John Cassavetes: Hollywood Rebel
He was crude, lovable, intense, a walking contradiction, and shot himself in the foot so many times it was miraculous he could still stand, but… he was a genius. It's undeniable. Whether you’re an “auteur” film lover and have sat through all of his gut-wrenching pictures, or you’ve never seen a single one and can quote the entire script of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, you’ve been brushed by the genius of John Cassavetes.
When John left high school, he had no direction. He didn’t fit in anywhere, and nothing excited him. He had become “known as a delinquent and a bit of a daredevil” (Carney, 9). He spent a year at Mohawk College, following his brother, then spent a semester at Champlain, where he worked hard to flunk out. “I never enjoyed a second of it because there wasn’t anyone there enjoying it. When I found a professor that enjoyed what he was talking about, I enjoyed it.” He hitchhiked down to Florida, and when he ran out of money, he had his father send him bus fare to get home. His parents were upset with where his life was – nowhere. His father wanted him to get a good education, and his mother wanted him to amount to something. That’s when he ran into some friends who had just enrolled in The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, and they invited him to come along. On February 8th, 1949, Cassavetes auditioned for The Academy with a piece from Philip Barry’s The Youngest and the ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Like a lot of students who come through The Academy, Cassavetes really didn’t feel like things settled in for him until much later, expressing that, “I really didn’t learn much about acting except through osmosis, absorbing the life we led, learning from people I was lucky enough to meet.” He loved the teachers he encountered, especially Charles Jehlinger, “who was, I think, the greatest teacher that ever lived.”
Upon graduating in 1950, like all fresh actors, John struggled to find work. He did just about everything he could to secure a job. Casting director Everett Chambers said that Cassavetes was the most persistent unemployed actor he ever saw. Cassavetes would constantly visit the offices of producers, casting directors, agents, directors, and writers, hoping to get a job – often making multiple appearances at the same office – which of course, never worked. In desperation, John once tied himself to a radiator at CBS and demanded a part on their show You Are There… which he got. John wasn’t entirely out of work during this period; however, he did do some regional theater work in Connecticut and Rhode Island, and he also worked as a stage manager and a comedy writer. In an attempt to avoid the draft, he also joined the Army Reserves, where he did Army Theater.
John was an attention seeker who loved being the jokester and would often use it to mask talking about himself and his feelings. He was an emotional outsider. “... a lone wolf hidden behind a wall of jokes and routines,” writes film professor and author Ray Carney, “Wherever he was, he wasn’t really there.” His cravings for attention led him to hang around The Academy’s locker rooms a year after graduating, often acting like a crazy man. This was the first impression he had of the intriguing Gena Rowlands. Gena Rowlands. The love of John’s life. “When I saw her, that was it! The first time I saw her, I was with an actor, John Ericson (Class of 1948), and I said, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry.’” As much as John wanted it and sought it out, Gena didn’t make it so easy for him. For starters, she was quite reluctant to jump into a relationship, for she was a struggling actress determined to make a name for herself. They also happened to be stark opposite people. She was a refined lady who grew up financially secure in the country. He was a rough, streetwise, fast-talking primitive creature of the city. Of course, the couple would eventually be married on the 9th of March in 1954, and their marriage was riddled with love and intense disagreements – the way John liked all his relationships.
Before that happy day was to arrive, however, John was still struggling to find work and was starting to feel the pressure and anxiety of being an out-of-work actor, now with the added stress of courting the refined Gena Rowlands. But like one-time Paramount head Robert Evans said, “luck is being prepared when opportunity comes knocking.” Well, John’s luck hit him when he was sitting in a bar with James O’Connor. Impressed with his intellectual and humorous prowess, O’Connor introduced the young Cassavetes to his stepfather William McCaffrey, who was a very influential television agent at the time. The relationship Cassavetes had with McCaffrey changed his life. He first got a job starring in an episode of the television show Omnibus(a show he had been fired twice from as an extra for stealing attention away from the main actors). McCaffrey had John lead an intense PR campaign in hopes of getting his career off the ground, orchestrating press releases, photo shoots, and interviews. McCafferty also had John write complimentary letters to gossip columnists. One such columnist was Hedda Hopper, who used her influence with Twentieth Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck to obtain a screen test for the lead role in Michael Curtiz’s The Egyptian after Marlon Brando dropped out of the role. McCafferty spared no expense in using this PR to talk up Cassavetes as a possible ‘Brando Replacement.’ While John didn’t get the role, the PR campaign did turn out to be fruitful as he began to work steadily as an actor in television, appearing on such shows as Kraft Theater, The United States Steel Hour, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
While Gena was finding success on Broadway with Paddy Chayefsky’s The Middle of the Night opposite Class of 1913 alumnus Edward G. Robinson (who would become a close family friend of the couple), John was moving out of television and into film. The most significant films being Crime in the Streets, where he befriended director Don Siegel and MGM’s Edge of the City, starring opposite Sydney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and directed by Martin Ritt (Hud, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold).
The story chronicles the interracial friendship of two longshoremen and the problems that come between them. Cassavetes plays a drifter with a murky past who is taken under the wing of Poitier’s character. The chemistry between those two actors was apparent from their first screen test for the casting director, who loved the spontaneous nature of their performances. The rest of the films that Cassavetes appeared in during this time while paying the bills were forgettable, cliched pictures that left John artistically unfulfilled.
In an attempt to gain some artistic reward, John, along with fellow alumnus Burt Lane (father of Diane Lane), who was about to give up acting, started a workshop. “Everybody paid two dollars a head, including me. It wasn’t to be a school. It was to be a place where people could just perform, and I could invite all the casting people down. I had a lot of very talented actor friends who were out of work.” He and Lane rented out a room at the Variety Arts building and started “The Cassavetes-Lane Drama Workshop.” When nobody showed, they opened it up to the public, and from there, the class blossomed with all types of people who wanted to try acting. This workshop focused on creating a playground where actors could feel free to try anything as well as putting less emphasis on the inner turmoil of a character and more on listening and responding to the present conflict between the characters in the scene. From this class, John’s first independent directorial pursuit, Shadows, was born.
