John Cassavetes, born December 9, 1929 in New York and died February 3, 1989 in Los Angeles, is an American actor, screenwriter and director.
He began his career as an actor. He took on several roles, first in the theater, then on television, in television series, the best known of which is Johnny Staccato. His fame grew when he decided to move to the cinema, including in Crime in the streets by Don Siegel. But it is mainly behind the camera, as a filmmaker, that John Cassavetes will distinguish himself. In 1959, he directed Shadows, shooting with a troupe of amateurs and with his own means. The film commits the director and the American cinema in the way of independence. Breaking with the Hollywood industry with which he had a short and disappointing experience, his cinema evolves towards a style of its own. Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night continue to be part of a dynamic of independent cinema. He liberates the actor”s game, which he places at the center of his cinematographic device and focuses his work on the American middle class.
His films reveal the talent of his wife Gena Rowlands and several of his friends such as Peter Falk or Ben Gazzara. He is a filmmaker-author known for his personal style that gives crucial importance to the actors. He left a great deal of leeway to the actors during rehearsals and modified the script accordingly, which too often led the public and critics to think that improvisation was used systematically in all his films. He will mark the following generations of American directors.
John Cassavetes was born in New York into a family of Greek origin; his father, originally from Piraeus, immigrated to the United States at the age of eleven. He spent a happy childhood and in his youth frequented movie theaters with his brother. Not very interested in higher education, he was encouraged by his peers to study drama at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the early 1950s. This school, considered prestigious, is then very impregnated with the methods in vogue at the Actors Studio. Cassavetes” acting and later directing were influenced by the teachings of Lee Strasberg, especially the cultivation of a close relationship between the actor and his character. After graduating, he went on tour for two years and worked on Broadway for a while. He met a young actress, Gena Rowlands, after a performance and married her in 1954. The couple will have three children – Nick, Alexandra and Zoe; all three will pursue a film career.
The actor abandons quite quickly the boards for the small screen. His first appearances were mainly in supporting roles in series. He participated in television dramas, including the popular programs The Philco Television Playhouse, The Goodyear Television Playhouse and Kraft Television Theatre, which are broadcasts (sometimes live) of plays. By this time, American television was already a mass medium. The networks began to mount self-produced programs that allowed them to rise to the level of theater and cinema, and thus to acquire their letters of nobility. These programs contributed to what has been called “The Golden Age of Television” in the United States, and are seen by some as anthology programs in American audiovisual history. Many of the actors who went on to become famous, such as Eli Wallach, Grace Kelly and James Dean, also got their start. These professionally demanding productions marked the beginning of John Cassavetes” career. The work he did there helped him mature as an actor. His collaboration with television, the links he forges are deeper and more constant than in the theater to which he returns only in the 1980s.
Spotted during one of his television performances, Cassavetes landed his first film role in 1956 in Don Siegel”s Crime in the Streets and then in Martin Ritt”s Edge of the City alongside Sidney Poitier. It is on this occasion that he became familiar with the cinematographic direction. The two films also earned him a certain notoriety that will allow him thereafter to obtain commitments that will often get him out of his financial difficulties. That same year, with a friend, Bert Lane, he set up a theatrical teaching workshop in New York: the Variety Arts Studio. The classes were initially aimed at semi-professionals, but later opened up to the general public. The emphasis was on improvisation and group work; the atmosphere was studious. Soon Cassavetes felt the need to push his artistic experience further; with his cinematographic experience as an actor and the work accomplished in his teaching, he decided to move on to directing: he left the direction of the theatrical workshop to devote himself to the filming of Shadows.
The Shadows experience
John Cassavetes began his career as a filmmaker in 1958 with a master stroke. Shadows brought the director international fame, especially in Europe. Shadows, and later Shirley Clarke”s Connection, are part of this period where some low-budget works, shot on natural sets, with unknown actors, suddenly appear to be on the fringe of an American cinema saturated with heavy and very ambitious productions. This New York new wave provoked a call for air in the national cinema. The emergence of a “new school of New York” or “cinéma vérité” was evoked.
