January 2003

John Cassavetes

An Icon for Independents

By Charles Champlin

From the acting that launched his remarkable career, John Cassavetes was a fiercely independent spirit. Even in roles that he might not have chosen for himself but which paid the rent, Cassavetes conveyed passion, defiance and anger with a violent energy concealed just beneath the surface — if it was concealed at all. He had the same seemingly obsessive drive as the young Marlon Brando, for example. But his own passion never ceased, and he died as the same furiously independent creator he had always been.

His films were too few and often roughhewn. What they had was a kind of angry vision, as if their emotional energy was not quite within the size and ability of the screen to contain.

In Husbands there is a sequence of three buddies being sick at the same time after an outrageous outing. It was bizarrely funny and contained a kind of credible observation — and it still seems to be pure Cassavetes (if pure is the appropriate word).
Cassavetes first came to wide notice as a distinctive, angry and talented actor, especially in films like Edge of the City and Killers. He used his acting to help fund his first efforts as an independent filmmaker. His first films — Shadows, Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting, the latter starring Judy Garland in the waning days of her career — did not fully reveal Cassavetes' strongly individual style.

His subsequent films commencing with Faces (1968) ironically drew mixed critical comments because of the power of Cassavetes' highly individual style. Yet Faces had a remarkable popular success thanks to the persuasiveness and intensity of the work by Lynn Carlin and Seymour Cassel.

Husbands (1970) reflected the contradictions of Cassavetes' approach, teetering sometimes on the brink of self-indulgence. Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Cassavetes himself played three friends trying to do a kind of end-around play with their own mortality. Cassavetes was reflecting acutely on death, but critics and audiences felt that the desperation went over the top. On the other hand, pushing too hard in the cause of truth had its rewards for Cassavetes as well as its costs. Humor was never Cassavetes' strongest suit. What there was often tended to be the rough-house variety. Yet Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) is one of his most engaging works with lovely performances by two of the main players in the Cassavetes stock company, his wife Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel.

Thanks to Rowland's excruciatingly moving characterization, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) is one of the summits of Cassavetes' achievements. The portrait of a woman beginning to crumble under the pressures of her life, including her marriage, is at once difficult and compelling to watch. It is like eavesdropping on a friend's case history.


The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a fine title if there ever was one, is a curious blend of good Cassavetes and bad Cassavetes. It seems curiously indecisive, which is rare for Cassavetes. It lacks the usual Cassavetes alternation of headlong drive and slowed-down thoughtfulness. But as always there is interest in the incidentals of setting and character even though the plot lacks the urgency you might expect from the material.

After all the roles of oppressed and beleaguered women Cassavetes asked his wife Gena Rowlands to play, he rewarded her in Gloria with a character who is funny, triumphant, engaging, lovable and a star in a venue many shades lighter than is her customary habitat. As a gangster's moll blasting the blazes out of some former unsavory pals and then successfully hailing a cab, Rowlands is wondrously beguiling; Gloria is one of Cassavetes most successful films, if lighter than most.

In fact, one of the great strengths of Cassavetes' films is the presence of Rowlands. It is not easy to think of other actresses who could so movingly convey the anguish of Cassavetes' creations. Rowlands' work in all of Cassavetes' films creates what is in effect a portrait in mosaic of a contemporary woman, wife, mother and sufferer. Cassavetes and Rowlands were one of those fortunate mutually enriching partnerships in which Cassavetes creates roles that it is not easy to think of anyone but Rowlands performing so well, so vividly and so movingly.

Cassavetes was a remarkable contradiction of ingredients. He was always his own man, usually defiantly so. And he is as consistently interesting and provocative as any American director you can think of, independent or otherwise. He can balance precariously on the edge of indulgence and yet you always sense his latent ability to raise hell with our expectations.

Cassavetes was even more independent than most independent filmmakers. He not only used the medium of film, he somehow attacked it, demanding that it yield more intensity than was its custom. He was a filmmaker who always appeared to defy the limits of film, to push the medium beyond speech and certainly far beyond any parlor politeness.

Some filmmakers are said to be born storytellers. John might be said to have been a born emotion conveyor. There is a short poem that says, in toto, "A poem should not mean, but be." There is a kind of equivalent in Cassavetes' work, in which a film is not the telling of a story but a conveyance of feelings and emotions often more powerful than the screen is used to handling.

Subtlety was never Cassavetes' strong point as an actor. Raw energy and anger, usually, were more like it. Like his own acting, the portraits emerge roughhewn, so to speak, as if they were created at white heat. A kind of creative team surrounded Cassavetes, principally including his wife but also significantly including Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel. Thanks to the empathetic closeness of the players, the films have the aura of improvisation, although improvisation is sometimes delusive. Scenes can be so well written that they play as if improvised and it is only the awareness that the material is being shaped by a writer's hand that reveals most improvisations as shaped, not accidents.

Cassavetes' films often seemed to have an unfinished quality as if there were more to be said or some kind of closure required. Whatever their strengths and weaknesses they remain unique and distinctive pieces of art.

I last saw John Cassavetes one afternoon at his home on Woodrow Wilson Drive in the Hollywood Hills. He was sitting on the couch in the living room, with Rowlands beside him. It was tough days for them both. I had not been forewarned, and found John's stomach distended as a result of an inoperable malignancy. It was obvious that he and his wife were having to contemplate his approaching death. But deliberately making no mention of his illness, John talked with undiminished passion about his films. Some, like Gloria, he was particularly fond of; others, he said, he wouldn't have minded trying again.

It was too much of a cliche to say that he was a maverick. That makes him sound like a pesky teenager instead of a remarkable creative force in films and on the stage. He was one of the true independents in an industry that never has enough. He had never worn any man's collar except, I suppose, in the days in which he was exclusively an actor, taking roles to finance his aspirations for the stage and screen. Sometimes the acting was esthetically very rewarding, like his role in Rosemary's Baby. But there were other less memorable roles just to keep the pot boiling and to preserve the fact that it was his own pot to be kept boiling.

He lived to work, to act but preferably to direct, to create films that could not be identified as anyone else's. That sometimes meant for better and for worse. He was sometimes better, it seemed, at having dreams than delivering them. His energies were not so much focused as they were an exciting spray. But more than many creators in the industry, he knew that risk-taking is all. It's the name of the game and is probably truer of the movies than any other industry, that nothing ventured is nothing gained. Movie makers are like trapeze artists. If you make a successful connection with the audience, the results are thrilling. If you don't make a connection, it's a long drop to the ground. There are more drops than successful connections in any given year — but what keeps people trying is that when things work it is likely to be satisfying as art and wonderfully reassuring as commerce.

Cassavetes never stopped trying, never stopped risking. He took his lumps when the connection didn't work and tried again.

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