“Other than [Citizen] Kane, the strongest film that made the biggest impact on me and taught me a great deal was Shadows” (Martin Scorsese on Charlie Rose).
“Shadows began as a dream in a New York loft on January 13th,1957. I dreamed up some characters that were close to the people in the class, and then I kept changing the situations and ages of the characters until we all began to function as those characters at any given moment.” This improvisation led to a movie idea for John. From there, John set out to find funding, something that would become a staple in his independent movie-making career. Unable to attract attention through an ad in the New York Times, John appeared on a nightly radio program titled Night People hosted by Jean Shepherd. On the program, John talked about how wonderful it would be to make a picture without the Hollywood brass getting in the way. He said, “If people really want to see a movie about people…they should just contribute money,” and that’s what they did. He raised $2500 from that night. Shepherd would continue to attempt to raise funds for them and would keep his audience abreast of the progress of the film. He also got some financial help from past friends such as Reginald Rose, William Wyler (Roman Holiday, Big Country), and Hedda Hopper.
The filming process was unlike any other. None of the crew had any real experience behind the camera, but it didn’t matter. They were making it their way, and a lot of Hollywood filming conventions were broken. Although John loved the power of film, he felt trapped by it. He wanted to take the freedom he found on stage and on live television and find a way to push it into film. Not only were the words improvised, but so were the camera movements. The camera improvised with the actors. There were no dollies or tracks, so the person who operated the camera had to contort their bodies to stay with the actors. “We didn’t breathe,” joked John. They didn’t want the camera to shake.
After filming finished, the project would take over two years to fully edit and become a fully realized film. The first screening was a midnight screening at The Paris Theater in New York. It was a disaster. People began to walk out until all that was left was the cast. “It was a total intellectual film and therefore less than human. I’d fallen in love with the camera, with technique, with beautiful shots, with experimentation for its own sake. I saw all that and wanted to fix it up.” John wanted to do reshoots, but this time he wanted to do it with a script. He mapped out scenes that he thought would help deepen the characters and make the film fuller and richer, which was for the better, as the best scenes in the film are arguably the ones that were scripted.
When the film premiered in England, it was a hit. They praised it, saying that it was the purest sound they had ever heard. It was an innovation! John and his ragtag crew had done it. They had fully realized an independent film, one of the first truly independents in the U.S. The only problem was that John and Gena were now thirty thousand dollars in debt with a new baby, Nicholas David Rowlands Cassavetes (Class of 1980), just arriving.
“Can you imagine that son of a bitch wants me to do a television series? What the hell do you think I’ve been working for? I’m an artist! I don’t do television series! What kind of crap is that? Go out and do something for the sponsor of deodorants? Am I insane?”
John had been offered the title role in the TV series called Staccato, about a jazz pianist who also happened to be a detective. As you can tell, John was very reluctant to take the job; however, with some inadvertent convincing from Gena and a new mouth to feed, John rethought his decision and accepted the offer. The show, later retitled Johnny Staccato, much to the chagrin of Cassavetes, was not well received, but John pleaded with the audience to stick with it because he, himself, was going to make it better. He went to work on producing better scripts, hiring higher-quality actors such as Cloris Leachman, Elijah Cooke, and Dean Stockwell, and taking on the reigns as director for five episodes. However, while Cassavetes may have been improving the show’s quality and storytelling, the audience wasn’t responding well to the darker, more controversial episodes he was producing. When the studio started pulling episodes, John had had enough. He began to look for ways out of his contract. Eventually, the executives let him out, and the show was left with only twenty-six episodes under its name.
With the success of Shadows in Europe, John was successfully able to sell himself, and a script he co-wrote with Richard Carr called Too Late Blues to Paramount. In attempting not to have a repeat of Johnny Staccato, he demanded to be the producer and director of the picture. While the shoot did run relatively smoothly, and John wasn’t pressured too much by the studio, he did come to a stark realization. “In Too Late Blues, I was working under a studio system which I found just didn't suit me. It’s a system based on departments and department heads, and chiefs. I’m not very good at dealing with department heads because I’m not concerned with their problems.”
This did not inhibit John from doing things his way and developing the style he would become known for. All the supporting roles were made up of his friends, such as alumni Bill Stafford, James Joyce, and Vince Edwards. He also found places for late-frequent collaborators Seymour Cassel and Val Avery. He attempted to loosen the cast and crew up by leaving beer around the set and encouraging people to have strong opinions on what they were making.
Too Late Blues proved to be a flop at the box office and with critics. John thought his short career as a director was through, but, on the contrary, Paramount offered him a long-term contract with a pay bump to $125,000, “I had heard so much about people who fail and then get enormous contracts. I never could quite believe it until it happened to me.” Cassavetes' next picture fell through when its star, Burt Lancaster, dropped out to star in the film Cassavetes found himself directing next.
John inherited A Child is Waiting from director/producer Stanley Kramer (High Noon, The Defiant Ones), who stayed on as a producer of the project. “[It] was strictly a commercial venture. From my point of view, it was a painful experience… from the fact that it’s really hard to compromise a subject that shouldn’t be compromised,” recalled John. He had taken the job partly because he had met with one of the stars, Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity, Sweet Smell of Success), and they had hit it off. Plus, he felt that he could tell an important story. The film was to be about children who are intellectually disabled at one of the first boarding schools for special needs children and the hard-as-nails head of school (Lancaster) clashing with the new music teacher played by Judy Garland. The film was ripe to be an important film with commercial viability; however, once on set, things began to go awry. John found a way to clash with everyone from Kramer to the writer, Abby Man (Judgment at Nuremberg, Kojak), who hung around the set to make sure Cassavetes didn’t change his script, furthering the vice-grip around his neck. He even had trouble with Garland. When production wrapped, and John had finished overseeing his version of the edit, he thought he had crafted a film that set the children with intellectual disabilities at the forefront as opposed to the star-studded adults. Producer Stanley Kramer did not see it this way. At the first screening for MGM executives, John was surprised to find out the film he had put together was not the one being shown. Instead, it was a re-edited version. Kramer had gone behind his back and remade the movie in his image. John was furious. He stormed out, smacking Kramer in the mouth along the way, and vowed to “never make another commercial film.” “One thing I learned about the big studios – you can’t please them and yourself at the same time.”
