Cassavetes, John

views updated May 21 2018


Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 9 December 1929. Education: Mohawk College, Colgate University, and New York Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduated 1950. Family: Married actress Gena Rowlands, 1958, two sons, one daughter. Career: Title character in TV series Johnny Staccato, 1959–60; directed first film, Shadows, 1960; hired by Paramount, then by Stanley Kramer, 1961; worked as independent filmmaker, from 1964. Awards: Critics Award, Venice Festival, for Shadows, 1960; Best Screenplay, National Society of Film Critics, and five awards from Venice Festival, for Faces, 1968; Golden Lion, Venice Festival, for Gloria, 1980; Golden Bear, Berlin Festival, for Love Streams, 1984; Los Angeles Film Critics Career Achievement Award, 1986. Died: Of cirrhosis of the liver, in Los Angeles, 3 February 1989.

Films as Director:


Shadows (+ sc)


Too Late Blues (+ sc, pr)


A Child Is Waiting


Faces (+ sc)


Husbands (+ sc, role as Gus)


Minnie and Moskowitz (+ sc, role as Husband)


A Woman under the Influence (+ sc)


The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (+ sc)


Opening Night (+ sc)




Love Streams


Big Trouble

Other Films:


Fourteen Hours (Hathaway) (role as extra)


Taxi (Ratoff) (role)


The Night Holds Terror (Stone) (role)


Crime in the Streets (Siegel) (role)


Edge of the City (Ritt) (role)


Saddle the Wind (Parrish) (role); Virgin Island (P. Jackson) (role)


The Webster Boy (Chaffey) (role)


The Killers (Siegel) (role as Johnny North)


The Dirty Dozen (Aldrich) (role as Victor Franko); Devil's Angels (Haller) (role)


Rosemary's Baby (Polanski) (role as Rosemary's husband); Gli Intoccabili (Machine Gun McCain) (Montaldo) (role)


Roma coma Chicago (Bandits in Rome) (De Martino) (role); If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (M. Stuart) (cameo role)


Two-Minute Warning (Pearce) (role); Mikey and Nicky (May) (role)


The Fury (De Palma) (role)


The Tempest (Mazursky) (role)



Faces, New York, 1970.

John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, edited by Bruce Henstell, Washington,

D.C., 1972.

By CASSAVETES: articles—

"What's Wrong with Hollywood," in Film Culture (New York), April 1959.

" . . . and the Pursuit of Happiness," in Films and Filming (London), February 1961.

"Incoming Tide: Interview," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), no. 1, 1962.

"Faces: Interview," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), Spring 1968.

"Masks and Faces: Interview," with David Austen, in Films andFilming (London), September 1968.

"The Faces of the Husbands," in New Yorker, 15 March 1969. Interview with Jonas Mekas, in Village Voice (New York), 23 December 1971.

Interview with L. Gross, in Millimeter (New York), April 1975.

"Shadows Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 December 1977.

"Cassavetes on Cassavetes," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), June 1978.

"Le Bal des vauriens. Entretien avec John Cassavetes," with Y. Lardeau and L. Marcorelles, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1978.

"Crucial Culture," interview with R. Appelbaum, in Films (London), January 1981.

"Retracting the Stream of Love," an interview with Richard Combs, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), April 1984.

Interview with Brian Case, in Stills (London), June-July 1984.

Interview in Film Comment (New York), July-August 1988.


Loeb, Anthony, editor, Filmmakers in Conversation, Chicago, 1982.

Alexander, Georg, and others, John Cassavetes, Munich, 1983.

Carney, Raymond, American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetesand the American Experience, Berkeley, 1985.

Gavron, Laurence, and Denis Lenoir, John Cassavetes, Paris, 1986.

Carney, Raymond, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism,Modernism, and the Movies, Cambridge and New York, 1994.

Amiel, Vincent, Le corps au cinéma: Keaton, Bresson, Cassavetes, Paris, 1998.

On CASSAVETES: articles—

Taylor, John Russell, "Cassavetes in London," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1960.

Mekas, Jonas, "Cassavetes, the Improvisation," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1962.

Sarris, Andrew, "Oddities and One-Shots," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1963.

Guerin, A., "After Faces, a Film to Keep the Man-Child Alive," in Life (New York), 9 May 1969.

"Robert Aldrich on John Cassavetes," in Dialogue on Film (Washington, D.C.), no. 2, 1972.

Benoit, C., and A. Tournes, "Femmes et maris dans l'oeuvre de Cassavetes," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), September/October 1976.