The film was born in spontaneity and improvisation. One evening in 1958, Cassavetes was invited to a radio show and launched a fundraising campaign to finance a film whose idea came to him from an improvisation session that same afternoon in his theater school. The story of Shadows is about a small group of black and mixed-race youth who face racial discrimination. The characters seek to escape the social divide imposed by their skin color. At the beginning, the director only had a vague plot in mind. He works for two weeks with his actors to elaborate characters and thus a story that will be built during the four months of shooting. The initial impulse becomes a state of mind, spontaneity is the guideline of the film. The actors improvise, as does the jazzman Charles Mingus who signs the soundtrack. Cassavetes believes that actors in film are constrained by the floor markings that ensure they are properly situated in the frame and properly lit. To give the actors even more freedom to act, he removes the marks and requires the camera to follow their movements. The director also did not hesitate to include in the technical team people who did not have the slightest film experience. Al Ruban, who will later be the chief operator of several of his films, has, at that time, no profession. Seymour Cassel, who would later star in several of Cassavetes” films, served as a handyman, took over the camera and was appointed distributor. Cassavetes relies above all on the emulation and commitment of everyone in the creative work.
Collective work, actors free to move, dialogues elaborated from improvisations, Shadows already contains the characteristic features of Cassavetes” style. This first film also lays the foundations for the author”s future scripts. The characters are middle-class American men and women who lead ordinary lives – and, indeed, the ordinary racism denounced by the film does not say its name. Another recurring element in the filmmaker”s work is that it is a chronicle without an ending. We follow the characters during an episode of their lives and we leave them without any dramatic fall, without any turn of events, without any conclusion: Ben, one of the three heroes of the film, simply disappears in the streets of New York, his chin buried in his jacket. An ending that contrasts with the traditional epilogues of American cinema.
Shadows will take time to find its audience. Before being a film, it was above all an experimental work for the director; no commercial distribution was envisaged. The film was nevertheless screened at the end of 1958 at Le Paris cinema in New York. Despite a disastrous performance according to the filmmaker, the event was relayed by the New York magazine Film Culture directed by Jonas Mekas, an independent critic and director who was enthusiastic about the film. However, John Cassavetes is not satisfied with his work. He decided to go back to editing and allowed himself ten more days of shooting. He added sequences and reworked the story. The new version of Shadows, which remains the only one visible to this day – the first one being forbidden by Gena Rowlands, her husband”s heir – contributes to further indebting the young filmmaker who is expecting his first child (Nick Cassavetes, future director). He therefore agreed to play the role of a private detective in a television series, Johnny Staccato. This production, shot in the pure tradition of film noir, obtained a certain popularity. He will direct five episodes himself and will contribute to the writing of several of the scenarios.
Nevertheless, Shadows continues its journey. Thanks to Seymour Cassel, who was sent on a mission to Europe to sell the film, it was first screened at the National Film Theater in London, then at the Cinémathèque française, and won the Pasinetti Critics” Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1960. It finally found a British distributor, Lion International Films (also the distributor of Carol Reed”s The Third Man), which allowed it to be shown internationally.
The growing fame of the young director interests Hollywood and the majors of American cinema who hire him to direct a new film. He left New York for Los Angeles – more precisely for Beverly Hills where he settled with his family. He directed two feature films for the studios: Too Late Blues (translated into French as La Ballade des sans-espoirs, 1961), and A Child Is Waiting (1963).
The Hollywood parenthesis
Conceived within a more professional framework, Too Late Blues, produced by Paramount Pictures, does not however lack a certain continuity with Shadows. It takes up the theme of jazz and its interpretation (some of the protagonists of Shadows were already musicians) as well as the theme of the community and the place of the individual within it. The script tells the story of a jazz pianist”s drift, first as the leader of an ensemble, his exile into decay and then his return; it is co-written by Richard Carr, author of television series and in particular of Johnny Staccato. However, the production is less realistic, more sober than the director”s first work. It was not a success and Cassavetes was disappointed with his collaboration with Paramount, which itself was not enthusiastic about the film. The director believes that he had to deal with the unavailable Hollywood administration during the whole production.
In the summer of 1962, through his friend Everett Chambers – who played in Too Late Blues – Cassavetes gets to direct two episodes of the series The Lloyd Bridges Show: A Pair of Boots and My Daddy Can Lick Your Daddy. The show is based on the comedian Lloyd Bridges, then star of the small screen. This strong personality has nothing to prove anymore: writers and directors have all the latitude in the elaboration of the episodes. Among the subjects that were proposed to him, he chose to tackle genres that were popular with Hollywood: a war film and a boxing film. My Daddy Can Lick Your Daddy is about a pretentious boxer whose own son challenges him to a duel. A Pair of Boots takes place during the Civil War; the two sides, worn out by the conflict, decide to make a truce which is broken by a southerner who undertakes to steal a pair of boots from the opposing camp. Cassavetes was particularly pleased with this episode, which was awarded a Peabody Award – an American award given annually since 1948 to television programs. Produced in an environment favorable to the director, this was the filmmaker”s only positive experience in the Hollywood industry.