John’s first masterpiece came in the form of Faces, a long, tedious film that follows desperate characters as they search for meaningful love and companionship and how that can sometimes lead to settling for something less than meaningful. A film, at the time, that wasn’t like any other, as it took a chance at delving deep into its characters to portray the destruction of a marriage as raw as possible. The film went on to be nominated for three Oscars, including “Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen” for Cassavetes. Still, it would be a long, challenging road before it got to that destination.
Prior to Faces, John was having trouble getting work as he had burned a lot of bridges, and the word was getting around. Thankfully Gena was working steadily, so the bills were being paid. He did, however, hit a couple of spots on popular television shows such as Dr. Kildare, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Lloyd Bridges Show – for which he also directed two episodes. His most significant credit at the time came from his friend Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, The Shootist) in the Lee Marvin-led thriller The Killers. He was also writing at this time. He did a couple of novels that amounted to nothing, and he optioned a play, Ladies of The Corridor, in hope of making it a film. Siegel (knowing he was strapped for cash) once again hired him to write a screenplay from the novel Crimes without Passion, which never materialized. To continue the cash flow, he took a job at Screen Gems creating television shows – a job that would prove fruitful in the making of Faces. None of the shows created there were put into production, but he got paid anyway. All of this began to wear on John artistically. “I was in an office, shoved behind a desk with nothing to do… writing things I didn’t care about. I stayed there for six months and then decided to put it on the line.” There are conflicting stories about where the idea for Faces came from, but after three weeks, John had half a script, over 200 pages.
“When I decided to write and shoot it, I came home and said to Gena, ‘Are you willing to go without all the luxuries for the next couple of years so we can put everything we’ve got into the picture’ She said, ‘Yes - except getting my hair done. I insist on that!’” That’s exactly what they did, they put their own money into it so that it was completely theirs. Cassavetes tackled this picture with no schedule or budget. Allowing the production to come into its own how it saw fit. The actors were given as little or as much time as they needed to find their characters. If rewrites or more rehearsals were needed, production was shut down. The film shot for six months, and “it became more than a film; it became a way of life.” Al Rubin, cinematographer, producer, and frequent Cassavetes collaborator, recalled, “There was a unity and desire to be involved in something; there was a real satisfaction in that.” Nobody was paid, except with a promise to get compensated if there were any profits… nobody expected to be paid. It truly was a labor of love from the top down.
John cast the picture with his friends like fellow alumni Fred Draper who had moved on from acting due to a lack of opportunities, Gene Dafler, his wife Gena, who was pregnant at the time with Nick, and Seymour Cassel. The only actors with significant credits behind their names were John Marley and Val Avery. The rest of the cast was filled out with amateurs, the most notable being one of the female leads, Maria, played by Lynn Carlin. Carlin was Robert Altman’s (MASH, Nashville) secretary at Screen Gems and had been helping read actresses for the part. John liked the way she was reading, had her read the part of Maria, and thought she fit the part perfectly. She had only acted in small local plays. The only contract she ever received was on a dinner napkin when John asked her to do the part. It was a ragtag cast and crew for a ragtag picture about messy relationships.
The picture stayed in post-production for over 30 months. There were over 115 hours of 16mm film stock that needed to be edited, which was taking place in the Cassavetes home. Rubin, who was living in New York at the time, left his family and lived in John’s house for over a year. John hardly slept; he would spend all night editing, but soon a problem began to arise that would delay the process – they were running out of money.
“I became an actor in order to finance the films I wanted to make.” John appeared in six (five were completed with him) films within three years to help pay for the mounting post-production costs of Faces. The Devil’s Angels is an action movie about the Hells Angels biker gang and the Italian gangster film Bandits in Rome (John did this one as a personal favor for Paramount head Charles Bluhdorn). Machine Gun McCain proved more fruitful for John as he was able to really explore the role as an actor, and it also marked the first time he worked with Peter Falk. Their relationship would grow over the years to being the best of friends and the greatest of artistic collaborators.
Two of John’s most notable acting credits happened during this time. One being Rosemary’s Baby which would lead to the infamous relationship between him and the film's director Roman Polonsky. John had developed a reputation of being difficult to work with, and it wasn’t a reputation entirely unfounded. John had a fiery temper and a deep desire to challenge – he really liked to argue and would often challenge even the most menial requests of him. This would begin to get on the nerves of people who enjoyed working with him, like Siegel, let alone directors whose personalities clashed with his. One such director was Polanski, who micromanaged everything that conflicted with John’s idea of “living in the moment, let's try whatever” mentality. John would show up on set with floods of ideas that were shut down by Polanski in the name of his vision, which led to screaming matches between the two.
A more fruitful artistic endeavor came with being cast as Victor Franko in Robert Aldrich's war film The Dirty Dozen, about a group of ruthless military convicts who are given a deal that will reduce their sentence if they go on a daring mission. The film once again reunited John with friend Lee Marvin, and he developed a close friendship with director Aldrich, who he grew to admire as an artist. The stacked cast included Charles Bronson, Terry Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Robert Ryan, George Kennedy, and Ernest Borgnine. Cassavetes had fought hard to get out of the picture for a couple of reasons; he objected to the violence, and he believed the picture to be thoughtless fluff, but also, it would halt editing on Faces for several months. “It would have been my first picture in six years, and I hesitated. The assignment meant suspending Faces for months and taking my family to England, which would probably cost me $20,000. But I decided to take a chance.” Well, he didn’t really have a choice. He was under contract with Universal, who was lending him out to MGM, and there was a threat of a lawsuit if he didn't appear in the movie. John got the best of both worlds, however, because he took two editors with him to England and would spend most nights and weekends editing Faces. The film that John had worked so hard to get out of was the only film that gifted him an Academy Award nomination for his acting.
