What's your take on Cassavetes?
From Saturday, July 6 through Wednesday, July 31, BAMcinématek presents Cassavetes, a comprehensive retrospective of films directed by and starring the founding father of American independent cinema. The series will showcase all 12 of the films that Cassavetes directed, as well as a selection of Cassavetes’ underappreciated work as an actor. Every film in the series will screen on 35mm—an essential component to fully appreciating the glorious, grainy shadows of Cassavetes’ after-midnight soul-searching.
Cassavetes opens (fittingly) on Saturday, July 6, with the director’s 1977 backstage melodrama Opening Night featuring Gena Rowlands as a Margo Channing-type actress who refuses to accept her fading star quality until the death of a worshiping young fan pushes her over the edge. With echoes of All About Eve and Renoir’s The Golden Coach, this heartbreaking tragedy is one of the most provocative and enigmatic works of his oeuvre.
A breakout star of the "kitchen sink" school of live television, John Cassavetes (1929—1989) first gained widespread attention for his role in Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City (1957—Jul 8). This pro-labor buddy picture about two dock workers (the other played by Sidney Poitier) depicts a then-daring interracial friendship and a host of gritty New York locations. Already a self-taught writer and director, Cassavetes recruited students from his acting workshop to become the cast and crew of the landmark indie Shadows (1959—Jul 9). Nominally about the intrusion of race upon the attraction between a white man and a black woman, the film was less interested in controversy than in atmosphere, capturing the jazz-scored lifestyle of Manhattan’s young beatniks and bohemians with a loose, restless energy.
Shadows brought Cassavetes to Hollywood, where he struggled against the system in two films: the moody, oblique Too Late Blues (1961—Jul 10) and the sensitive A Child Is Waiting (1963—Jul 11). The former was centered around unexpectedly terrific performances by Bobby Darin (as a diffident jazzman) and Stella Stevens (as a singer-cum-prostitute) and remains his most underrated film. The latter found Cassavetes on the losing end of a power struggle with super-producer Stanley Kramer and stars Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland—reportedly, he almost came to blows with all three—but Cassavetes redeemed the project by focusing his attention not on the name actors but on the mentally disabled children who were the film’s subjects.
Incompatible with studio compromises, Cassavetes returned to guerrilla filmmaking for Faces (1968—Jul 17), a semi-autobiographical, multi-character melodrama of marriage, infidelity, and alcohol. More cinéma vérité in style than his later films, his first masterpiece nonetheless codified Cassavetes' highly personal filmmaking method: shoot reams of film, often in his own home; let the actors experiment (but not improvise; contrary to myth, they worked from thorough scripts); and fine-tune the movie in the editing room, sometimes over the course of years. Faces, shot in early 1965, required almost three years, but the result yielded a trio of Oscar nominations (for Best Actor, Actress, and Screenplay) and a rare box office hit for Cassavetes. It also boasts a highly-sought after soundtrack by Miles Davis' legendary producer/arranger Teo Macero (Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, etc.) and Tony Award winner Charlie Smalls (The Wiz).
To pay for it, Cassavetes took a number of acting jobs just for the money—and, ironically, did much of his best work in front of the camera during this period. Don Siegel’s terse remake of The Killers (1964—Jul 15), with Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, starred Cassavetes as the hit men’s victim. The Dirty Dozen (1967—Jul 7), Robert Aldrich’s violent, cynical World War II film, reteamed Marvin and Cassavetes as the reluctant leader of a group of death row cons recruited for a suicide mission and its most psychotically unhinged member, respectively. The rarely screened Machine Gun McCain (1969—Jul 16), which starred Cassavetes alongside his wife Gena Rowlands and friends Peter Falk and Val Avery, is a fascinating hybrid of Euro crime caper and Cassavetes family film. And in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968—Jul 21), the film that brought Cassavetes mainstream fame, he created a deeply unsetting performance as an insensitive actor who proves vastly more sinister than his pregnant young bride (Mia Farrow) could ever imagine.
The success of Faces allowed Cassavetes his most sustained burst of creativity, during which he turned out five emotionally raw, narratively elliptical masterpieces in a row. Husbands (1970—Jul 19), a confrontational study of friendship and masculinity at its most boorish, starred Cassavetes, Falk, and Ben Gazzara, another New York actor who had a screen persona similar to Cassavetes’ and who became the final member of his acting Dream Team. The dark screwball comedy Minnie and Moskowitz (1971—Jul 18) elevated Cassavetes utility player Seymour Cassel to leading man, as an irresponsible, often deeply obnoxious parking attendant who somehow turns out to be the perfect guy for an uptight museum curator (Rowlands).
If Minnie and Moskowitz was a thinly disguised version of the often tempestuous partnership between Cassavetes and Rowlands, their next film—for which both were nominated for an Oscar—made it clear why Rowlands put up with him. A searing, heart-breaking study of a woman gripped by mental illness, A Woman Under the Influence (1974—Jul 12 & 13) was also a nuanced portrait of a working-class Italian-American family that operated in the same kind of happy, expansive chaos as Cassavetes’ extended filmmaking clan. The legendary scene in which Rowlands channels her character’s breakdown—and Falk (playing her devastated husband) offers his wordless, horrified reaction—contains some the best acting in the history of the movies.
A gangster movie by genre and a musical in spirit, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976—Jul 20) is another indescribable object in which plot takes a backseat to milieu. Giving his career-best performance, Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, a strip club entrepreneur who loves his seedy place of business and somehow remains an incorrigible optimist in spite of his potentially fatal debt to the mob. His next film, Opening Night, led Cassavetes into another cycle of acting-as-fundraising. Though he tended to clash with any director who wasn’t himself, Cassavetes worked for Brian De Palma, playing the villain in the ferocious supernatural splatter-fest The Fury (1978—Jul 25), and Paul Mazursky, again opposite Rowlands, in Tempest (1982—Jul 22). Finally emerging after years in the editing room, Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976—Jul 30) was a ragged Philadelphia-shot film maudit, featuring Cassavetes and Falk as two small-time hoods fleeing the mob. It represents the entry in Cassavetes’ acting resume that most resembles the films he directed.
A script that Cassavetes initially tossed off for money, Gloria (1980—Jul 24) became a true (and relatively big budget) Cassavetes film when he stepped behind the camera to capture Rowlands' defiant, funny performance as a low-rent gangster’s moll who becomes a young boy’s protector during an outer-borough odyssey on the run, once again, from the mafia. Love Streams (1984—Jul 31), Cassavetes' most intimate film and a summary of his views on love and family, was a study of two siblings (played by himself and Rowlands) who reconnect at a low ebb in both their lives. Although devotees remember the poignant final image of Cassavetes in Love Streams as his farewell to the cinema, Cassavetes made one more film before liver disease left him too ill to work, taking over the troubled Big Trouble (1986—Jul 29) at Falk's behest. A broad parody of Double Indemnity, it has little in common with Cassavetes’ passion projects but marshals memorably go-for-broke comedic performances from Falk and Alan Arkin.