Still under contract with Paramount, Cassavetes and Richard Carr are preparing another feature film: The Iron Men. The film is about an air squad of black soldiers during the Second World War with Sidney Poitier in the lead role; Burt Lancaster is also approached. The project nevertheless withers and turns short as his relationship with the major. In 1963, he was approached by Stanley Kramer for United Artists. The latter is at that time the darling of the milieu. Charismatic producer of Fred Zinnemann”s Train Whistle Three Times and Edward Dmytryk”s Hurricane on the Caine, Stanley Kramer had just directed Judgment at Nuremberg (1962), for which he won the Golden Globe for best director. The cast of this blockbuster contained a host of celebrities including Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland. The two actors returned to Kramer, this time as producers, in A Child is Waiting, which he entrusted to Cassavetes as director.
A Child is Waiting deals with the theme of autism. Cassavetes went on location with screenwriter Abby Mann, visiting institutes, meeting mentally handicapped children, parents and talking with specialists. The director takes his work very seriously. When the filming was finished, Stanley Kramer evicted him from the editing and finished the film in his place. The collaboration between the two men will degenerate and the film will be, at its release, disowned by Cassavetes. Cassavetes” intentions on the subject were perfectly opposite, which explains his disagreement with the final version. He wanted to show autistic children as normal children who live in ostracism because of the way society looks at them; according to him, the vision of the film and of Kramer consists, on the contrary, in considering this difference only from the point of view of society and of the efforts it invests through the institutes to bring them back to it. The incident left a lasting impression on the director, and he would not have words too harsh to evoke Stanley Kramer and the film thereafter. This experience with the majors will also be the subject of a rather acerbic painting that says a lot about the relationship then maintained with Hollywood, in his work Murder of a Chinese Bookmaker (1976). The actor Ben Gazzara, alter ego of John Cassavetes, plays a second-rate cabaret manager who, faced with money problems, and to allow his cabaret to survive, agrees to murder a bookmaker on behalf of the mafia.
The filmmaker will definitely decide to free himself from the system to produce his own productions. Firmly resolved not to call on capital that could interfere with his creative freedom, Cassavetes decided to produce his films himself, as he had done with Shadows. They will be shot in the family home, or that of his parents or relatives. The actors will be friends, family members or amateurs. After a few engagements as an actor, he gathered enough money to make Faces.
Cassavetes goes back to his roots:
“I hadn”t made a personal film since Shadows, in 1959, which was one of the happiest experiences of my life. The memory of it has never left me, all the time I was pretending to be a great Hollywood director.”
At the end of 1964, he wrote Faces first for the theater and then decided to transform it into a script for the cinema. The project is ambitious, reworked several times, the final script will reach two hundred and fifty pages. The film follows the drift of a middle-aged couple in their extramarital affair. Richard goes off to spend the night with a prostitute, while his wife, Maria, lets herself be taken in by a seducer in a nightclub. The director”s intention is to denounce the superficiality of relationships between spouses, the lack of communication that reigns in the households of the American middle class. The shooting starts in 1965 after three weeks of preparation, without external financing. The director returns to the artisanal method of Shadows, with the added experience. There is no more question of improvisation; all the dialogues are scrupulously written. On the other hand, Cassavetes gives free rein to the actors to interpret them as they wish, even if it means modifying certain lines if necessary. The cast includes John Marley, who appeared in A Pair of Boots, Lynn Carlin, whose first film role, Gena Rowlands – who has already acted under the direction of her husband in A Child Awaits – and Seymour Cassel. Even more than in Shadows, the acting is the pillar of the film. Cassavetes does not hesitate to suspend the shooting for new rehearsals. The length of the shoot itself is in tune with the performers – the filmmaker could leave the camera running until the roll of film was finished.