Husbands came together through happenstance, smooth-talking, and sheer luck. The idea originally came to Cassavetes while he was trying to come up with ways to make money for post-production costs on Faces. One producer at Paramount offered John $25,000 for the idea even though the script wasn’t even written yet. That kind of money would have certainly tied everything up with Faces, but when the producer started to mangle with John’s vision too much, he pulled out. While John was off in Rome filming Bandits in Rome and eventually Machine Gun McCain, he befriended Count Ascanio Bino Cicogna, a millionaire who wished to get into the movie-making business. John turned on his charm and pitched the idea of Husbands. The Count liked the idea and was even more attuned to the idea of Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk starring alongside John, which was, of course, part of John’s proposition – the promise of Gazzara and Falk. Only there was a small problem. Count Cicogna wanted to see the script – the script that still didn’t exist. In two days, John pounded out what would be the first draft of Husbands. A story about three friends dealing with the loss of another dear friend, which causes them to struggle with their own mortality and examine their humdrum family lives. The film follows the friend as they spend several days bar hopping, getting drunk, playing basketball, going to London, and getting involved with other women. The film is said to have been extremely personal to John, himself citing it, so it is effective in making you examine your own lost hopes and dreams.
The film would take the form of a lot of different versions. The first version was more commercial and was used to sell the film to Columbia for $3 million with the promise that Cassavetes would get final cut. Well, John had no intention of using the “commercial edit” and spent the next year re-editing the film to his liking, missing several release dates along the way and frustrating many of his close friends, including Peter, Ben, and Al Rubin; the former two eventually coming around to his side. The three men did an extensive press tour that really showed how much John hated doing such a thing. John would act up when he thought he was getting too much praise, “I often act very idiotic really because I don’t want people to start hanging on to everything that I say because it’s a pain in the ass.” One such instance was when the three appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. They refused to answer any questions and constantly got up out of their chairs and fell on the floor - torturing poor Dick Cavett.
When John screened his final edit for Columbia, they hated it and refused to name a release date. Therefore, Cassavetes set forth on his own publicity tour and held private screenings, claiming that Columbia was trying to bury the film. Columbia caved to the media pressure and released the film after holding a screening that sold out two hours before the screening was set to begin. The film was ultimately a commercial and critical flop, with reports of people walking out during the movie demanding a refund abound. Always the rebel, John only sought to satisfy his hunger for the emotional truth of the film and refused to compromise to the studio or the mass audience.
“I don’t think of myself as a director. As a matter of fact, I think I’m probably one of the worst directors around, but I do have an interest in my fellow man.”
As an actor's director, John put all the emphasis on the performances, they are what made a movie, and everyone else was there just to capture it. He would light up whole rooms, and there were no marks that the actors had to hit in order to give them complete autonomy of movement. The camera was unobtrusive to the actors. “You know, on John’s pictures, there wasn’t a sharp demarcation between when you were shooting and when you weren’t shooting. And sometimes you’d be shooting, and you didn’t even know it yet, somebody would say, ‘hey, we're shooting,’” remembered Falk. Once the script was done, and there was always a full script, there was a read-through, then they would break for lunch and read it again, start to block it out for a couple of hours, then in the evening read it again. Sometimes these readings would go on for weeks. On Faces, they would rehearse and rehearse before the shooting, which didn’t stop them from rehearsing even during shooting, they would just break off and rehearse, but on Woman Under the Influence, they didn’t rehearse, opting to explore more in the moment. John demanded actors had to become comfortable with what they were doing, that they live through and come up underneath their characters - that ultimately there was no separation. If the actors weren’t emotionally prepared, filming would stop. One such instance was on Faces with frequent collaborator and friend Seymour Cassel. Seymour had been working on the crew for the first few weeks of shooting, as his character doesn’t show up till later in the film, and when it was time for him to do his first scene, John could tell he wasn’t in character yet, so he called off shooting for the entire day. The next day they only filmed for about fifteen minutes before John called it off; the next day, only five; the next day, they didn’t even get through rehearsals; then the next day, Seymour had it. There was a zero-tolerance for tricks, it all had to come from someplace real, and he wouldn’t settle for less. “If you’re doing less than you can do, he’s mad. He’s mad. He won’t accept it, and he’ll cut in there. It just would never work,” recalled actress Carol Kane (Dog Day Afternoon, The Princess Bride). Gena talked about how little direction he gave, that it was their character, nobody else’s, “I’d ask… ‘John, can you give me some help here?’ And he’d say ‘no.’ And I said, ‘why not? You’re the director, and I’m an actress.’ He said, ‘I wrote this script. I gave it to you… now you own it, you own your part. Nobody in the world should know more about this character than you do.’’ It wasn’t always peachy, though; Falk struggled with John’s style during the filming of Husbands. Peter was someone who thought things out a great deal, he liked to talk it out and understand everything; he would go to John during filming asking questions about the scene and character, all he got was double-speak and non-answers from John, “...he deliberately tried to keep you off balance so that you wouldn’t bring out your old-fashioned technique, you wouldn’t bring out your old ideas. He was always trying to get rid of people’s old ideas.” It drove Peter crazy at first; he was lost during Husbands, “I wanted to kill’em, I wanted to kill'em. I didn’t understand what he was doing, I didn’t understand the picture, I didn’t understand what I was doing. I started out… I tried to be polite, so I said to him, ‘John, I just want to say this, I'd like to work with you again as an actor, but as a director, never. Do you hear what I’m saying - never! Never you -’ and then I went!”
“That is the most compelling, unexpected, unpredictable ten minutes of film that I have ever seen. I’ve never seen acting like that, Gena, honest to God. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget it.” (Falk talking to Rowlands about Influence.)
Peter, through some slight manipulation from John, had to beg for the part of A Woman Under the Influence, “I wanted him, but if I say ‘Please, Peter, play this,’ he won’t play it. So you gotta say, ‘Peter, you don’t play it. You can’t play it’ - and then he wants to play it.” John was a great swindler because he had a unique insight into human beings, especially his friends. Gena had asked John for a play that she could star in, having lived in California for so long she was missing the stage. Influence started out as a three-part play series to star Rowlands and Gazzara and was born out of ideas John had while being a stay-at-home dad during his down years, as well as conversations with Gena, “We were talking about how difficult love was, and how tough it could be to make a love story about two people who were totally different culturally, coming from two different family groups that were diametrically opposed, and yet still regarded each other very highly. I kept thinking about that. Gena and I are absolutely dissimilar in everything we think, do, and feel. Beyond that, men and women are totally different…. I made a lot of discoveries about my own life.”
