Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Celebrity Grave: John Cassavetes 1929-1989 RIP

John Nicholas Cassavetes (December 9, 1929 – February 3, 1989) was an American actor, screenwriter and filmmaker. He appeared in many Hollywood films. He is most notable as an influential pioneer of independent film. He used handheld cameras and cinema-vérité style techniques in his films, but they were based on actors and screenplays and were fiction.

Cassavetes was born in New York City, the son of Katherine Cassavetes (who was to feature in some of his films) and Nicholas John Cassavetes, Greek immigrants to the U.S. His early years were spent with his family in Greece; when he returned, at the age of seven, he spoke no English. He grew up on Long Island, New York. He attended Port Washington High School from 1945 to 1947, participating in Port Weekly (the school paper), Red Domino (interclass play), football, and the Port Light (yearbook). Next to his photo on page 55 of his 1947 year book is written: "'Cassy' is always ready with a wisecrack, but he does have a serious side. A 'sensational' personality. Drives his 'heap' all over." Cassavetes also attended high school at Blair Academy in New Jersey before moving to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After graduating in 1950, he continued acting in the theater, took small parts in films and began working on television in anthology series such as Alcoa Theatre.

During this time, he met and married actress Gena Rowlands.

By 1956, Cassavetes had begun teaching method acting in workshops in New York City. An improvisation exercise in one workshop inspired the idea for his writing and directorial debut, Shadows (1959; first version 1957). Cassavetes raised the funds for production from friends and family, as well as listeners to Jean Shepherd's late-night radio talk show Night People. His stated purpose was to make a film about little people, different from Hollywood studio productions.

Cassavetes was unable to gain American distribution of Shadows, but it won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. European distributors later released the movie in the United States as an import. Although the box office of Shadows in the United States was slight, it did gain attention from the Hollywood studios. Cassavetes directed two movies for Hollywood in the early 1960s — Too Late Blues and A Child is Waiting.

His next film as a director (and his second independent film) was Faces (1968), starring his wife Rowlands as well as John Marley, Seymour Cassel and Val Avery. It depicts the slow disintegration of a contemporary marriage. Faces was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress). Around this time, Cassavetes formed "Faces International" as a distribution company to handle all of his films.

He directed and acted in Husbands (1970), with actors Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. They played a trio of married men on a spree in New York and London after the funeral of one of their best friends.

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), about two unlikely lovers, had Rowlands with Seymour Cassel.

Cassavetes played Johnny Staccato in a late 1950s television series about a jazz pianist who also worked as a detective. It was broadcast on NBC between September 1959 and March 1960, when it was acquired by ABC. Although critically acclaimed, the series was cancelled in September 1960. Cassavetes also appeared on the NBC interview program Here's Hollywood.

In the 1962-1963 season, Cassavetes guest-starred on the CBS anthology series, The Lloyd Bridges Show, and directed two episodes, including "A Pair of Boots", in which his friend Seymour Cassel guest starred. In the 1963-1964 season, Cassavetes appeared in Jason Evers's ABC drama about college life, Channing. That same season, he appeared in the ABC medical drama about psychiatry, Breaking Point. In 1965, he appeared on ABC's western series, The Legend of Jesse James.

Cassavetes acted in Devil's Angels (1967), the second of American International Pictures motorcycle gang movies; The Dirty Dozen (1967), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as an impudent, insubordinate condemned soldier; and in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) as a two-faced actor. Other notable appearances included the role of the victim in Don Siegel's The Killers, and as a vicious government nemesis to Kirk Douglas in The Fury (1978).

In 1972, Cassavetes played opposite Peter Falk again and Blythe Danner in the Columbo episode Etude in Black, playing the symphony conductor and murderer Alex Benedict.

He directed five films in the 1970s, each independently produced. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) stars Rowlands as an increasingly troubled housewife named Mabel. Rowlands received a Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, while Cassavetes was nominated for Best Director.

In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, a small-time strip-club owner with an out-of-control gambling habit, pressured by mobsters to commit a murder to pay off his debt.

Opening Night (1977) has Gena Rowlands as lead actress with Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, and Joan Blondell. Rowlands portrays an aging film star named Myrtle Gordon working in the theater and suffering a personal crisis. Alone and unloved by her colleagues, in fear of age and always at a remove from others on account of her stardom, she succumbs to alcohol and hallucinations after witnessing the accidental death of a young fan. Ultimately, she fights through this, delivering the performance of her life in a play.

Cassavetes directed the film Gloria (1980), featuring Rowlands as a Mob moll who tries to protect an orphan boy whom the Mob wants to kill. She earned another best-actress nomination for it. Love Streams (1984) featured Cassavetes as an aging swain who suffers the overbearing affection of his recently divorced sister. His last film, Big Trouble (1986), was taken over during filming from Andrew Bergman, who wrote the original screenplay.

An alcoholic, Cassavetes died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1989 at the age of 59. He was survived by Rowlands and three children (Nick, Alexandra and Zoe).

His son, Nick Cassavetes, followed in his father's footsteps as an actor (Face/Off, Life) and director. In 1997 he made the film She's So Lovely from a screenplay written by his father. He also directed 2002's John Q and 2004's The Notebook, which also starred Rowlands. Alexandra Cassavetes directed the documentary, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession in 2004 and served as 2nd Unit Director on her brother's film Alpha Dog in 2006.

His younger daughter, Zoe Cassavetes both wrote and directed the 2007 film, Broken English, featuring Rowlands and Parker Posey.