The shooting of Faces takes six months, the editing that follows lasts three years. It took place in the house of the Cassavetes-Rowlands couple. In addition to the 150 hours of shooting, there were technical problems, notably a soundtrack that had to be reconstructed end to end because of the lack of sufficient recording speed. Cassavetes made a first cut with the help of young inexperienced trainees. Unsatisfied with this version, he entrusted the work to his co-producer and cinematographer, Al Ruban. Post-production continued while he took on various acting roles to bail out the film.
Thus, he played under the direction of Roman Polanski in Rosemary”s Baby (1968), alongside Mia Farrow, a horror film that will popularize the director. Cassavetes does not leave Polański a lasting memory. The actor, according to him, did not find his marks and plays Cassavetes. For his part, Cassavetes considers the film as a commercial film, “a planned utensil on command.” In his defense, the man was in the middle of editing Faces. The time he did not spend on the set of Rosemary”s Baby was spent working on his film with Al Ruban. He plays with more success a small murderer, a year earlier, in The Dirty Dozen (1967) by Robert Aldrich. The film is a commercial success. His performance is greeted by two nominations, one at the Oscars, the other at the Golden Globes, for this second role.
Faces was completed in 1968. The film is a plebiscite. It was selected at the Venice Film Festival in the Best Film and Best Actor categories – John Marley won the latter award. It was also selected for the Oscars in three categories. The success does not go without provoking the ire of the guild of actors. The powerful union does not admit that the filming did not receive its approval. Its president, Charlton Heston, goes so far as to summon the actors to demand a reminder of their dues, which he will not obtain.
The next film, Husbands, was Cassavetes” first film in color. For this production, the director received substantial funding from an Italian patron, Bino Cirogna, a businessman who admired his work and whom he met during the shooting of Giuliano Montaldo”s Untouchables, in Rome in 1968. He plays a mafia godfather released from prison. He shares the poster with Peter Falk whom he convinces at the same time to play in Husbands. He then contacts Ben Gazzara whose career has crossed his own several times. The man appreciates the films of his colleague and had the opportunity to tell him. At a dinner in a restaurant in New York, Cassavetes told him about Husbands and the actor agreed to play. As for the director, he plays a third character. The three of them meet in Rome where Ben Gazzara is shooting, and begin rehearsals.
The filming takes place in London. Three friends and fathers go on a trip to the British capital. Far from their respective homes, in a wild atmosphere, they go on a pub binge and seduce young girls. The script fluctuates during the production. The director reworks his script several times. His attention is entirely focused on the actors. He leaves the technique to Victor J. Kemper, still a novice. As for the editing, tested by his previous experience with Faces, he entrusted it to Al Ruban. The first screenings seduced Columbia, which bought the rights to distribute the film. The director does not share this enthusiasm. To the great displeasure of the distributor, he locked himself away for a year to make a new version. While the first one was a light comedy, centered on the character of Ben Gazzara, the final version puts the three main roles on the same level and goes into a more dramatic tone.
In 1970, Cassavetes went to New York with Seymour Cassel, for the premiere of Husbands, he then proposed to make a film on marriage. Tackled in Faces and Husbands, through the marital life and its misadventures, it is to further address the reasons that lead a man and a woman to marriage in contemporary America. He wrote a script for Seymour Cassel and Gena Rowlands; it was to be a comedy. The two actors will play a love story between two individuals who are contemplating a late marriage. The cast also includes Gena Rowlands” mother who plays her own role and Cassavetes” mother who plays Seymour Cassel”s mother. Universal agreed to produce the film entitled Minnie and Moskowitz but gave the director complete freedom. The film, quickly shot and edited, was released in 1971.
Gena Rowlands, after Minnie and Moskowitz, will interpret under the direction of her husband, three of his major roles in the cinema and for which she won many prestigious awards. A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night and Gloria are dedicated to her qualities as an actress. The shooting of A Woman Under the Influence began in 1971. The film is self-financed and, to gather a sufficient budget, John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands will mortgage their own house. The plot revolves around a working-class American couple. Peter Falk plays a simple man who works on construction sites, disarmed by the neuroses of his girlfriend played by Gena Rowlands. The film was written in its entirety. The shooting lasted thirteen weeks; it took place in chronological order of the scenes in order to control the dramatic progression. Cassavetes did not hesitate to use long sequence shots to capture the emotional potential of the actors” performance. He multiplies the shots, varying the angles of view for each of them. A certain tension reigns on the set, the filmmaker and his wife have long and sometimes stormy exchanges on the development of the film. The film was completed at the end of 1972. The director, who felt that he had a large-scale film, wanted to control the cast. Al Ruban and Seymour Cassel lend him a hand. The task is difficult and for two years, A Woman Under the Influence remains in the boxes.