The idea of a play trilogy fell apart for two main reasons. First, John was unable to get financial backing on Broadway. Secondly, Gena thought that it would be unobtainable to perform such emotionally draining pieces for a great length of time (he wanted to do the trilogy in three consecutive nights with matinees). Therefore, the idea to do the movie was born. John morphed the three plays together and did some considerable re-writes. By this time, Gazzara was out due to other commitments. John was meeting with Elaine May and Falk about the upcoming film they were doing, Mikey and Nicky when John decided to convince Peter to do the picture. John was eager to get filming started right away, a stable in John’s life - once he had an idea, it was full steam ahead, and no one stops him - so he mortgaged his house for $250,000 and had Falk put up the rest of the money from earnings he was making off of his extremely popular television show, Columbo.
They were off filming what would become John’s masterpiece, but it would be a long, bumpy road before it would become so. The film would run out of money which forced John to strike up a partnership with the American Film Institute, promising that if they allowed him to use their office spaces and equipment, their students could shadow the production. However, through all the rough, what eventually showed through was indeed a diamond. Cassavetes and his crew conceived some of the finest acting to have ever graced the silver screen. The story is one of a woman's, Mabel, excessive love and the detriment of her overexpressing in contrast to her husband's, Nick, inability to express it. Mabel’s mental illness begins to weigh on the family, and Nick begins to question whether he should have her committed. Once he does, he then battles whether it was the right choice. While showing the incredible versatility of Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, the film has some of Cassavetes’ most gut-wrenching, heart-breaking scenes.
Even though John knew what he captured was special, he had a hard time getting it screened and distributed upon post-production completion in late 1973. Nobody wanted it. John sought to get the film into the New York Film Festival, but they wouldn’t take it. John called in a favor to Scorsese, whom he had helped get the directing job on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and told him to pull his film, Italianamerican, from the festival. Martin apparently did just that because John got a call saying that Influence would be getting a back-to-back screening. The film was a smash success at the festival, getting a standing ovation at the end of both screenings. Still, John couldn’t get over the hurdle of his past box-office failures, and distributors stayed away. From there, he decided to independently release the film. In an all-out assault, John got newspapers from all areas of the country they wanted to play in in order to find theaters that were playing movies they liked and then call them up to see if they would play their movie. “He said, ‘they’ll take my call if only to say I told John Cassavetes to go take a flying leap.’ So that’s what he did, and that’s what they did,” Gena recalled. John put everything he had into distributing the picture, including paying out an additional $750,000. The Walter Reed Distribution Company eventually picked it up, and it went on to reportedly gross $12 million. By that point, however, John was worn down, “I’ve had it. I don’t want to go through this anymore because I don’t know the difference anymore myself. I’ve been doing this since I started without stopping, and I want to stop because I’ve nothing more to say. I just like men and women, that’s all. Nothing else that I want to talk about…. I feel that I’m one of the few filmmakers in America who is truly independent… So in a sense, I should achieve the place of a guy who has now, at least, earned the right to cop out and make films that are easier and more relaxed. I want to have more ease and relaxation; I want to have some endorsement of my talent and the film I’m making.”
“As far as a technical director, I’m a very difficult director, ‘cause I have no truck with anyone that doesn’t watch the scene. I have no regard for anyone that isn’t with it and isn’t trying to make it the best that they can. Now, as far as their eye is concerned, I want them to be as creative with their own eye - not with my eye - as the actors are, being on the floor.”
John Nicolas Cassavetes grew up in a poor immigrant family amidst the Great Depression. He was born 9 December 1929 to Greek immigrant parents Nicholas and Katherine. Nicholas worked hard to support his family through a variety of jobs but was hardly able to keep one down. Things got so bad that the family had to move back home to Greece when John was two. John’s parents shielded their children from this harsh reality of their financial plight by retaining a strong family life and sense of community, “It was the depression, and everybody was poor, but it didn’t matter. We never knew we were poor when we were poor. We didn’t have any money, but we never worried about it. We never knew what poverty was.” Things would eventually look up financially for the Cassavetes family, with Katherine running a chic Upper East Side boutique and Nicholas running The Olympic Travel Agency; the family was able to settle in an apartment on the East Side of Manhattan and began to live relatively comfortably. However, this whimsical view of money would always stay with John, “We’ve got to realize that money is useless beyond whatever it takes to feed, clothe, and house yourself. As a matter of fact, the more you have beyond that…, the more difficult it is to find out what really matters and to get it for yourself,” and highly influenced his movie making. When John set out to make a movie, he rarely let the fear of either lack of budget or financial failure sway him from doing so. John would grab whatever equipment he could get his hands on. He used his own house in several movies, from Faces to Love Streams. He shot with small, intimate crews that really wanted to be a part of the picture, people who really believed in it. One such person was Al Rubin, who worked as cinematographer, lighting person, and producer on many Cassavetes films; besides only working as a producer on one film and an editor on a few blue movies prior to Faces, had very little hands-on film knowledge. They would learn together. John relied heavily on his crew to bring their own imagination to the world they were creating. He made them all read and have an understanding of the script so they could bring their own ideas in; for example, John would never tell Al how he wanted a scene lit. Al couldn’t talk about technical aspects with John because he would never get a straight answer out of him. Instead, he had to ask John what was the emotional content of the scene, Al would then light it from that, and if John didn’t like it, then he would have him change it. John seldom didn’t like what Al came up with. “I think he had no expectation on what it should look like, so he was constantly wanting to be pleased or surprised,” recalled Rubin. John was involved in all aspects of production, from the set design to the costume to the make-up. Everything had to pass his inspection, but he made it so that everyone had to come up with it themselves.
