John Nicholas Cassavetes (December 9, 1929 - February 3, 1989) was a Greek American actor, screenwriter and director. Cassavetes created an American form of cinéma vérité with his innovative camera use, bleak outlook, and emphasis on improvisation. Film critic Ray Carney called him "the father of American independent film".
Life and Work
Cassavetes was born in New York City to Nicholas John Cassavetes and Katherine Demetri, both of whom were Greek immigrants. He grew up on Long Island, New York and attended high school at Blair Academy in New Jersey and Colgate University before moving to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. On graduation in 1950, he continued acting in the theater. By 1953, he was doing small parts in films; he continued to play a James Dean-like "juvenile delinquent" throughout the 1950s. Cassavetes also acted on television, which was still finding its feet as a medium. His experience working within television's budgetary and schedule limits influenced his later film production style.
Early films and acting
During this time he met and married actress Gena Rowlands, a fellow television actor, who was a year younger than he was. 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). Cassavetes raised the funds for production from friends and family, as well as listeners to a late-night radio talk show.
Cassavetes was unable to get American distributors to carry Shadows, so he took it to Europe, where 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 viewership 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 — but the experience was exasperating. The intervention of the studios, the lack of creative control, and the over-all dumbing down of his work was unbearable. Cassavetes refused to go through the process again.
His strategy, brought on by necessity, was to work as an actor in mainstream movies, and channel the funds he made there into his work as a director. He didn't just clockwatch as an actor, though; he did masterly work in blockbuster hits of the late 1960s, including World War II epic The Dirty Dozen (1967) — for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor — and in arguably his most famous onscreen role as Guy Woodhouse, Mia Farrow's struggling actor husband, who redefines what it means to sell out via the supernatural in Roman Polanski's classy thriller Rosemary's Baby (1968). He also turned in stellar work as a sinister nemesis to Kirk Douglas in the CIA thriller The Fury (1978), which provided one of the genre's most unforgettable demises of a villain.
His next independent film was Faces, which lay down new themes for later work. Starring Cassavetes's wife Rowlands, Faces depicted a contemporary suburban marriage in the process of slow disintegration, with the accompanying desperate and degrading sexual improprieties. Cassavetes held an unflinching camera on the pettiness and emotional greed of the distancing husband and wife and their lovers, but in the end the pathos of their story gives them an unexpected dignity. Faces was a critical and financial success, nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actor and Actress).
After Faces Cassavetes could concentrate more fully on his directorial work. He had enough leverage at this point that he could make movies in the studio system, yet retain full creative control. Husbands (1970) starred Cassavetes himself, with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. They play a trio of men escaping their marriages for minor peccadillos. Another in the 1970s include Minnie and Moskowitz, about a misdirected young woman seeking love, and starring Rowlands again with a small part for Cassavetes's mother, Katherine.
His three masterpieces, made in the late 1970s, however, were produced independently. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) stars Rowlands as an increasingly eccentric housewife trying to keep her hold on reality. Peter Falk played her husband, who tries to keep up a facade of normality, but ultimately makes the difficult decision of committing her to a mental institution. The characters were nuanced, and the ethical situations were measured in shades of gray. The wife's behavior, while disturbing and disconcerting for those around her, is not obviously dangerous or unstable. Rowlands is an expert collaborator in the story, playing Mabel with subtlety and energy; she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, while Cassavetes was nominated for Best Director.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) was a movie about the experience of men as much as Influence was about women. Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, a small-time strip-club owner with an out-of-control gambling habit, who is convinced by mobsters to commit a murder to pay off his debt. Driven by fear and uncertainty, Vitelli deceives friend and foe alike. Author Christos Tsiolkas said of Bookie that it showed "being a man means knowing gutlessness better than knowing courage, that failure stays with you long after success."
Finally Opening Night reflected upon acting and the profession of the actor itself. Once again Gena Rowlands was the leading actress alongside Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara and in one of her last films, Joan Blondell. She impersonated the aging former film, now stage actress Myrtle Gordon who falls victim to a personal crisis. Alone, unloved by her colleagues, in fear of her age and always treated as a professional actress instead of a human being, she succumbs to alcohol and hallucinations after she witnesses the accidental death of a young fan. Ultimately she succeeds to break free by fighting her personal demons on stage, delivering the performance of her life. Later on, critics stated that Cassavetes was determined to make this movie because he was the only one who could reflect upon this subject so profoundly. According to Laurence Gavron, Cassavetes worked on the screenplay for several years, constantly preoccupied by the subject. Unfortunately the production turned out to be a financial disaster, costing more than 1 1/2 million dollars of loaned money and taking more than one year. The first cut was more than five hours long and only one copy of the final version was released in the U.S.
Late career and alcoholism
Cassavetes continued to work through the 1980s, although personal troubles with alcohol were beginning to take their toll. Gloria (1980) is a more conventional thriller starring Rowlands as a mob moll who runs off with a young boy orphaned by the mob and soon to be next. Love Streams (1984) starred Cassavetes as an aging lothario who suffers the overbearing affection of his recently divorced sister. Sadly, Cassavetes's last movie, Big Trouble (1986), was a last-minute project picked up as a favor when a younger director friend peremptorily quit the project. The movie, wracked by incompatible studio and director edits, was, in Cassavetes' words, "a disaster". Already ill, he was heartbroken that it would be the last film he would do.
Cassavetes's personality was overpowering and driven. He lived to make film, and sacrificed his colleagues and himself to the process. The intense effort took its toll; a long-time alcoholic, Cassavetes died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1989 at the age of only 59. He was survived by Rowlands, who continued to act, and three children. His son, Nick Cassavetes, followed in his father's footsteps as an actor (Face/Off, Life) and director, and made 1997's She's So Lovely from the elder Cassavetes's screenplay, and directed 2004's The Notebook.
Cassavetes was a good friend and mentor of director Martin Scorsese, who was an impressionable young man just getting his start in the film industry in New York City, New York. Scorsese went onto work with Cassavetes on Minnie and Moskowitz. He also developed the idea of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with Cassavetes.
In September 2004, The Criterion Collection produced a set of his five most well known 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 Note On Improvisation
Rowlands has stated that the role of improvisation in Cassavetes films has frequently been misunderstood. Though Cassavetes allowed and even encouraged his actors to ad lib while filming, only very rarely, she says, were entire scenes filmed as they were being improvised. Rather, Rowlands reports, the actors would improvise from Cassavetes' scripts during rehearsals, then Cassavetes would rewrite scenes based on the improvisations.
- Shadows (1959)
- Too late blues (1961)
- A child is waiting (1963)
- The Killers (1964)
- Faces (1968)
- Rosemary's Baby (1968)
- Husbands (1970)
- Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
- A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
- The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
- Opening Night (1977)
- Gloria (1980)
- The Haircut (1982)
- Tempest (1982)
- Love Streams (1984)
- Big Trouble (1986)