The film was released in 1974 and was a commercial success. It also won several awards. The performance of Gena Rowlands, in particular, is greeted with an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for best actress in a dramatic film.
Cassavetes abandoned social America for a while. He contacted Ben Gazzara, who lived in New York, for Murder of a Chinese Bookmaker (1976), a detective story in the form of an allegory about the director”s ongoing struggle to make his creation count. Despite the recognition that the filmmaker had received from his previous work, it was not well received in the United States. The distribution in Europe was more fortunate and allowed the director to break even. He called again on Ben Gazzara to give the line to his wife in Opening Night. The film is largely self-financed following the setbacks of Murder of a Chinese Bookmaker; Cassavetes himself borrows 1.5 million dollars for its production. Gena Rowlands plays a stage actress who is given the role of a woman who has her youth behind her: The Second Woman. This role weighs on the stage actress; she realizes that this is how she will be looked at from now on and she refuses. Cassavetes” style becomes more flexible. Tight shots are rarer, the film gives more space to long shots. He also imposes marks on the actors at the insistence of his director Al Ruban. The interpretation of Gena Rowlands is once again celebrated by a Silver Bear at the Berlin Festival. However, the film did not find commercial distribution and proved to be a financial failure.
The filmmaker comes to make a departure from his line of conduct vis-à-vis the studios. He writes, on commission from MGM, the script of Gloria. It is finally Columbia who acquires it and asks him to direct it. Cassavetes accepts to bail out of the two successive setbacks he has just suffered. This is why he readily describes Gloria as an “accident”. Indeed, the film is out of the filmmaker”s register. All the work is planned, which is not usual. Usually, the scenario fluctuates, depending on the evolution of the film, the plans are decided at the last moment. It also includes a part of suspense and action. The intimate register is confined to the relationship between the character played by Gena Rowlands, and the child she is trying to save from the clutches of gangsters. Cassavetes returns to success. The work won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1980.
Latest creations: between theater and cinema
It was shortly before the release of Gloria, in November 1980, that the filmmaker returned to the theater, this time as a writer and director. His first play is entitled EastWest Games. He directs his son, Nick Cassavetes, and the actress Sandy Martin. Nick Cassavetes is in this play a writer who writes a script for Hollywood and must face the demands of the studios.
Cassavetes then directed three other plays that formed a trilogy entitled Three Plays of Love and Hate. They were performed in alternating years from May to June 1981 at the California Center Theatre in Los Angeles. The first of them is Knives, the story of a murder in the entertainment industry. Peter Falk plays the leading role. The other two are by Canadian author Ted Allan: The Third Day Comes (with Nick Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands) and Love Streams (with Gena Rowlands and Jon Voight). Cassavetes” theatrical direction does not seem to differ much from his cinematic direction. He takes a similar approach to actors.
After taking a role in Tempest by Paul Mazursky alongside Gena Rowlands and Susan Sarandon, after a play by Shakespeare, Cassavetes took Love Streams in 1984, which he adapted for the cinema. He plays himself the role initially played by Jon Voight who had withdrawn. Produced by a production company specializing in action films, the Cannon Company, the film was shot in 11 weeks. The relationship with the production is not very cordial, the producer Menahem Golan is not used to auteur films, but he leaves the final cut to the director who does not hesitate to use it. Love Streams combines many themes of his previous films: emotional isolation (Opening Night, Too Late Blues), the outlet in the party (Husbands), marital failure (Faces) …
At that time, the director”s health was already beginning to deteriorate seriously. He developed an addiction to alcohol that led him to cirrhosis. Convivial habit of which we perceive the resonances in his films, it undermines Cassavetes at the end of his life. It is sick that he takes over from Andrew Bergman to direct Big Trouble (1985), at the request of its lead actor, Peter Falk. The comedy that he leads to its end is not a good experience, but it will be his last work for the cinema.