Many of John Cassavetes' films are now owned by Faces Distribution, a company overseen by Gena Rowlands and Julian Schlossberg, with Castle Hill Productions distributing.

How Cassavetes used improvisation in films is frequently misunderstood. With the exception of the original version of Shadows, his films were heavily scripted. Confusion arises in part because Cassavetes allowed actors to bring their own interpretations of characters to their performances. Dialog and action were scripted, but delivery was not.

Aside from presenting difficult characters whose inner desires were not easily understood, Cassavetes paid little attention to the “impressionistic cinematography, linear editing, and star-centred scene making ” that are fashionable in both Hollywood and art films. Instead, he chose to shoot mostly hand held with general lighting, or documentary style, to accommodate the spontaneity of his actors.

Cassavetes was never interested in working with actors or actresses who were more concerned with their own personal images than with that of the characters whom they were portraying, which is why he rarely, if ever, had actors or actresses of note (other than Gena Rowlands who was his wife) in his films. As Cassavetes himself said, he strove “to put [actors] in a position where they may make asses of themselves without feeling they’re revealing things that will eventually be used against them.”

Cassavetes's unorthodox characters reflected his similarly unconventional methodology in the making of his films. He employed mostly his friends as actors and on-set personnel, generally for little or no money guarantee and a share in the profits, if any, of the film. Both Shadows and Faces, two of his earliest films, were shot over a four-year period on week-ends and whenever funds became available.

Cassavetes once said: “The hardest thing for a film-maker, or a person like me, is to find people…who really want to do something…They’ve got to work on a project that’s theirs.” This on-set methodology differs greatly from the 'director run' sets of big-budget Hollywood productions.

In Accidental Genius, Marshall Fine writes that “Cassavetes, who provided the impetus of what would become the independent film movement in America…spent the majority of his career making his films ‘off the grid’ so to speak…unfettered by the commercial concerns of Hollywood.” To make the kind of films he wanted to make, it was essential to work in this ‘communal,’ ‘off the grid’ atmosphere because Hollywood’s “basis is economic rather than political or philosophical,” and no Hollywood executives were interested in Cassavete’s in-depth study of human behaviour. Indeed, he mortgaged his house to acquire the funds to shoot A Woman Under the Influence, instead of seeking money from an investor who might try to change the script so as to make the film more marketable.

In September 2004, The Criterion Collection produced a Region 1 DVD box set of his five independent films: Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under The Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night. Also featured in the set is a documentary about the life and works of Cassavetes called A Constant Forge, a booklet featuring critical assessments of the director's work, and tributes by old friends. In 2005, a box set of the same five films was released in Region 2 by Optimum Releasing. The Optimum DVD of Shadows has a voice-over commentary by Seymour Cassel. Mistakes about the first and second versions of the film are documented on Ray Carney's web site.

Cassavetes is the subject of several books about the actor/filmmakers life. Cassavetes on Cassavetes is a collection of interviews collected or conducted by Boston University film scholar Ray Carney, in which the late filmmaker recalls his experiences, influences and outlook in the film industry. In the Oscar 2005 edition of Vanity Fair magazine, one article features a tribute to Cassavetes by three members of his stock company: Rowlands, and actors Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk.

In the British comic 2000AD (prog 627, created by Alan Grant and Colin MacNeil), the death of Cassavetes was the trigger (albeit hundreds of years in the future) for Judge Dredd's disillusionment with Mega City One's fascistic social repression, and his subsequent resignation, as told in 1989's The Dead Man story arc.

In the Robert Crais books The Monkey's Raincoat and Stalking the Angel, the main character Elvis Cole is noted to look like John Cassavetes '20 years ago'. He also uses the name Johhny Staccato when giving his details to an apartment guard.

Washington D.C. band Fugazi recorded a tribute on 1993 record In on the Kill Taker called "Cassavetes".

Jem Cohen's film about Fugazi, 'Instrument' is dedicated to Cassavetes, as well as D. Boon of the 1980s punk rock band the Minutemen.

New York City band Le Tigre released 'What's Yr Take On Cassavetes?', on their self-titled album, featuring a debate between two individuals on the actor.

On the album The Gap (2000) by Chicago band Joan of Arc, is a song titled "John Cassavetes, Assata Shakur, and Guy Debord Walk Into a Bar.."

The season finale of Moral Orel entitled "Nature, Part 2" on July 15, 2007 was dedicated to John Cassavetes.

Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (1976), featuring Falk and Cassavetes, was an overt homage to Cassavetes in cultural / thematic scope, cinematography, and the improvisational nature of the acting.

In the 1993 Denis Leary song "Asshole", Leary states he is going to get "The Duke" (John Wayne), John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin, Sam Peckinpah and a case of whiskey and drive down to Texas -- just for some toughness.

The Hold Steady's 2008 album Stay Positive makes various allusions to Cassavetes's Opening Night.

The lyrics to the song "Opening Night" by Motion City Soundtrack also contain references to the film. This song can be found on their Back to the Beat EP.

The novel Name Your Poison: A Max Mitchum Mystery, by Lucas Stensland, employs a Cassavetes-esque narrative, and one character is named Cass as a tribute to the director.

1 comment:

  1. The extent to which Cassavetes appreciated the contributions to the making of "Shadows" is shown in one of the opening titles to the film: "Presented by Jean Shepherd's Night People."
    --E. Bergmann(author of a book on Shepherd, with commentary on the Cassavetes-connection)