John Cassavetes: Life and Movies

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Cassavetes was born in New York City, the son of an actress and a Greek immigrant. His early years were spent with his family in Greece. At the age of 7 he moved back to Long Island, New York. Cassavetes began his acting education at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he met his fiancée Gena Rowlands at her audition for the Academy in 1953. They married 4 months later in 1954. He continued to act in the theater, he took small parts in films, and began doing TV work in anthology series such as Alcoa Theater.


John Cassavetes was born on December 9, 1929 and was the godfather of American independent cinema, writing and directing films financed in part by the earnings of his work as an actor. He has been defined by some critics who understand cinema as a means of expression outside the commercial industry, the most important director of the last half century in America. As an actor, Cassavetes starred in major Hollywood films during the 1950s. He began his directing career with the independent film Shadows of 1959, followed by independent productions such as Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977) and Love Streams (1984) . He periodically continued to direct and star in studio-produced films such as Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky (1976) and his own directories A Child is Waiting (1963), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and Gloria (1980).

Cassavetes’ films use an actor-centered method that focuses on character relationships and sensations, leaving aside the standard Hollywood storytelling. His films are linked to the improvisation of cinéma vérité. He has collaborated frequently with a group of actors, including his wife Gena Rowlands and friends Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel. Many of his films were shot and edited in his home in Los Angeles. For his role in The Dirty Dozen, Cassavetes earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. As a director, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Faces (1968) and the Academy Award for Best Director for A Woman Under the Influence (1974). The Independent Spirit Awards named the John Cassavetes Award in honor of him.


The Beginnings of John Cassavetes

In 1956, Cassavetes had begun teaching acting in his own workshop which was based on character creation, rather than backstory or narrative requirements. Cassavetes notably rejected Lee Strasberg’s method-based Actors Studio, thinking the method was “more a kind of psychiatric therapy than acting” that led to emotional clichés and feelings of self-indulgence. In contrast to the “moody, brooding suffering” of the Actors Studio, the Cassavetes-Lane method advocated that acting should be an expression of imaginative joy and wit, with a focus on developing character “masks” in the process to connect with other characters.

Immediately after the opening of the workshop, Cassavetes was accepted for an audition at the Actors Studio, and in action he and Lane devised a trick: they claimed to be playing a scene from a production in progress but in reality they improvised, deceiving a pleased Strasberg. Cassavetes recounted monetary troubles of him, causing Strasberg to provide him with a full scholarship to the Studio; Cassavetes rejected it without delay, considering that Strasberg understood nothing about acting, having been deceived by the two ploys.


Shadows (1959)

An improvisation training in the laboratory inspired the idea for his directorial pitch, Shadows (1959). Cassavetes raised the production funds from family and friends, as well as listeners of Jean Shepherd’s late night radio talk show, Night People. His idea was to make a film about “little people” with modest incomes, unlike Hollywood studio productions, which focused on stories about rich people. Cassavetes failed to acquire the American circulation of Shadows, but it won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. European distributors later launched the film in the United States. Shadows’ box office returns in the US were small, but it caught the attention of Hollywood studios.


John Cassavetes actor

Cassavetes played bit parts in B movies and television series, eventually gaining prominence in 1955 as a vicious killer in The Night Holds Terror and as a juvenile delinquent in the television drama Crime in the Streets. Cassavetes would duplicate this performance in the 1956 film variation, which also featured another future director, Mark Rydell, as his bandmate. His very first leading role in a feature film was Edge of the City (1957), with Sidney Poitier. He was quickly signed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and co-starred with Robert Taylor in the Western Saddle the Wind, composed by Rod Serling. In the late 1950s, Cassavetes starred in Beverly Garland’s groundbreaking crime drama, Decoy, about an undercover investigator for New York City authorities. Next, he played Johnny Staccato, the lead character in a television series about a jazz pianist and private investigator. In total he directed five episodes of the series, which also features a guest appearance from his wife Gena Rowlands.

In 1961 Cassavetes signed a seven-year contract with Paramount. Cassavetes directed 2 films for Hollywood in the early 1960s: Too Late Blues (1961) and A Child Is Waiting (1963), starring Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland. From 1961 to 1964 he starred in various commercial TV series, sometimes with his wife. With the payment for his television contract, plus a handful of film acting assignments, he was able to move to California and make his next films independent of any studio: Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964), Devil’s Angels (1967), The Dirty Dozen (1967), for which he was shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Guy Woodhouse’s lead initially intended for Robert Redford in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Fury (1978). Cassavetes portrayed the killer in a 1972 episode of the crime television series Columbo, entitled “Étude in Black”. Cassavetes and series star Peter Falk previously starred together in the 1969 mob action thriller Machine Gun McCain.