John hated being called an auteur filmmaker. He just set out with what he had to make movies about people he never saw movies being made about. In order to give the actors as much freedom as possible to play with these people, body mics were used, and no marks were put on the floor. There was no place they couldn’t move. It may have meant more strenuous work in the editing bay, but the technical aspects were not going to inhibit the actors’ impulse. The cameraman had to feel the rhythm and tempo of the scene. Peter Falk remembered John working the camera on the set of Husbands, “John was a great cameraman. There’s nobody that could handle a handheld camera like John. He somehow had an instinct to anticipate. There was no blocking…. Something told him, so that the camera wasn’t late…. He had a great instinct for that, and he was strong as a bull, holding that thing. Didn’t shake. He was wonderful.”
If you watched Mikey and Nicky without knowing any of the behind-the-camera information, you’d think you were watching a Cassavetes movie, for all the above technical aspects are prevalent. The free-form camera allows the actors a range of motion otherwise not seen in Hollywood movies. The free-flowing dialogue that sounds so real it comes across as seeming improvised. The characters that you love to hate because of their three-dimensional quality. It is often considered the best Cassavetes film that Cassavetes didn’t direct. Now that's not to take away from the brilliance of comedienne/director Elaine May, who worked on the story for the better part of a decade, a story that was true. It's just the way this film was made, it has Cassavetes’ style all over it. It's no doubt the revolution Cassavetes helped start had a huge impact on this film, and it probably wouldn’t have been made in the manner it was if it had not been for John. The film follows a low-level bookie who wishes to rise among the ranks of the mob (Cassavetes) and is now being hunted by said mob. He calls upon his best childhood friend (Falk) to help him out; however, their friendship isn't as intact as he might think. Throughout this darkly comic look at overly masculine gangsters, we wonder if his friend really is going to sell his friend out to the mob. What makes this film so special, and something that May was really good at, is the thriller aspect of the film is born out of the relationship between the characters. We learn about their past and present feelings about each other, thus going back and forth on whether the Falk character would really help to get his friend killed. May achieves this by having the character himself subtly go back and forth on the issue. From the moment that John appears on the screen, he gives a high-stakes, ravishing performance that is met with an opposite reaction of a subtle, caring performance in Falk. While the movie was filmed in 1973, it was plagued with several lawsuits between May and Paramount studios. The film was finally given a weak opening around Christmas 1976 and was later purchased by May, Falk, and former Paramount executive Julian Schlossberg in order to give it a more proper distribution. John, who had become rather close friends with Elaine prior to making the film, was with her every step of the way, offering technical assistance and advice wherever he could during filming and all the way through helping her edit the picture, often sneaking in the editing bay late at night to undo what the studio editors had done. While it suffered distribution troubles, thus limiting its initial viewership, it has successfully found a greater audience.
“He was attracted to man’s need for love. We need it like food, water, and air, but we don’t know how to get it. That’s our struggle, and what gets in the way - ignorance, superstition, greed, fear, or defensiveness… who the hell knows what it is. But all these things get in the way with the one thing that we all need. And that interested them.” (Peter Falk)
“He was very happy when he was writing,” recalled Gena. There is a belief that John’s movies consisted mostly of improvisation while on set. This is a great mischaracterization of his work and a credit to the craftsmanship of character he had. He worked hard with his actors to morph themselves with their characters, which most of the time started when he created the characters, as he wrote with actors in mind, thus having the dialogue come from a place of deep truth - giving it an improvisational feel. The truth is, John loved to write and was quite good at it as well as efficient. He could write with great speed; one such account is when he heard that Blake Edwards was looking for someone to take over the male lead in his new production 10.
Cassavetes immediately called up Richard Dreyfus and left him a vague voicemail. By the time Dreyfus called Cassavetes back, the part had been given to Dudley Moore. John felt so embarrassed for creating such a confusion and possibly losing Richard the part that he wrote a whole play in one weekend, called Mood Indigo, to make up an excuse for why he called in the first place, saying he wanted Richard to come over and read for a part. The two would later work together in 1981 on a wonderful little MGM dramedy, Whose Life is it Anyway?, that explored a paralyzed man’s right to kill himself amidst a hospital staff that tries to keep him alive for both professional and personal hubris. Both Dreyfus as the paralyzed sculptor, and Cassavetes, as the head of the hospital, give stellar performances.
John loved ambiguity. He hated that characters in most movies were so perfect. To him, it was more interesting to explore the duality of man - not just good and evil in their separated form, but their weaknesses. His characters were always changing and growing on the screen in front of you. Patterns were broken. You don’t know what they will do next. “I don’t know anybody who has an easy pattern of behavior. I know people who are just sensational one minute and absolute bastards the next. And these moods come from specific things that I can’t put my finger on because I don’t know their whole life. So, I’ve gotta depend on that actor to identify with his role enough that he can express those things. And to get it on the screen is something miraculous.”
John’s characters were deeply personal and often reflected a side of him. In Woman Under the Influence, Falk’s character struggles with loosening his mother’s grip on him, it's very telling that Cassavetes cast his own mother in the role, who once dreamed of becoming an actress in her youth. Most of John’s characters had a piece of him. They possessed a question that he had, or in the case of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a fight that he had. Ben Gazzara, who starred in Bookie, relays a story of one day on the set. Gazzara had joined the picture because he had really enjoyed working with John on Husbands and the creative atmosphere that had been created; however, he wasn’t having as much fun with the material and was finding it hard to get into the character. He expressed his concerns to John, who broke down into tears explaining the character further to Gazzara. Ben then realized that this character represented John and his fight against the establishment. That this character was trying to live his life, his dream the way he wanted, and there were all these forces keeping him down.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was born out of an idea by John, Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Raging Bull), and frequent producer Sam Shaw. The film follows a nightclub owner who has a gambling problem and gets indebted to the mob, and in order to repay them, he must commit an act of violence. John saw Bookie as a move away from more “emotionally demanding” material into more of an “intellectual experiment'' saying, “If I can make, out of certain intellectual ideas, films that are complex in nature, then I am entering into new ground.” John hated gangsters and the world they lived in. Still, he found it interesting enough to evaluate, “It’s interesting to me to see how other people live in our society, to look at them and ask myself, ‘Why do they do it?’ and ‘How do they do it?’ without trying to explain. The fun and challenge of the film was to imagine a self-contained world different from the one I live in: to move into it and live in it.” There are scenes in Bookie that perfectly illustrate how well John was able to create three-dimensional humans and elicit sympathy from unsympathetic characters - giving them dignity. One such scene is when Gazzara’s character must kill the Bookie in order to settle his debt. Actor Sean Penn (Mystic River, Carlito’s Way) explains, “At first, you see him as this pathetic, old… guy in a hot tub with a hooker. And yet, at the moment of recognizing what’s about to happen - he’s looking at this man in the darkness. That stillness of that gut - there’s an enormous dignity to that character.”
