John Cassavetes (1929-1989) was one of the most highly acclaimed independent filmmakers in America. He was widely honored for motion pictures that successfully brought to the screen believable portrayals of real human emotion.
The younger of two sons of Greek immigrants, Nicholas and Katherine Cassavetes, he was born in New York City on December 9, 1929. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to nearby Long Island, where John grew up and attended public schools in Sands Point and Port Washington. He attended Mohawk College and Colgate University, both in upstate New York, before enrolling at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts, from which he graduated in 1950.
Failed to Win Broadway Parts
Cassavetes' hopes of launching his acting career on the New York stage were frustrated, sending him to Rhode Island where he appeared with a theatrical repertory company in Providence from 1950 until 1952. His film career began in 1952 when he was given a small role in Taxi, a motion picture directed by Gregory Ratoff. In 1954, Cassavetes began acting in live television productions, including those produced for Omnibus, Studio One, Playhouse 90, and Kraft Theater. In most of these early dramatic roles, Cassavetes was cast as a "troubled youth." He later appeared in a handful of motion pictures that had been adapted from these early teleplays.
While teaching method acting at a theater workshop in New York, Cassavetes came up with an idea for his first independent film project. He became convinced that one of the improvisations done in the drama workshop could be developed into a film. Appearing on Jean Shepherd's late-night radio talk show, he invited listeners who wanted to see an alternative to what was being turned out by the big Hollywood studios to send him some money to fund the project. He received donations totaling about $20,000. An additional $20,000 was raised from among his friends in show business and from his own savings. With this meager financing, Cassavetes began work on his first feature film, a daring statement on race relations called Shadows. The film related the story of a light-skinned black girl and her two brothers in New York City. But it was the manner in which it was made that clearly set Shadows apart. Cassavetes laid out roughly defined parameters and set his actors free to improvise within those scenarios. In this manner, the film's story line gradually evolved as the film was shot intermittently over a period of two years. He filmed the action with a hand-held 16mm camera and arranged to have the film's musical score composed by jazz bassist Charlie Mingus. The finished sound track featured horn solos by Shafi Hadi. Village Voice film critic Jonas Mekas said of Shadows: "The tones and rhythms of a new America are caught in Shadows for the very first time."
American Distributors Showed No Interest
Cassavetes was unable to interest any American distributors in Shadows and took the film to Europe where it was received enthusiastically, most notably at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Critics Award. A British distributor finally agreed to release the film in the United States. Impressed by the filmmaker's first outing, Paramount hired Cassavetes to make a series of films. However, the studio sacked him after his first attempt in the series, Too Late Blues, was poorly received both critically and popularly. He next directed A Child is Waiting for United Artists and Stanley Kramer. This creative collaboration, fractious from the start, ended badly when Kramer gave Cassavetes only two weeks to edit the film. Kramer than re-cut Cassavetes' finished product, producing a final version that Cassavetes complained was overly sentimental. These experiences soured Cassavetes on the idea of working for the big Hollywood studios. He longed for an opportunity to retain total artistic control over his projects.
Once again Cassavetes fell back on acting to raise the money he needed to finance his filmmaking projects. He appeared in a number of high-profile films, including Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and The Dirty Dozen. For the latter he was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor. Although he was only interested in making films that he liked and believed in, his standards were relaxed a good deal when it came to choosing acting assignments. "I'd rather work in a sewer than make a film I don't like," Cassavetes was quoted in People magazine. "Sometimes I will act in them however."
His next project, after he accumulated enough money from acting, was the critically acclaimed Faces, which was again filmed in 16mm and shot over a period of three years. Like Shadows, the film was shot in cinema verite style. However, unlike its predecessor, it was both a critical and financial success, earning more than ten million dollars at the box office. Moreover, the motion picture won five awards from the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
Worked with Studios
On the heels of Faces, Cassavetes returned to the studios, but this time with the promise that he would be guaranteed complete artistic control. Among his films made with studio backing were 1970's Husbands for Columbia and Minnie and Moskowitz, a comedy for Universal in 1971. Husbands focused on the relationship between three men forced to confront their own mortality when they attend the funeral of a mutual friend. Cassavetes not only directed the film but also acted in it with close friends Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. Vincent Canby of the New York Times hailed Minnie and Moskowitz as Cassavetes' most ambitious work up to that point, but suggested that it failed as a comedy. "Mr. Cassavetes' use of exaggerated slapstick gestures to underscore the loneliness and fears of his characters is more interesting in theory than funny or moving in actual fact." Canby, however, was impressed by Cassavetes' selection of actors for the project. "As an actor," Canby wrote, "he appreciates actors and their mysterious art, as well as their awful dependence on the work of others. This explains why he casts his films so abundantly."