Faces (1968)

Faces (1968) was the second film directed and financed individually by Cassavetes. The film stars his wife Gena Rowlands, John Marley, Seymour Cassel and Val Avery, along with a number of up and coming actors, such as lead starlet Lynn Carlin. It illustrates the slow disintegration of a modern marital relationship. The film apparently took 3 years to make, and was mostly shot in Cassavetes’ home. Faces was nominated for 3 Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Around this time, Cassavetes established “Faces International” as a distribution company to handle all of his films. Volti (Faces), which had a huge impact on the development of independent cinema. Made on a budget of just $275,000, Cassavetes proved that great films could be made with just a 16mm Bolex, a group of friends, and a large creativity cinematic. Cassavetes becomes the most famous director of American independent cinema, and not only, making some must see movie.

Fifty years after its first screenings, here’s just a snippet of how it laid the groundwork for a new kind of film. Grainy film, with sometimes unlistenable sound and blurry close-ups. It seems an documentary in the form of fiction and leaves a great impression of authenticity. A film without any crew, shot in a spirit of pure fun and friendship, only the director and the actors/friends on stage. A radically independent and personal film that reaches audiences around the world. A film made above all because it seems that such a group, with an author like Cassavetes, could not have passed the time in a more profitable and exciting way.

Faces is a film that tenderly, honestly and uncompromisingly analyzes how we really live. This is something Cassavetes himself talks about: “I don’t think anyone in Europe knows that America really exists beyond what Hollywood shows them. So we would like to try and show them what Americans are really like… good and bad.”


Husbands (1970)

It is a 1970 American comedy-drama written and directed by John Cassavetes.Starring Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes as 3 middle-class men grappling with a midlife crisis following the death of a friend.Husbands is an extremely erratic, painful, deeply genuine, extremely misogynistic, at times boring, but also dazzling, with minutes of penetrating sincerity. An extreme, deeply individual work that still holds many surprises. Cassavetes made it clear that this was an autobiographical film; his older brother had actually died at the age of 30.

Gus, Harry and Archie are three happy husbands with families in rural New York. They are all experienced and driven men. The three met in college. They grew up together and now their young age is fading. When their best friend Stuart dies suddenly of a heart attack they spend 2 days out and about, playing basketball, riding trains and drinking. Harry goes home, has a fierce argument with his wife and chooses to fly to London. 


A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

A Woman Under the Influence is a 1974 American drama film written and directed by John Cassavetes. The story follows a woman (Gena Rowlands) whose unusual habits conflict with her working-class husband (Peter Falk) and his family. It earned 2 Oscar nominations, for Best Actress and for Best Director. 

Mabel Longhetti, a housewife and mom from Los Angeles, sends her three children to spend the night with her mother-in-law, but is extremely reluctant to do so. She is a problem drinker and exhibits strange habits. That night, she meets a guy in a bar and spends the night with him. She gets up early the next morning relatively bewildered and briefly argues with him before he leaves. Her husband, Nick, a construction manager, brings his crew to his home, stating that he regrets his “crazy” wife. She cooks everyone spaghetti and lunch is pleasant but then an argument ensues in which Nick gets angry at Mabel for dancing and flirting with other men.

Gina Rowlands creates a surprising characterization, the notes of desperation are absolutely hers. Peter Falk delivers an exciting role and the children are extremely well directed. The film is 2 hours and 35 minutes long and there are some very engaging scenes. It is a terribly complex and interesting film in which the characters are larger than life, and their delusions and sympathies, their battles exist on deep levels of feeling. Cassavetes is the ultimate writer and director at producing particular characters and then sticking with them through long, uncompromising scenes until we get them right, to anticipate what they’re going to do next, and even begin to understand why. 

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

It is a 1976 American neo-noir gangster film written and directed by John Cassavetes and starring Ben Gazzara. A raw and rough film, this is the second of their 3 collaborations. Gazzara’s character of strip club owner Cosmo Vittelli is partly based on a representation he had given to his friend Cassavetes in the 1970s. Gazzara specified that Vittelli, who cares a lot about the strange “artistic” element of his bar and who is faced with customers who are only there for naked women and care little for the creative value, was a sort of alter ego of Cassavetes himself . When John Cassavetes makes a gangster film, you can be sure it will look like no other. Unique director, Cassavetes resembles a jazz musician, an improviser.