Simsolo, Noel, "Notes sur le cinéma de John Cassavetes," in Cahiersdu Cinéma (Paris), May 1978.

Courant, G., and J. Farren, "John Cassavetes," in Cinéma (Paris), October 1979.

Stevenson, J., "John Cassavetes: Film's Bad Boy," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), January/February 1980.

Landy, M., and S. Shostack, "The Cinema of John Cassavetes," in Ciné-Tracts (Montreal), Winter 1980.

Prades, J., "La méthode de Cassavetes," in Cinématographe (Paris), April 1982.

"John Cassavetes Section" in Positif (Paris), January 1985.

Doorn, F. van, "Wonderkind en eeuwige angry young man," in Skoop, vol. 25, February 1989.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 8 February 1989.

Obituary in Time Out (London), 15 February 1989.

Brent, Lewis, "Cassavetes Recalled," Films and Filming, no. 414, April 1989.

Carney, R., "Complex Characters," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 25, May-June 1989.

Katzman, L., "Moment by Moment," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 25, May-June 1989.

Seesslen, G., "Liebesstroeme, Todesbilder," in EPD Film (Frankfurt/Main), vol. 6, June 1989.

Roy, A., "Flots de vie, flots de cinema," in 24 Images (Montreal), no. 43, Summer 1989.

Mongin, O., "Courants d'amour et de haine," in Esprit, no. 7, July-August 1990.

Viera, M., "The Work of John Cassavetes: Script, Performance Style, and Improvisation," in Journal of Film and Video (Atlanta), vol. 42, no. 3, Fall 1990.

Sayles, J., "Maverick Movie Makers Inspire Their Successors," in New York Times, 12 May 1991.

Hoberman, J., "Cassavetes and Leigh: Poets of the Ordinary," in Premiere (Boulder), vol. 5, October 1991.

Ciment, M., and others, "John Cassavetes," in Positif (Paris), special section, vol. 377, June 1992.

Gelmis, J., "Aussi longtemps que nous restons fous," in Positif (Paris), no. 377, June 1992.

Bendetto, L., "Forging an Original Response: A Review of Cassavetes Criticism in English," in Post Script (Commerce, Texas), vol. 11, no. 2, 1992.

Carney, R., "A Polemical Introduction: The Road Not Taken," in Post Script (Commerce, Texas), vol. 11, no. 2, 1992.

Viera, M., "Cassavetes' Working Methods: Interviews with Al Ruban and Seymour Cassel," in Post Script (Commerce, Texas), vol. 11, no. 2, 1992.

Zucker, C., "The Illusion of the Ordinary: John Cassavetes and the Transgressive Impulse in Performance and Style," in Post Script (Commerce, Texas), vol. 11, no. 2, 1992.

Landrot, M., "L'enfant terrible," in Télérama (Paris), 1 September 1993.

Cassavetes, J., "Peut-etre n'y a-t-il pas vraiment d'Amerique, peutetre seulement Frank Capra," in Positif (Paris), no. 392, October 1993.

Norman, B., in Radio Times (London), 2 October 1993.

Carels, E., "Love, Love, Love . . . ," in Andere Sinema (Antwerp), no. 118, November-December 1993.

Levich, J., "John Cassavetes: An American Maverick," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 20, 1993.

Scorsese, Martin, "Ida Lupino, John Cassavetes, Glauber Rocha: Trois portraits en forme d'hommage," Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 500, March 1996.

Chéné, Marie, and others, "John Cassavetes," Positif (Paris), no. 431, January 1997.

* * *

As perhaps the most influential of the independently produced feature films of its era (1958–1967), Shadows came to be seen as a virtual breakthrough for American alternative cinema. The film and its fledgling writer-director had put a group of young, independent filmmakers on the movie map, together with their more intellectual, less technically polished, decidedly less commercial, low-budget alternatives to Hollywood features.

Begun as an improvisational exercise in the method-acting workshop that actor John Cassavetes was teaching, and partly financed by his earnings from the Johnny Staccato television series, Shadows was a loosely plotted, heavily improvised work of cinema verité immediacy that explored human relationships and racial identity against the background of the beat atmosphere of the late 1950s, given coherence by the jazz score of Charles Mingus.

The origins and style of Shadows were to characterize John Cassavetes's work throughout his directorial career, once he got the studio-financed production bug out of his system—and his system out of theirs.

