Hidden In Plain Sight: Cassavetes The Reluctant Hollywood Player

John Cassavetes disavowed his Hollywood acting roles, which were used to partially finance such esteemed directorial endeavours as Shadows and Faces (both arriving on Blu-ray next week). But as Anthony Nield argues, there is much to value in the pioneering indie filmmaker's studio work

John Cassavetes had a tendency towards bullshit. As an inveterate storyteller he was prone to exaggeration and outright lies, not to mention self-mythology. When Ray Carney was putting together Cassavetes on Cassavetes – a posthumous ‘autobiography’ constructed from countless interviews given down the years – he had no choice but to interrupt each and every claim with a qualifying and/or countering footnote. Much of what Cassavetes had to say would contain a kernel of truth, but it was almost invariably clouded by either romanticised idealism or a severe case of sour grapes. In his world, you were with him or you were against him, and most fell into the latter category. Indeed, this wasn’t so much an ‘us and them’ situation as it was ‘me and them’ – ‘me’ being the artist in the purest sense of the word, ‘them’ being the film studios and their moneymen.

As a jobbing actor and a struggling writer-director Cassavetes inevitably came into contact with ‘them’ on a regular basis and it was rarely on the best of terms. These interactions would govern Cassavetes’ own impressions of his work to the point where he was dismissive of almost all of it. In interviews he would state that he only gave one worthwhile performance, in 1957’s Edge Of The City, where he shared top billing with Sidney Poitier. Occasionally he would also offer up fond memories of some of his earliest televisions roles, but that was it. Everything else went out of the window, meaning around a hundred or so other roles were completely neglected. Almost all of this work came in studio productions, whether for the big screen or small, and it’s hard not to factor that in. The attitude was all the more pronounced for those films on which he served as director. If they were self-financed and independently produced – as was the case with the likes of Shadows, Faces and A Woman Under The Influence – then they were there to be cherished. If they were studio pictures – as with Too Late Blues for Paramount or A Child Is Waiting for big time producer Stanley Kramer – they were to be dismissed and lambasted.

Filmmakers rarely make the best judges of their work. Just look at Woody Allen and his repeated insistence that Annie Hall and Manhattan are among his very worst. As far as Woody is concerned the critics and the cinephiles rarely agree, yet this has never been the case with Cassavetes. He’s had famous naysayers in the past (most notably The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael, who vocally opposed Faces and Husbands especially), but the general attitude has long been one that apes his own. The independent works are placed front and centre of his achievements, to the belittlement of almost everything else. Thanks to that oft-used moniker the ‘Godfather of the indies’, anything that doesn’t conform to Cassavetes’ notions of cinematic purity is given short shrift or, more likely, simply put to one side. In a filmography that nearly reached treble figures that’s an incredibly reductive attitude to have.

This is not to refute the qualities of those independent films. Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under The Influence, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie and Opening Night are soon coming to Blu-ray courtesy of the BFI, and rightly so as each one of these films – the quintet on which much of Cassavetes’ high regard rests – needs to be seen. Few other filmmakers made cinema quite so abrasive, so prying and with such rawness. These were portraits of unflinching emotional honesty, about men burdened by fragile, empty machismo and women suffocated by the expectations placed upon them. No one seems happy in a Cassavetes movie, but everyone seems real. Importantly, he cared, and that was exactly why he was showing us all of these rough edges. Nobody’s perfect, he was telling us – not these guys on the screen, not you, not me – so why bother with the whitewash?

It isn’t the quality that comes into question, it’s the dichotomy created by pitting them against the rest of Cassavetes’ output. That ‘me and them’ attitude has extended to the films themselves, with ‘me’ represented by only a handful of select titles. (Cassavetes was fond of dismissing his other directorial work – Minnie And Moskowitz, Gloria and Love Streams – as mere "entertainment movies", in part because they were studio ventures, but these generally find favour nowadays, albeit as ‘second tier’ works.) Such an attitude is almost hardwired into the films themselves. Faces, for example, opens with a screening room prologue in which various industry types gather to discuss the film we’re about to see. In Cassavetes’ hands the scene is as bitter and sarcastic as you would expect, an undoubted ‘fuck you’ to their real-life counterparts he’d encountered to date. He may very well have a point, and his quotes on moneymen ruining creativity – "Can a picture make a million dollars? Who the hell cares? If you’re thinking that way, you’re not making films, you’re making money" – are as salient today as they were when he first made them.

But if we take the Cassavetes CV as a whole we get a far richer picture of the man. His filmography is one that feeds off itself, oftentimes providing sly commentary on the real Cassavetes. He would regularly claim that the acting jobs were done purely for the money – a guest spot on Columbo is said to have partly financed A Woman Under The Influence – which cannot help but colour his performance in Rosemary’s Baby. There he played Mia Farrow’s husband, a struggling actor working in commercials and Off-Broadway who, essentially, makes a deal with the Devil. Or how about the eponymous anti-hero of Machine Gun McCain? Here Cassavetes is a go-it-alone criminal compelled by his hatred of "sad, fat businessmen" and – if you’ll excuse the late Sixties dialogue – "Hollywood fags". Most famous of all is the ultra-rebellious figure of Victor Franco, his part in The Dirty Dozen that would earn him an Oscar nomination.