Cosmo Vittelli runs a bar and owns Crazy Horse West on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Cosmo invests effort in choreographing the venue and creating the burlesque show, and fears her customers are only there to see the naked bodies of the dancers. Cosmo makes the final payment on a seven-year gambling debt to a chap named Marty, and in return welcomes him and his mob buddies to the club. Eager to commemorate his newfound freedom, Cosmo hits the town with his three favorite dancers (Margo, Rachel, and Sherry), and loses $23,000 in poker, reverting back to his former predicament. Cosmo says he will pay but Marty’s friends ask him to give Crazy Horse West as collateral. Anxious about keeping his company and dealing with debt, Cosmo drives the women to their homes.


Opening Night (1977)

Opening Night is a 1977 American mental drama film written and directed by John Cassavetes and starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, Paul Stewart, Zohra Lampert and Cassavetes. Gina Rowlands plays the lead alongside Cassavetes; the film also stars Gazzara and Joan Blondell. Rowlands plays an aging film star named Myrtle Gordon, who works in the theater and suffers from an individual crisis. Lonely and unloved by her peers, afraid of aging and constantly shunned by others because of her fame, she drinks alcohol and hallucinates after seeing a young fan die by mistake. In the end, Gordon fights against everything, playing the role of his life in a comedy. Rowlands won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 28th Berlin International Film Festival for her performance.

In common with the previous films, Cassavetes had a difficult time distributing this film in the United States. After a series of preview screenings, it opened on December 25, 1977 at the Fox Wilshire Theater in Los Angeles, and was a total commercial fiasco. The March screenings in New York City were also overlooked. The film was acquired by an American distributor in 1991, 2 years after Cassavetes’ death. In 1978, she attended the 28th Berlin International Film Festival where Gena Rowlands won the Silver Bear for Best Actress.

Gloria (1980)

Gloria is a 1980 American neo-noir gangster film written and directed by John Cassavetes. In the cast Gena Rowlands, Julie Carmen, Buck Henry and John Adames. Careful direction and a stellar character from Gena Rowlands are the best of this entertaining and captivating film, with a bad script redeemed by the efficiency of the acting. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa has listed Glory as one of his favorite films. Gina Rowlands had another Best Actress nomination. 

In the South Bronx, Jeri Dawn is on her way home with groceries. In the hall of her apartment, she walks past a man. The lady quickly gets on the elevator. She meets boyfriend Jack Dawn, an accountant for a New York City Mafia family, at her home. There is an agreement about Jack and his family, as he actually worked as an informant for the FBI. Unexpectedly, the neighbor, Gloria Swenson, rings the doorbell asking for coffee. Jeri urges Gloria to safeguard the children. Gloria, a mobster’s ex-girlfriend, tells Jeri she doesn’t like kids, but she reluctantly agrees. 

Knives (1978)

Cassavetes wrote the stage play Knives, the first variation of which allowed it to appear in the 1978 issue of On Stage, the quarterly publication of the American Community Theater Association, a department of the American Theater Association. The play was produced and directed as one of his Three Plays of Love and Hate at Hollywood, California’s Center Theater in 1981. The trio of plays consisted of variations of The Third Day Comes and Love Streams by Canadian playwright Ted Allan, the same of Cassavetes’ 1984 film of the same name.

Love Streams (1984)

Love Streams is a 1984 American film directed by John Cassavetes, in what would be his last independent production and penultimate work from director. The film tells the story of a middle-aged brother (Cassavetes) and sister (Gena Rowlands) who find themselves relying on each other after being abandoned by their loved ones. The film participated in the 34th Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Golden Bear. 

During a messy divorce from a spouse and son tired of her constantly agitated emotions, Sarah Lawson visits her brother Robert Harmon, an alcoholic playboy and writer who is in a relationship with Susan, a singer. Robert has gone to his ex-wife, who asks him to look after their eight-year-old boy, who he’s actually never met, for 24 hours. Robert’s son is horrified by his father’s hedonistic, decadent, womanizing world and demands to be driven home after an overnight trip to Las Vegas full of gambling and street women. 