The five prizes garnered by Shadows, including the prestigious Critics Award at the 1960 Venice Film Festival, led to Cassavetes's unhappy and resentful experience directing two studio-molded productions (Too Late Blues, A Child Is Waiting), both of which failed critically and commercially. Thereafter, he returned to independent filmmaking, although he continued to act in mainstream movies such as The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary's Baby, and Two Minute Warning. He continued directing feature films, however, in his characteristic, controversial style.

That style centers around a freedom afforded his actors to share in the creative process. Cassavetes's scripts serve as sketchy blueprints for the performers' introspective explorations and emotional embellishments. Consequently, camera movements, at the command of the actors' intuitive behavior, are of necessity spontaneous.

The amalgam of improvisational acting, hand-held camera work, grainy stock, loose editing, and threadbare plot give his films a texture of recreated rather than heightened reality, often imbuing them with a feeling of astonishing psychodramatic intensity as characters confront each other and lay bare their souls. Detractors, however, see Cassavetes as too dedicated to the performers' art and too trusting of the actor's self-discipline. They charge that the result is too often a mild form of aesthetic anarchy.

At worst Cassavetes's films are admittedly formless and self-indulgent. Scenes are stretched excruciatingly far beyond their climactic moments, lines are delivered falteringly, dialogue is repetitious. But, paradoxically, these same blemishes seem to make possible the several lucid, provocative, and moving moments of transcendent human revelation that a Cassavetes film almost inevitably delivers.

As his career progressed, Cassavetes changed his thematic concerns, upgraded his technical production values, and, not surprisingly, attracted a wider audience—but without overhauling his actor-asauteur approach.

Faces represented Cassavetes's return to his favored semi-documentary style, complete with the seemingly obligatory excesses and gaffes. But the film also contained moments of truth and exemplary acting. Not only did this highly charged drama about the disintegration of a middle-class marriage in affluent Southern California find favor with the critical and filmmaking communities, it broke through as one of the first independent films to find a sizable audience among the general moviegoing public.

In Husbands, Cassavetes continued his exploration of marital manners, morals, and sexual identity by focusing on a trio of middle-class husbands—played by Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, and Peter Falk—who confront their own mortality when a friend dies. Director Cassavetes's doubled-edged trademark—brilliant moments of intense acting amid the banal debris of over-indulgence—had never been in bolder relief.

Minnie and Moskowitz was Cassavetes's demonstration of a lighter touch, an amusing and touching interlude prior to his most ambitious and commercially successful film. The film starred Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes's wife) and Seymour Cassel as a pair of dissimilar but similarly lonely people ensnared in a manic romance. Cassavetes again examined miscommunication in Minnie and Moskowitz, but in a much more playful vein.

A Woman under the Influence was by far Cassavetes's most polished, accessible, gripping, and technically proficient film. For this effort, Cassavetes departed from his accustomed style of working by writing a fully detailed script during pre-production. Starring Gena Rowlands in a magnificent performance as a lower-middle class housewife coming apart at the seams, and the reliable Peter Falk as the hardhat husband who is ill-equipped to deal with his wife's mental breakdown, Woman offered a more palatable balance of Cassavetes's strengths and weaknesses. The over-long scenes and overindulgent acting jags are there, but in lesser doses, while the privileged moments and bursts of virtuoso screen acting seem more abundant than usual.

Financed by Falk and Cassavetes, the film's crew and cast (including many family members) worked on deferred salaries. Promoted via a tour undertaken by the nucleus of the virtual repertory company (Cassavetes, Rowland, Falk) and booked without a major distributor, Woman collected generally ecstatic reviews, Academy Award nominations for Cassavetes and Rowlands, and impressive box office returns.

Cassavetes's next two films (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night) feature a return to his earlier structure (or lack thereof)—inaccessible, interminable, and insufferable for all but diehard buffs. However, Gloria, which showcased Rowlands as a former gangster's moll, while uneven in tone and erratic in pace, represented a concession by Cassavetes to filmgoers seeking heightened cinematic energy and narrative momentum.

"People who are making films today are too concerned with mechanics—technical things instead of feeling," Cassavetes told an interviewer in 1980. "Execution is about eight percent to me. The technical quality of a film doesn't have much to do with whether it's a good film."

—Bill Wine

John Cassavetes

views updated May 14 2018

John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes (1929-1989) was one of the most highly acclaimed independent filmmakers in America. He was widely honored for motion pictures that successfully brought to the screen believable portrayals of real human emotion.

The younger of two sons of Greek immigrants, Nicholas and Katherine Cassavetes, he was born in New York City on December 9, 1929. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to nearby Long Island, where John grew up and attended public schools in Sands Point and Port Washington. He attended Mohawk College and Colgate University, both in upstate New York, before enrolling at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts, from which he graduated in 1950.