“I don’t think you can direct and act in a film at the same time. A director is simply a go-between. He is a man that keeps peace, and if he keeps peace well, he becomes a good director. But he is not emotional. He cannot afford to join in the emotional conflicts of the people around him, while an actor must be emotional.”
John, once again, directed and starred in his next film, Opening Night, opposite his wife Gena. Opening Night is about a famed stage actress (Gena) entering a new stage in her life, struggling with a new role. After one performance, she is greeted by a hoard of emphatic fans, one young woman who seems deranged in her obsession with the actress follows her limo into the street and ends up getting struck by another vehicle and killed. The young fan haunts the actress as the play continues with its out-of-town previews, and she tries everything to get her out of her mind. Meanwhile, the actress is having trouble with the ageist themes of the play, and she begins to fight against these themes… during the performances. As the young girl continues to haunt the actress, we begin to feel like this is a battle raging inside the actress between her younger self and the inevitability of middle age. By the end of it, we are questioning whether the young fan ever really existed.
In Opening Night, Cassavetes once again tackles the theme of when the beauty of life fades away and the realization of an inevitable end sinks in, how do we continue on? How do we continue to find meaning in what seems to be a meaningless existence? And like all Cassavetes movies, these questions are able to be fully explored because the characters live outside the fray. They reject “every conceivable formula to life that is fed to us 24 hours a day on the radio and on television and in films.” The idea of such a film had lived in John’s head for a while as he was a big fan of the original 1937 Star is Born. For the screenplay, John called upon his experience working with Judy Garland, as well as intimate chats with Gena. They would often argue about the direction of the film, which led to John softening the age theme as he saw that it may lead to being destructive. John loved to argue, it was a sign of human vitality, “...disagreement is not a bad thing. It’s really interesting, you don’t want an actor who is always polite and serious. You need someone who gets angry. They call me at five in the morning to insult me, and that’s normal… That’s what life is about – for living through problems and for sharing them, isn’t it?”
Night was the biggest picture Cassavetes had tackled yet. Throughout the film, there are long stretches of actors acting in a play within the movie, and the audience had to be filled. Hiring enough SAG-approved extras to make a 2,000-seat auditorium look filled was not easy on the very tight budget - a budget that once again consisted of John and Gena’s own money. One of the good things about producing a picture with your own funds with a crew that really believes in the project is when the money runs out, the production stops and is picked back up whenever money is found. Luckily, Brian De Palma’s The Fury, starring Kirk Douglas (Class of 1941) and John, was running over schedule, so it helped secure additional funds for the Night shoot.
The shoot was a rewarding one in the sense that they got to see genuine audience reactions in real-time, as they were performing many of the key scenes in the film in front of a live audience. This was really important to John, and he felt that it really enhanced the picture. “The most important character in the play is the audience, the audience reaction in the movie house is exactly the audience reaction that was in the theater the day we shot, and it's so thrilling to me to see that we didn't fake it and that an audience can really respond to itself within this film, and that they are not shutout; they’re not treated like two-year-old children.”
The film was not well-received upon its release, something that often-plagued Cassavetes, and he would eventually pull it from distribution. However, he had hit it big with Europeans, especially the French, and this time was no exception. Still, John was very proud of this movie, and some of the scenes, specifically the ending scene when the two main actors in the play throw their lines out the window and really probe into each others’ souls, are some of the best in any Cassavetes picture. “It is an incredible movie. To me, it is the finest movie I’ve ever had anything to do with. I love this movie and I think everyone should go to see it, and not enough people are coming to see it, and I'm telling you that they’re not going to see something stupid. They’re going to see something that challenges their own intelligence and awakens their own emotions. I like it. I like that movie.”
John despised the intense violence that was being portrayed in so many movies of the day. In his critique of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (which was up against his Minnie and Moskowitz, a love story that explored emotional violence, at the box office, which, of course, fared a lot better), Cassavetes spoke out against the violence. “There’s a difference between being violent and having violent emotions. There’s a difference between anger and the act of shooting somebody in the face. I’ve never known anyone in my life that ever shot anyone in the face…. There’s a lot of violence in Minnie and Moskowitz, but violence that I can understand. Violent feelings, but nobody kills anybody, or shoots anyone, or knifes anybody. The more films are made about insanity, the more fashionable it will become. And eventually, as we become more and more dehumanized, there will be no answers for anyone.” It wasn’t just violence that John had a problem with, it was also the tasteless gratuitous sex that had grown rampant in movies, “I’m concerned about the depiction of women on the screen. It has gotten worse than ever. It’s related to their being either high or low-class concubines, and the only question is when or where they will go to bed and with whom or how many…. As for showing the sexual act in film, I think that’s a lot of balls, phony, exploitative, and commercial. It’s cheap voyeurism and I think there’s too damned much of it now anyway. It makes me very angry…. I think some things are private, and just as I wouldn’t show a person dying – I mean the death rattle, the actual last private agony of death – I wouldn’t show that intense private joy of intercourse…. I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with seeing a nude body on the screen, but it offends me to watch people kiss without genuine love or passion. Sex on the screen bores me.” If it was cheap, John wanted no part of it, and he went out of his way to constantly make sure that love scenes were treated with respect and women never felt uncomfortable or exploited.
“So I wrote a very fast-moving, thoughtless piece about gangsters. And I don’t even know any gangsters!”