Returning to projects he financed on his own, Cassavetes in 1974 released A Woman under the Influence, which starred his wife of 20 years, Gena Rowlands. Considered by many to be his most commercial film, Woman also featured close friend Falk and earned Cassavetes an Academy Award nomination as best director. The motion picture related the story of middle-aged Mabel Longhetti (played by Rowlands) who is committed to a mental institution by her mother and husband, acting in concert. Of Cassavetes' directorial skill, film critic Pauline Kael wrote: "His special talent is for showing intense suffering from nameless causes; Cassavetes and Pinter both give us an actor's view of human misery. It comes out as metaphysical realism: we see the tensions and the power plays but never know the why of anything." Kael's review was not without criticism of Cassavetes, suggesting that his direction had "a muffled quality: his scenes are often unshaped and so rudderless that the meanings don't emerge."
Cassavetes himself acknowledged that he'd taken chances with Woman, saying, "It's naive in that sense, because we weren't sure that people would want to see family life, family life with problems, not hyped up… ." Also favorably impressed with the film was critic Paul Zimmerman, who wrote: "Every film is a risk, but Cassavetes is the biggest gambler around, betting that he can make enough magic out of inspiration and improvisation to keep his characters from boring us to death. For two and a half hours, he wins and loses from scene to scene until, battered, exasperated but close to tears, we surrender."
Far less successful than Woman was Cassavetes' next film, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the tale of a strip-joint owner who resorts to murder to handle a gambling debt. It was panned by most film critics. Typical of the reviews was this observation from Frank Rich: " … the style intentionally obscures what paltry drama there is." Even less kind was Judith Crist, who called Killing "a mess, as sloppy in concept as it is in execution, as pointless in thesis as it is in concept."
Final Three Projects
During the final decade of his life, Cassavetes worked on three major projects, all of which were backed by Hollywood studios. Gloria was taken on largely as a favor to his wife, who played the title role. Although he considered the story to be a potboiler, he undertook the project to provide Rowlands with a chance to play the role of a "sexy but tough woman who doesn't really need a man," a way in which she sometimes thought of herself. Of the story line, Cassavetes later observed: "Gloria celebrates the coming together of a woman who neither likes nor understands children and a boy who believes he's man enough to stand on his own." Shortly before shooting began on Gloria, Cassavetes' father died, contributing perhaps to the film's seeming preoccupation with the theme of death.
Although critics hailed Gloria as his "finest work," the film enjoyed only modest success at the box office. Cassavetes felt in retrospect about the film much as he had before taking it on. He later recalled: "It was television fare as a screenplay but handled by the actors to make it better. It's an adult fairy tale. And I never pretended it was anything else but fiction. I always thought I understood [it]. And I was bored because I knew the answer to that picture the minute we began. And that's why I could never be wildly enthusiastic about the picture—because it's so simple."
Other films made by Cassavetes during the 1980s included Love Streams, released by Cannon in 1984, and the disastrous Big Trouble, released in 1985. It was to be Cassavetes' final project, which was unfortunate because the film was so bad he was embarrassed to have his name attached to it. When the film's screenwriter and original director, Andrew Bergman, quit the project, Cassavetes stepped in to replace him as director.
Cassavetes died before independent films began to break into the commercial mainstream. As Jacob Levich wrote in a 1994 tribute in Cineaste, it is doubtful that Cassavetes' work ever would have found wide favor with backers, distributors, or audiences. "It is hard to believe that the irascible, fiercely individualistic Cassavetes—who never gave a damn what people thought of his films, or whether they made money—would be any more welcome among today's newly chic independent crowd than he was in the 'new Hollywood' of the Seventies." Levich wrote that in Cassavetes' view, "the filmmaker's highest calling was not to amuse, but to challenge, provoke, even exasperate. He was prepared, like a Brecht without politics, to do whatever might be necessary to interfere with the expectations of an increasingly complacent public."
Cassavetes died in Los Angeles on February 3, 1989, of complications arising from cirrhosis of the liver. Ben Gazzara, a close friend and one of the handful of actors that Cassavetes used regularly in his films, remembered the director fondly. "John was more interested in the surprise the actors gave him if let free with their imaginations," Gazzara told People magazine. "He hated the word auteur. He felt he made actors' films."
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 7, Gale Research, 1989.
Newsmakers 1989, Gale Research, 1989.
Cineaste, January 1, 1994.
People, February 20, 1989.
"Cassavetes' Biography," http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/newpages/html/bio.htm (November 3, 2001).
"Chapter on the Making of Gloria (1979-1980)," http://people.bu/edu/rcarney/cassoncass/Gloria.htm (November 4, 2001).
"John Cassavetes," Contemporary Authors Online, http: http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (November 2, 2001).