Failed to Win Broadway Parts

Cassavetes' hopes of launching his acting career on the New York stage were frustrated, sending him to Rhode Island where he appeared with a theatrical repertory company in Providence from 1950 until 1952. His film career began in 1952 when he was given a small role in Taxi, a motion picture directed by Gregory Ratoff. In 1954, Cassavetes began acting in live television productions, including those produced for Omnibus, Studio One, Playhouse 90, and Kraft Theater. In most of these early dramatic roles, Cassavetes was cast as a "troubled youth." He later appeared in a handful of motion pictures that had been adapted from these early teleplays.

While teaching method acting at a theater workshop in New York, Cassavetes came up with an idea for his first independent film project. He became convinced that one of the improvisations done in the drama workshop could be developed into a film. Appearing on Jean Shepherd's late-night radio talk show, he invited listeners who wanted to see an alternative to what was being turned out by the big Hollywood studios to send him some money to fund the project. He received donations totaling about $20,000. An additional $20,000 was raised from among his friends in show business and from his own savings. With this meager financing, Cassavetes began work on his first feature film, a daring statement on race relations called Shadows. The film related the story of a light-skinned black girl and her two brothers in New York City. But it was the manner in which it was made that clearly set Shadows apart. Cassavetes laid out roughly defined parameters and set his actors free to improvise within those scenarios. In this manner, the film's story line gradually evolved as the film was shot intermittently over a period of two years. He filmed the action with a hand-held 16mm camera and arranged to have the film's musical score composed by jazz bassist Charlie Mingus. The finished sound track featured horn solos by Shafi Hadi. Village Voice film critic Jonas Mekas said of Shadows: "The tones and rhythms of a new America are caught in Shadows for the very first time."

American Distributors Showed No Interest

Cassavetes was unable to interest any American distributors in Shadows and took the film to Europe where it was received enthusiastically, most notably at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Critics Award. A British distributor finally agreed to release the film in the United States. Impressed by the filmmaker's first outing, Paramount hired Cassavetes to make a series of films. However, the studio sacked him after his first attempt in the series, Too Late Blues, was poorly received both critically and popularly. He next directed A Child is Waiting for United Artists and Stanley Kramer. This creative collaboration, fractious from the start, ended badly when Kramer gave Cassavetes only two weeks to edit the film. Kramer than re-cut Cassavetes' finished product, producing a final version that Cassavetes complained was overly sentimental. These experiences soured Cassavetes on the idea of working for the big Hollywood studios. He longed for an opportunity to retain total artistic control over his projects.

Once again Cassavetes fell back on acting to raise the money he needed to finance his filmmaking projects. He appeared in a number of high-profile films, including Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and The Dirty Dozen. For the latter he was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor. Although he was only interested in making films that he liked and believed in, his standards were relaxed a good deal when it came to choosing acting assignments. "I'd rather work in a sewer than make a film I don't like," Cassavetes was quoted in People magazine. "Sometimes I will act in them however."

His next project, after he accumulated enough money from acting, was the critically acclaimed Faces, which was again filmed in 16mm and shot over a period of three years. Like Shadows, the film was shot in cinema verite style. However, unlike its predecessor, it was both a critical and financial success, earning more than ten million dollars at the box office. Moreover, the motion picture won five awards from the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for three Academy Awards.

Worked with Studios

On the heels of Faces, Cassavetes returned to the studios, but this time with the promise that he would be guaranteed complete artistic control. Among his films made with studio backing were 1970's Husbands for Columbia and Minnie and Moskowitz, a comedy for Universal in 1971. Husbands focused on the relationship between three men forced to confront their own mortality when they attend the funeral of a mutual friend. Cassavetes not only directed the film but also acted in it with close friends Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. Vincent Canby of the New York Times hailed Minnie and Moskowitz as Cassavetes' most ambitious work up to that point, but suggested that it failed as a comedy. "Mr. Cassavetes' use of exaggerated slapstick gestures to underscore the loneliness and fears of his characters is more interesting in theory than funny or moving in actual fact." Canby, however, was impressed by Cassavetes' selection of actors for the project. "As an actor," Canby wrote, "he appreciates actors and their mysterious art, as well as their awful dependence on the work of others. This explains why he casts his films so abundantly."

