause. "Those days are gone."

At that moment Rowlands rushes downstairs and heads for the driveway and her white convertible. "If I forget one more thing..." she mutters, then vanishes out the door.

"Just a minute," says Cassavetes, and goes after her.

After a moment's discussion he leans across the passenger side of the car and kisses her hand—a small but telling gesture, straight out of a Cassavetes movie.

For more than two decades Cassavetes, 54, has been making films about middle-class love, boredom and despair—films with such names as Shadows, Faces, Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence and now, Love Streams. Many have featured his wife, who has received two Oscar nominations and critical raves for her work in his movies.

The couple are also unusual in megabudget Hollywood because they finance their own films, often with money they earn by acting in more commercial projects. Last year Rowlands starred with Rob Lowe in the CBS-TV movie Thursday's Child; Cassavetes has appeared in Rosemary's Baby and The Fury, among other films. On occasion they've even mortgaged their Hollywood Hills home so that they could continue to put on film their idiosyncratic and sometimes unnerving explorations of American life. Some critics compare Cassavetes' approach to that of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

"Bergman?" says Paul Mazursky, an old friend who directed the couple in his 1982 film, Tempest. "I think John is funnier than Bergman. He's also unique. His work has nothing to do with Raiders of the Lost Ark. He's doing his own material. This is an age of movies for children, but it will pass."

Some have not been so kind to Cassavetes. "Dumb, crudely conceived and badly performed," snapped Pauline Kael in her review of Faces, his 1968 film. Not one to turn the other cheek, Cassavetes tried to lock her out of a screening of Husbands, his 1970 movie about three men facing middle age. Only the intervention of Ben Gazzara, who starred in the film with pals Peter Falk and Cassavetes himself, got her back in. "I don't care about being on top, about being No. 1," says Cassavetes. "I just make movies for a few suckers in the audience anyway."

Cassavetes was born in 1929 in Brooklyn, the son of a Harvard-educated Greek immigrant who made a fortune as a travel-agency broker, then lost it all. In the mid-1950s, after a brief stab at college, Cassavetes spotted Rowlands in a student production at New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts and went backstage to introduce himself. They married soon after. "John's not shy," says Gena.

The first few years of marriage were a struggle. "I used to write for the comic books," says the Wisconsin-born Rowlands. "They paid $60 a story and it was hard work." Then Cassavetes struck gold starring in Staccato, a TV detective series. He channeled those earnings into his first film, Shadows, a gritty, cinéma vérité look at city life in New York, and was immediately offered a chance to direct a quickie film, Too Late Blues, in Hollywood.

For Gena that meant giving up her burgeoning stage career, but she was inspired to step up her movie work when John had a fight with the producer of A Child Is Waiting, a Judy Garland film about retarded children, which he directed in 1962. Cassavetes quit directing for the next two years. "When I get sore, I go all the way," he says. "I stayed home and took care of our first child, Nick, who was just a baby. I was a good mother." Shortly thereafter, in 1967, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the WW II movie The Dirty Dozen. That success helped insure that he could depend on acting for his income—which was just as well. "When you make your own movies," Rowlands once said, "you don't always hit the jackpot."

In 1974 Rowlands appeared in Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, a brutal look at a middle-class housewife disintegrating into madness. Rowlands won an Oscar nomination, her first, and Cassavetes got one of his own, for Best Director. Neither won, but the film was critically praised and established them as a unique husband-wife team.

Because of his acting background, Cassavetes has also developed an unusual directorial style. For one thing, he prefers to work with a stock company of his friends, among them Falk, Gazzara and Seymour Cassel, as well as the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children of his friends and neighbors. "John doesn't make a picture like other people," says Falk. "Take it from the horse's mouth. He likes to keep you off balance as an actor. Also, when you're working with John and Gena, you can't tell that they're husband and wife. Gena can get just as confused and angry at him as I do."

During the filming of Love Streams, for example, Cassavetes directed Rowlands to pour a drink, pick up the telephone and light a cigarette nervously. "If I do that, I'll light my hair on fire," she protested. Minutes later the scene was shot—his way. "Grrr, I hate that man," muttered Rowlands, after the scene wrapped. "Now there," said Cassavetes, smiling as his wife walked off the set, "goes one distraught woman."

During another movie, recalls Rowlands, "we had the whole cast and crew over to the house late and there was a lot of drinking and eating going on. One of the actors, I won't say who, tore up the flowers in the driveway, and I was furious. I told John, who was directing, that either the actor went or I went. John kind of hesitated, and that's when I knew he was a director. My scenes in the film were finished, but the other actor's weren't, so John needed him around." The actor stayed; so did she. "John and I probably disagree on just about everything in the world," adds Gena, who describes their marriage as "volatile. But that's what marriage is all about. If you think a marriage isn't going to be like that, you've got trouble."

At home, a rambling house John and Gena share with son Nick, 24, himself an aspiring actor, and two daughters, Zoe, 14, and Xan, 19, Cassavetes is an unabashed sports nut, following the seasons by betting on games with Falk and other friends. While filming Tempest, in 1981, he had the studio wire the daily baseball scores to the shooting location in southern Greece.

Rowlands, on the other hand, keeps to herself, visiting friends, taking care of the children and running the household. "We try not to bring our work home," she says. "Three kids hitting you at the door is a great leveler. But we often get up in the middle of the night if we're working and start talking about it."

Meanwhile, back in the living room, Cassavetes is on the phone with Menahem Golan, one of the owners of Cannon Films, which is distributing Love Streams. Golan at first didn't care if his company's name was writ large in the ads for the movie, but now the film is doing well and he mentions to Cassavetes that he'd like the Cannon name in bigger type.

Cassavetes laughs at the irony. "I played backgammon with Golan and his partner over how big their name would be," he recalls. "They usually win, but that time I won. They're good—but I'm driven."