John’s next film was the violent gangster movie with heart, Gloria. When a bookie for the mob threatens to become an informant, he and his family are murdered, with only their son surviving with the help of their tough-as-nails neighbor, Gloria (Gena). Straddled with a ledger kept by his dad with all of the mob’s illegal business dealings, the kid and Gloria must outrun the mob. Even though this was probably the most commercial movie Cassavetes ever made, with a $4 million budget, there are still aspects of him within. The two main characters, along the way, grow to like each other, finding something they both needed that they didn’t know they needed. The film, at times, feels more interested in the characters than the impending action and danger - even though it is constant. The camera work is also reminiscent of John’s fast and loose style, there’s a chase through a kitchen shot on a hand-held that evokes memories of the Copacabana one-shot in Goodfellas, then realizing Scorsese’s gangster epic came nearly ten years after. Gloria was also filled up with Cassavetes regulars such as John Finnigan and Val Avery, as well as being produced by Sam Shaw. The film was finished in late 1979 but wasn’t released till the summer of 1980. Even though it received some of the best reviews of his career, it didn’t do too well at the box office.
Following Gloria, John returned to acting, due to lack of monies, in a series of lackluster films such as the horror-thriller The Incubus, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Tempest, and Marvin & Tige. He continued to write and came to the closest he ever had to fulfilling his dream of starting his own repertory theater company. He refurbished the California Center for Performing Arts so that he could present his trilogy of plays titled “Three Plays of Love and Hate,” which were co-authored with Ted Allan. One of the plays in the trilogy was the subject of John’s last labor of love.
“I didn’t tell anyone. No one knew. But I knew before I began. I had been given six months to live. This is a sweet film. If I die, this is a sweet last film.”
John felt that the third play in his “Three Plays of Love and Hate” trilogy was ripe for filming. In the early eighties, he set out to find financial backers with little luck. Would it be worth it if it was easy? He eventually found a backer in the form of Cannon pictures which had just come under new management that sought to shift the landscape of their company to more artistic films. If John could do it for next to nothing, they would back it. Well, “next-to-nothing” was John’s specialty. John began doing the necessary prep work. Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Heat) and Gena Rowlands were scheduled to reprise the lead roles they had created on stage when at the last minute Voight backed out and forced Cassavetes to take on the male lead, Robert Harmon. “Everything had to change because Jon is a different person - different ideas, different physically, you know, there were so many things. For one thing, I’m not a ladies’ man, so I didn’t know what the hell to do. It was perfectly all right for Voight to be a ladies’ man, but I’m not exactly James Bond. Robert Harmon had girls living in his house. I felt too old and inadequate. Jon had been hilarious, really great. I wish I could have done it his way because I liked his version much more than mine. But I couldn’t be that way. I had to do it differently.”
Even through his reservations, reluctance, and self-doubt, John gives one of his most poignant, subtle, and rawest performances. He and Gena play off each other as brother and sister so desperately that when one is left all alone at the end staring out of a window, a great sense of loneliness comes over you. John once talked about how he hated that his films were referred to as “too intellectual.” To him, they had nothing to do with intellect but rather feeling. Emotional responses and stakes. To hell with plot, to hell with art, to hell with what you think. How do you feel? “I hate art movies. These are just straight-on, straightforward movies about things we don’t know about. But they are questions that I think people ask themselves all the time.” Cassavetes was after genuine human reactions while watching his movies. He didn’t particularly care what it was, they could love it or hate it based on how it hit them emotionally, what their life experience brought to their reaction to a particular scene. He wanted to dispense with the idea that a movie sets out to make the audience feel one way in unison when making his pictures. In none of his films is this more visceral than his swan song Love Streams. The film chronicles Robert Harmon’s, a middle-aged playboy, quest to emotionally express himself and his sister’s overwhelming desire to express her emotions as her family leaves her. They meet somewhere in the middle in hopes of pulling each other out of the despair they find themselves in.
John, sometime prior to filming, had gone to the doctor and was told he had six months to live. He wasn’t sure if he’d be around to see the end of production. Luckily, he was and even went beyond it. He would go on to direct one last film as a favor to his old agent, Guy McElwaine, titled Big Trouble, a comedy starring Falk and Alan Arkin. John wanted to use the $500,000 payout to fund other projects of his. The shoot was doomed from the beginning, Cassavetes spent a lot of his time rewriting, re-shooting, and re-dubbing. It should be no surprise that the film, of course, received some of the best reviews of any Cassavetes film.
In the mid-eighties, Cassavetes attempted to make a film out of the first play in the “Three Plays of Love and Hate” trilogy, titled The Third Day Comes. Still, he was unable to secure funding, and in the latter half of the decade, his health began to severely incapacitate him. He had developed cirrhosis of the liver. Still, he continued to write through it all, staying as busy as always, “Long after I’m dead, I’d like to have some script - or scroll! - to be working on up there, or down there, or wherever.” In 1986 he wrote a three-act play that he produced which featured Gena, Carol Kane, and Charles Durning (Class of 1948) titled Woman of Mystery. He had several unpublished movie scripts that he wanted to get produced such as Gloria II, Begin the Beguine (a further examination of characters in Husbands), and She’s De Lovely. The latter went into the pre-production phase with Sean Penn attached to star, but when Penn started to deal in lawyers and contracts, John backed out. “Everyone says they want to work the way I do or work with me, but they don’t really want to. They don’t want to go all the way to work this way. In the end, they want to protect themselves. They are afraid. They don’t really want to take a chance.” The film would later see the light of day under the direction of John’s son Nick, re-titled She’s So Lovely, starring Penn, Robin Wright, John Travolta, and James Gandolfini.
Cassavetes' health took a turn for the worse in 1988, with people noting a demeanor change. “The fury and ferociousness were calmed. The zany impulsiveness was muted. The impatience and rush were eased. The maddening, game-playing, ‘con-man hustler’ side of his personality was abated” (Carney). On January 31st, 1989, John, after avoiding the hospital as long as he could, was sent to Cedars-Sinai for emergency treatment. Four days later, he passed away at the age of fifty-nine.
“He housed within himself, under one roof, all the contradictions. He was a man of action, but he was also a dreamer. He was teeming with feeling and emotion, and yet he was extremely intelligent…. He was a wild animal. But at the same time, the family was central to his universe.” (Falk)
“I didn't know what I was doing. I still don’t.” - John Cassavetes on the set of Love Streams