Returning to projects he financed on his own, Cassavetes in 1974 released A Woman under the Influence, which starred his wife of 20 years, Gena Rowlands. Considered by many to be his most commercial film, Woman also featured close friend Falk and earned Cassavetes an Academy Award nomination as best director. The motion picture related the story of middle-aged Mabel Longhetti (played by Rowlands) who is committed to a mental institution by her mother and husband, acting in concert. Of Cassavetes' directorial skill, film critic Pauline Kael wrote: "His special talent is for showing intense suffering from nameless causes; Cassavetes and Pinter both give us an actor's view of human misery. It comes out as metaphysical realism: we see the tensions and the power plays but never know the why of anything." Kael's review was not without criticism of Cassavetes, suggesting that his direction had "a muffled quality: his scenes are often unshaped and so rudderless that the meanings don't emerge."

Cassavetes himself acknowledged that he'd taken chances with Woman, saying, "It's naive in that sense, because we weren't sure that people would want to see family life, family life with problems, not hyped up… ." Also favorably impressed with the film was critic Paul Zimmerman, who wrote: "Every film is a risk, but Cassavetes is the biggest gambler around, betting that he can make enough magic out of inspiration and improvisation to keep his characters from boring us to death. For two and a half hours, he wins and loses from scene to scene until, battered, exasperated but close to tears, we surrender."

Far less successful than Woman was Cassavetes' next film, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the tale of a strip-joint owner who resorts to murder to handle a gambling debt. It was panned by most film critics. Typical of the reviews was this observation from Frank Rich: " … the style intentionally obscures what paltry drama there is." Even less kind was Judith Crist, who called Killing "a mess, as sloppy in concept as it is in execution, as pointless in thesis as it is in concept."

Final Three Projects

During the final decade of his life, Cassavetes worked on three major projects, all of which were backed by Hollywood studios. Gloria was taken on largely as a favor to his wife, who played the title role. Although he considered the story to be a potboiler, he undertook the project to provide Rowlands with a chance to play the role of a "sexy but tough woman who doesn't really need a man," a way in which she sometimes thought of herself. Of the story line, Cassavetes later observed: "Gloria celebrates the coming together of a woman who neither likes nor understands children and a boy who believes he's man enough to stand on his own." Shortly before shooting began on Gloria, Cassavetes' father died, contributing perhaps to the film's seeming preoccupation with the theme of death.

Although critics hailed Gloria as his "finest work," the film enjoyed only modest success at the box office. Cassavetes felt in retrospect about the film much as he had before taking it on. He later recalled: "It was television fare as a screenplay but handled by the actors to make it better. It's an adult fairy tale. And I never pretended it was anything else but fiction. I always thought I understood [it]. And I was bored because I knew the answer to that picture the minute we began. And that's why I could never be wildly enthusiastic about the picture—because it's so simple."

Other films made by Cassavetes during the 1980s included Love Streams, released by Cannon in 1984, and the disastrous Big Trouble, released in 1985. It was to be Cassavetes' final project, which was unfortunate because the film was so bad he was embarrassed to have his name attached to it. When the film's screenwriter and original director, Andrew Bergman, quit the project, Cassavetes stepped in to replace him as director.

Cassavetes died before independent films began to break into the commercial mainstream. As Jacob Levich wrote in a 1994 tribute in Cineaste, it is doubtful that Cassavetes' work ever would have found wide favor with backers, distributors, or audiences. "It is hard to believe that the irascible, fiercely individualistic Cassavetes—who never gave a damn what people thought of his films, or whether they made money—would be any more welcome among today's newly chic independent crowd than he was in the 'new Hollywood' of the Seventies." Levich wrote that in Cassavetes' view, "the filmmaker's highest calling was not to amuse, but to challenge, provoke, even exasperate. He was prepared, like a Brecht without politics, to do whatever might be necessary to interfere with the expectations of an increasingly complacent public."

Cassavetes died in Los Angeles on February 3, 1989, of complications arising from cirrhosis of the liver. Ben Gazzara, a close friend and one of the handful of actors that Cassavetes used regularly in his films, remembered the director fondly. "John was more interested in the surprise the actors gave him if let free with their imaginations," Gazzara told People magazine. "He hated the word auteur. He felt he made actors' films."


Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 7, Gale Research, 1989.

Newsmakers 1989, Gale Research, 1989.


Cineaste, January 1, 1994.

People, February 20, 1989.


"Cassavetes' Biography," (November 3, 2001).

"Chapter on the Making of Gloria (1979-1980)," http://people.bu/edu/rcarney/cassoncass/Gloria.htm (November 4, 2001).

"John Cassavetes," Contemporary Authors Online, (November 2, 2001). □

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