In May 1987, he staged a play of his own composition, A Woman of Mystery. Originally, Cassavetes planned to make a film of it, but under pressure from those close to him who did not want to see him tire, he retreated to the stage. The story unfolds in three acts: a homeless woman (Gena Rowlands) crosses paths with needy characters and figures from her past. Her encounters challenge her isolation but, having become accustomed to solitude, she is no longer able to socialize. The play was performed for two weeks at the Court Theatre in West Hollywood, a small hall with about 60 seats. He then began to write several screenplays including Beguin the Beguine for Ben Gazzara, a sequel to Gloria, and revised the script for She”s So Lovely for Sean Penn, which was eventually directed by his son, Nick Cassavetes, ten years later.
In February 1989, he died at 59 years of cirrhosis.
The homogeneity of the creative process in John Cassavetes” career is one of his notable traits, so much so that one could speak of a “method”. With a few exceptions, in fact, he proceeds in the same way for each of his productions.
The main axis of the filmmaker”s creative process is interpretation. The actor is at the center of John Cassavetes” work as a director. He strives to create an atmosphere around him that is conducive to the development of his acting, the aim of which is to bring him into tune with his character, to evolve spontaneously in his skin. On the set, the filmmaker can spend long hours rehearsing before setting the technical team in motion. The actor must be at the height of the climax that he has been working on.
Many actors made their first steps in his films: Seymour Cassel, Lynn Carlin, Laura Johnson… The approach of an amateur can guarantee a renewal and a questioning of the professional approaches. Another peculiarity, the filmmaker takes care from Shadows on the freedom of movement of the actors. He frees the game from the constraints of the frame. He also gives them the necessary margin to modify the dialogues, to make the character they play evolve until they take the film in directions that were not pre-established. However, he does not give the actor a total freedom. If Shadows is largely improvised and was born from an improvisation, the following films do not call for improvisation.
Technique is also at the service of the actor. John Cassavetes readily said that it did not matter to him and that it was up to the camera to submit to the actors and not the other way around. He reproaches himself for “falling in love with the camera” during the production of Shadows, which is his only film in which attempts at photographic compositions appear. John Cassavetes wants to free himself from a cinematographic language in which the frame is the predominant and directing element: “I hate the idea that a film is made by the frame or the camera. I”ve never seen a good scene that wasn”t good no matter what the camera angle.”
John Cassavetes constantly seeks spontaneity: “Everything in a film must find its inspiration in the moment. The filmmaker encourages the technicians to take initiative and show autonomy, just as he does with the actors.
The work plan is not pre-established. It is done spontaneously, day by day, according to the scenes to be shot. The freedom of movement of the actors implies taking certain technical measures. The sequences are shot with several cameras equipped with long lenses, so as to be able to follow the actors as best as possible. The camera is most of the time carried to better accompany them. The director demands maximum availability from the technicians. They can be called upon at any time to start the camera while the actors are rehearsing a sequence and do not know that they are being filmed. The shooting can thus start in a scene in progress and only stop when the film reaches its end. It is also this fluidity, specific to his way of working, that prevented John Cassavetes from accommodating the financial and administrative imperatives of the studios, and provoked the break with the American film industry.
It is in the intimacy that John Cassavetes creates his films or directs his plays. Most of the time, he surrounds himself with his close friends, technicians (Al Ruban, Sam Shaw…) or actors (Gena Rowlands, his wife, Nick Cassavetes, his son, Seymour Cassel, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk…). He will go so far as to direct his own mother, in three films, and that of Gena Rowlands in Minnie and Moskowitz. He draws from this close circle of artistic resources, from the beginning to the end of his career. The shootings themselves took place in the family home. Faces and A Woman Under the Influence were shot in the Cassavetes-Rowlands home.
Nor do the subjects of his films go beyond the realm of intimacy. When John Cassavetes made his radio appeal for funds to finance Shadows, he said, “If people really want to see films about people, they should contribute.” The dramaturgy is in tune with what the “people” experience. His characters do not evolve in marginality, on the contrary. John Cassavetes films the American middle class and is interested in its daily concerns. His view of this social class is neither ideological nor sociological. His films do not have the value of stigmatization either. They simply testify to the feelings and weaknesses of the protagonists. The plot is guided by the ordinary circumstances, intimate to the characters. Marriage, infidelity, divorce, friendship, mourning… so many ordinary events, on the scale of his characters. The family is thus a recurring theme for the director. Sometimes it will be the couple (Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz…), sometimes it will be the home (A Woman Under the Influence). When the characters do not evolve in their family environment, they recreate it and join a community, a clan where the links are – if not similar – at least as close between the protagonists. In Shadows, for example, the characters of Lelia, Ben and Hugh call themselves a family. Similarly, in Murder of a Chinese Bookmaker, Cosmo Vitelli forms bonds with his employees that have a quasi-familial character.