Big Trouble (1986)

Cassavetes loathed the film Big Trouble (1986), which he took over during filming from Andrew Bergman, who wrote the initial screenplay for the film. The studio banned several of his picks for the film and ultimately edited most of them in a way Cassavetes didn’t agree with. 

Final Years

In January 1987, Cassavetes was ill, however he composed the three-act play Woman of Mystery and staged it in May and June at the Court Theatre. Cassavetes worked hard to produce one last film which was to be titled She’s Delevy. He remained in talks with Sean Penn for the lead, although financial and legal difficulties proved overwhelming and the project was forgotten until after Cassavetes’ death, when his son Nick finally directed it as She’s So Lovely (1997). A longtime alcoholic, Cassavetes died on February 3, 1989, at the age of 59, from cirrhosis of the liver. At the time of his death, Cassavetes had amassed a collection of over 40 unproduced film scripts and 3 unproduced plays. 


The Directorial Style of John Cassavetes


Cassavetes films aim to capture “little sensations” typically repressed by Hollywood cinema, emphasizing the character’s intimate relationships and emotions instead of plot, stylization or backstory. He typically provided challenging characters whose inner longings weren’t quickly understood, rejecting mere mental or narrative descriptions for their habits. Cassavetes ignored the “impressionist cinematography, direct editing, and star-centric scene-making” fashionable in Hollywood and art films. Rather, he worked to produce an informal and comfortable environment in which actors could easily try out characters and overcome acting clichés. 

The aesthetics of Faces could be judged unprofessional and cheap by a large part of the audience addicted to the cinema/product with which the mainstream media has molded the brains of the mass audience. A bit like Muccino spoke about Pasolini’s films calling them “amateur”. But the acting of Faces was his strong point that convinced everyone: so naturalistic, spontaneous and emotional that it far exceeded most of the big industrial productions.

And although the aesthetics of the documentary of the film helps to give the feeling of peering into this world from a kitchen window, Cassavetes wanted people to see beyond the images to feel the art. “Our films aren’t necessarily photography, they’re sensations,” he explains. “And if we can capture the feeling of a people, of a way of life, then we have made a good film. That’s all we want to do. We want to capture a feeling.the


The Improvisation of the Actors

Cassavetes rejected the supremacy of the director’s particular vision, thinking rather that each character should be the actor’s “private production” and refusing to describe the characters to his actors in a rigid way. According to him the unity of storytelling drains the humanity out of a text, and people’s stories are more intriguing than a contrived story that exists only in the imagination. He regularly shot scenes in long takes arguing,

“The drama of the scenes arises naturally from the genuine flow time spent by the actors. The camera is not satisfied with simply following the actions and words of the characters. I focus on particular gestures and oddities. It is by focusing on these little things – the mood, the silences, the short stops and jitters – that emerges the character and the actor, in a position where they could kick their ass without feeling that they are exposing things that they would will be used against them”. 

The way Cassavetes used improvisation is regularly misunderstood: with the exception of Shadows, his films were securely scripted. He allowed the actors to translate the characters in their own way and often rephrased the scripts based on the results of the rehearsals. He said, “I believe in improvisation based on the written word and not on unbridled imagination.” Cassavetes said, “The hardest thing for a director, or an individual like me, is to discover people…who really want to do something…They have to tackle a job that is their own.” This approach varies considerably from the sets’ handled by the director” of big-budget Hollywood productions.


Cassavetes Independent Production

Cassavetes provided the inspiration for what was to become the independent film movement in America…he invested much of his profession making his films ‘off the grid’ so to speak. .. not confined by the Hollywood business. To make the kind of film he wanted to make, it was important to operate in this ‘common’, ‘off the grid’ environment, as Hollywood’s ‘base is financial rather than philosophical or political’, and no Hollywood executive was interested in Hollywood’s studios. Cassavetes research on human behavior. He mortgaged his house to get the funds to make A Woman Under the Influence, instead of seeking money from a financier who might try to alter the script to make the film more profitable.

Cassavetes tells of non-existent dollies and dollies, of a do-it-yourself skill which, thanks to video, has become a practice of thousands of young filmmakers over the last 40 years. Keeping the rights to the film and owning it, finding all possible technical solutions to make up for the lack of funds, dealing with distribution: Cassavetes was the true pioneer of modern indie cinema with a 16 mm light film camera instead of today’s digital cameras . If he had today’s technology who knows what he would have done.



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