The nod from the Academy was well-deserved. Cassavetes would later dismiss The Dirty Dozen just as he would dismiss so many of his films. The violence, he would say, was a real problem and so he deliberately tried to break out of his contract. Yet none of this appears on the screen, rather we see an actor who is willing to milk each and every one of his scenes in order to make an impact. Most of the Dozen get a one-sequence opportunity to show off their talents – think of Donald Sutherland impersonating a general – but Cassavetes really goes for it. Even when there’s no dialogue he’s the one determined to grab your attention, and naturally the Oscars took note. They would later recognise his work behind the camera too, with nominations for Faces‘ screenplay and A Woman Under The Influence‘s direction. On paper, and in the eyes of the establishment, Cassavetes was just as important no matter which role on a film set he undertook.

One of the Dirty Dozen was played by Ben Carruthers, previously among the leads in Cassavetes’ directorial debut, Shadows. This was typical of the man and he would regularly secure supporting roles and guest spots for his friends and favoured performers. Take almost any of his acting jobs and you’ll find a member of the Cassavetes troupe somewhere on the cast list. The leads of A Woman Under The Influence, his wife Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, both appeared in Machine Gun McCain. Rowlands would also star alongside her husband in a number of television productions and the likes of Paul Mazursky’s Tempest. Similarly, Falk and Cassavetes sparred in Mikey And Nicky (perhaps the only acting job held in sufficient esteem, thanks to its rough edges and improvisatory vibe) and that episode of Columbo. The list goes on: Ben Gazzara in Capone and If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium; Seymour Cassel in Don Siegel’s remake of The Killers and the TV movie Nightside; and so forth.

This crossover creates an intriguing situation. Watching these movies is akin to being placed in a parallel universe. Cassavetes is there with all of his usual players, but the creative impulses are different. They’re governed by a need to be entertaining in the most immediate of senses, not to offer up raw portraits of emotional frailty. And yet there’s nothing to stop Rowlands giving a fine performance in Machine Gun McCain, say, or Gazzara clearly enjoying himself as Al Capone, and Cassavetes’ performances always merit a look. He would often relate tales of bad experiences during the making of these films – he couldn’t get along with Mazursky during Tempest, for example, and hated Roman Polanski’s approach to the actors on Rosemary’s Baby – but his comments came from disagreements in how things were handled, i.e. that the likes of Mazursky and Polanski didn’t direct the way he would have directed. The end results weren’t his end results and, as such, weren’t good pictures.

Of course, there were bad films. John Hough’s demonic rape horror The Incubus is as appalling as it sounds. But as Cassavetes himself once said, "Oh God, I don’t want to see a Bergman film tonight – I’ll watch a gangster film instead." In other words trash has its place and there’s no shame in having an Incubus rub shoulders with A Woman Under the Influence. In fact there’s no shame in having a piece of stylish trash such as Brian De Palma’s The Fury (which is way too much fun to dismiss) in there too or, for that matter, the popular entertainment of The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby. As a director he felt that his second feature Too Late Blues was compromised by studio interference and that his third, A Child Is Waiting, was hamstrung by having two major stars with personas to protect, namely Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland. But does cinema always have to be so tough and abrasive as it is in Faces or Husbands? Can’t we simply focus on the qualities that Too Late Blues possessed, rather than lament its failings? Just because something isn’t perfect or doesn’t satisfy perceived ideas of purity, should it therefore be ignored?

Sometimes you simply need to extend a little generosity, even if Cassavetes himself was reluctant to. There was one rare occasion when he stepped in at the last moment to replace Ben Gazzara on a UCLA student film by the name of The Haircut. This short from 1982 has remained in obscurity since the production wrapped (if you want to own it you’ll need to import a US DVD of the awful Susannah Hoffs-starring teen flick The Allnighter). However, it is something of a discovery: a genuinely oddball piece of work that defies explanation. Essentially, Cassavetes plays a music industry type who heads into a barbershop just prior to a meeting. Once inside the film spends the rest of its scant running time bouncing around strange ideas and possessing a considerable charm. The Bangles put in an appearance (from when they were known as The Bangs) and a Charlie Chaplin composition plays the film out. Somehow, it all makes for a totally winning combination.

Very few people have seen The Haircut and I’m willing to apportion some of the blame onto Cassavetes himself. He’d been so resolute in defining which of his films were important that the idea has become set in stone. Newcomers are almost forced to approach him from this viewpoint and it’s one that states only the purest of his works should warrant close attention. As a result there’s never been much impetus to delve a little deeper and seek out the likes of The Haircut, or to look outside that self-defined canon and re-evaluate the ‘minor’ films, or even to perceive his considerable range of credits as an overall body of work. It’s become termed as contradictory rather than complementary, which is ultimately an unhealthy attitude to have. The upcoming BFI discs will hopefully create some more newcomers to Cassavetes, but their quintet of titles shouldn’t be seen as the be-all-and-end-all. Rather they should be seen as the spur for further investigation and a proper redefining of which works are important. Cassavetes was too good a filmmaker and too good an actor to be reduced to a mere clutch of achievements.

The BFI’s John Cassavetes Collection launches on April 23 with Dual Format Editions of Shadows and Faces, containing both DVD and Blu-ray versions. A Woman Under The Influence, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie and Opening Night will be released later in 2012.

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