“There is in Cassavetes, more than in any modern filmmaker, an absolute literality of the body as a mode of figuration and especially as an existential presence.” In his films, the body plays a predominant role in terms of expression. What the character cannot say is often expressed by the actor”s movement. A Woman Under the Influence is a film that relies for a large part on the hysterical gestures of its character Mabel, played by Gena Rowlands. At the same time rejecting the other, his words (Mabel against the family of Nick, played by Peter Falk) or search for love, even too much love, ecstasy (Mabel organizing a party with children that degenerates because of his emotional enthusiasm), the body of the actress goes through a plethora of postures and gestures that express beyond the dialogues the distress, joy or desire of her character.
The body is also a mode of communication. Body contact is common. The characters embrace, take each other by the body, fight. Often placed in extreme situations, the characters are made to dialogue with their bodies. In a long sequence in Faces, Chet (Seymour Cassel) works to revive Maria (Lynn Carlin) who has just attempted suicide with barbiturates, by carrying her, taking her in his arms, making her dance. In Love Streams, Robert (John Cassavetes) takes it upon himself to visit his ex-wife and see his son, he is beaten by the new husband and, lying on the sidewalk, his son comes to embrace him. The contact is sought after, even provoked by the protagonists. Its absence is all the more intolerable. The reanimation scene in Faces is followed by the return of Maria”s husband (John Marley), the absence of any contact between the two spouses contrasts bitterly with the rescue of Chet.
Influence and posterity
John Cassavetes has never really claimed any filiation. He admires Frank Capra because his films show “the beauty of people who still have a kind of hope and dignity no matter what their background is” but his approach is fundamentally different. Capra is primarily from another generation, that of the American dream and idealism, while John Cassavetes adopts a realistic vision, with characters who have material comfort and who must face their nature, the model of society that is imposed on them. He occasionally cites Carl Theodor Dreyer (with whom he had the ambition to make a film) as well as the Italian neorealist cinema. His career in American television in the 1950s had a certain influence on his working methods. All these references, however, have only very indirect relations with Cassavetes” cinema.
It is that the director is more in the rupture. Shadows was conceived in New York, far from the studios, carried by a current of independent cinema federated by Jonas Mekas who had the ambition to escape a budgetary logic by making films without financial constraints. Thereafter, and after his disastrous Hollywood experience, the filmmaker will never stop trying to preserve his aesthetic and financial independence. The one and the other will be carried out frontally. He reinjected his acting fees into his productions; if necessary, he mortgaged his house. Few filmmakers have shown such determination in their creative process. Most of the directors known for their freedom of spirit (Arthur Penn, Robert Aldrich, Martin Scorsese…), once they entered the Hollywood system, would not leave it.
The work of John Cassavetes will be truly known by the public only later, probably because of the laborious distribution of his films during his lifetime. Nevertheless, critics generally agree that the filmmaker”s talent has been recognized since his first steps in directing. The singularity of his approach is not without controversy. He has been criticized for rehashing the hackneyed theme of the pain of living, which for others, denotes rather the quasi-obsessive attachment of the director to depict the physical or moral infirmity of his characters and the behavior that results from it.
In any case, John Cassavetes leaves his mark on the history of American cinema. His independence, in particular, which was evident in his first films Shadows and Faces, was seen in the United States as a tremendous opening for the generation of filmmakers that followed. Martin Scorsese, for example, will personally ask him to guide him in his first steps in cinema.
Some directors will also try their hand at his style as a tribute. Pedro Almodóvar, for example, was openly inspired by Opening Night in Todo sobre mi madre (1999). The shadow of Cassavetes also hangs over Woody Allen”s Husbands and Wives (1992). In a deeper sense, the works of Maurice Pialat are not unrelated to those of John Cassavetes. The two directors share a taste for independence but also a direction of the actor focused on the body language of the performer. Finally, Jean-François Stévenin claims to be openly in his continuity.
In France, Jacques Thébault dubbed John Cassavetes in The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary”s Baby, Columbo: Symphony in Black (TV movie), The Star Spangled Target and Fury. Marc Cassot dubbed him in Free as the Wind, Rome as Chicago and A Killer in the Crowd.