Independent filmmaker John Cassavetes made two memorable appearances at the International: in 1970, for a tribute to the director’s early improvisational films Shadows and Faces; and again in 1984, accompanied by his wife and frequent acting partner Gena Rowlands.
Photo: John Cassavetes spoke after a screening of his film Husbands at the 1970 SFIFF; he returned for a tribute with wife and collaborater Gena Rowlands in 1984. Photos by ©Morton Beebe and Wendy Smith.
By Steven Jenkins
“We’ve forgotten how to have a good time,” John Cassavetes opined with a lopsided grin in front of a packed house at the Palace of Fine Arts during his first Festival tribute in 1970, referring to the widespread ennui clouding American society during that ’Nam-numbed era. “We look to it in drugs, in booze, in violence, and it isn’t there,” he went on, imploring the audience to seek solace in purer pursuits, both behavioral and cinematic. “We must find out how to do it because it’s the reason for being alive.”
Cassavetes certainly knew how to enjoy himself, and although he encountered plenty of frustration and disappointment during three decades of fiercely independent filmmaking—usually in the suit-and-tied form of producers and distributors who repeatedly tried to shoehorn his idiosyncratic, heavily improvised dramas (including Shadows, Faces and A Woman Under the Influence) into more accessible, commercially viable fare—he never lost his infectious zest for living it up. Even when his films detailed with excruciating honesty the everyday despair and bouts of madness endured by desperate housewives, drunken husbands, Chinese bookies and gun molls on the run, Cassavetes made room amid his frantically active mise-en-scène for joyous, jazzy interludes, impassioned kisses and riotous nights out on the town.
It was on one such night, in the chilly, rain-swept October of SFIFF14, that Cassavetes appeared at the Palace to look back at the first ten years of his directing career (he’d made his mark even earlier as a prolific television actor and recently had starred in Rosemary’s Baby as Mia Farrow’s devilish husband). After an inauspicious start—toilets overflowed into the film storage room during the Opening Night screening of Martin Ritt’s lukewarmly received The Great White Hope, bringing to mind a line from Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz: “I think about you so much, I forget to go to the bathroom”—excitement around the Festival built steadily as Paul Newman, Rosalind Russell and David Lean arrived for tributes. Among such illustrious company representing several generations of Hollywood professionalism, Cassavetes no doubt seemed just a tad out of place, a shoot-from-the-hip renegade espousing the necessity of artistic freedom at any cost. The Festival and its devoted audiences have always welcomed anti-industry outsiders, however, and more than 1,000 cineastes braved the storm to celebrate Cassavetes’ unique achievements throughout the ’60s, when he almost single-handedly redefined narrative indie film with his emphasis on rough-edged improvisation, neorealist aesthetics and naked emotions.
Looking back at clips from the Beat-influenced interracial romance Shadows and the alcohol-soaked infidelity drama Faces, Cassavetes fondly recalled the happenstance conditions and on-the-spot inventiveness—scripts be damned—of a filmmaking approach that resulted in such deeply moving works. When Cassavetes pointed out that 50–90 percent of these films were improvised, a clearly perturbed woman stood up and asked, “Don’t you think in all forms that if you don’t have discipline you end up with a company of Portnoys?” Missing the reference to Philip Roth’s famously onanistic protagonist, Cassavetes fumbled for an answer until frequent colleague and close friend Ben Gazzara, also on stage, leaned over to explain the woman’s reference to masturbatory methodology. For once unable to improv a witty retort, Cassavetes merely shrugged and muttered, “I don’t know.”
He was far more certain regarding two other films he directed during the ’60s, Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting, noticeably less risky ventures on which he was denied final cut, which lack his customary improvisational zeal and with which he expressed lingering dissatisfaction. Despite obvious signs of misbegotten tampering by studio execs trying to smooth out Cassavetes’ signature quirks, both films are still worth a look.
When asked by an audience member about his penchant for extreme close-ups that reveal his characters’ outer shows of bravado, confusion and pain as well as their inner conflicts and jumbled motivations, Cassavetes responded, with just a hint of faux-naïve self-deprecation, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just have the camera follow the people and the action the best it can.”
While this claim of inadvertent directorial choice belies a careful eye for composition and detail, it also reveals Cassavetes’ steadfast devotion to his actors, a gifted ensemble featuring Gazzara, Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel and of course Gena Rowlands, his wife, muse and leading lady. Cassavetes kept the group close together, always ready to portray lonely Lotharios, seedy salesmen and madcap misfits, and he doted on their unconventional performances.
“Movie directors are usually the enemy of the actor,” Cassavetes rued at the tribute. “They’re in cahoots with the producers and studios, and their primary concern is bringing the picture in on time. The actor has to conform to the camera positions and the lights, and it should be the other way around.”
Cassavetes gleefully let the actors—himself included—dictate the filmic processes and dramatic possibilities of his 1970 film, Husbands, shown that evening at the Palace. This unflinching look at the dashed expectations and relationship foibles of a trio of middle-aged men on a rollicking odyssey through the bottom of a shot glass polarized viewers of that much-discussed midnight screening. Writing in The Times, John Russell Taylor panned several of the Festival’s big films such as Pancho Kohner’s The Bridge in the Jungle and Jorge Sanjinés’s Blood of the Condor, then championed Cassavetes’ two-and-a-half-hour opus. “Here we were at once handed the thrill of the real thing,” he wrote, suggesting that the film’s running time be trimmed to a tighter, more cohesive two hours, but not before praising “the long, long vomiting scene involving the three husbands out on a drunk after their best friend’s funeral, which is painful and funny and absolutely true.” (Said scene prompted Dave McIntyre of the San Diego Evening Tribune to publicly wonder, “That’s entertainment?”) In contrast, famously opinionated San Francisco Chronicle film critic Judy Stone surmised the film as the Festival’s “most unanimously detested. . . . About ten percent of the audience had walked out of what may just be the most self-indulgent movie ever made.”
The 90 percent of the crowd that sat through Husbands in its entirety until the wee hours engaged in spirited debate with a weary but ebullient Cassavetes. One audience member interpreted the film as a critique of typically crude middle-class American jocks, then admitted he wasn’t sure what to think when Cassavetes insisted that the actors were essentially playing themselves. “We’re professional actors and amateur people,” he quipped. Other viewers charged the ostensibly ultraliberal Cassavetes with racism for having the characters in the film refer to a Chinese woman as a “chink,” to which he responded, “I don’t say that these men are totally admirable. But who is? If there’s one of you who hasn’t made a racial slur at one time or another, my hat’s off to you.”
As the evening ended with a standing ovation for the “amateur person,” Cassavetes again advised the crowd to have a good time. “When it gets right down to it,” he said, “aside from my family, only two things are important: gambling and women. Or, in other words, having a good time. That’s what it’s all about. All the rest is something you promise your mother, your wife, your sister, your God and your country.”
Broken promises—a mainstay of Cassavetes’ oeuvre—notwithstanding, the filmmaker bowed out that rainy night with a typically tragicomic prophecy: “This crowd gives me hope. Even if my films are failures, I can see I have a terrific future at these retrospectives.”
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Heeding his own prophecy, Cassavetes returned to the Festival in 1984 for another tribute, this time accompanied by Rowlands. Program Director Peter Scarlet hinted at the Festival press conference that the special guests would be a well-known husband and wife, but not until several weeks later was the duo’s in-person event officially announced. Throngs of admirers filled the Castro Theatre April 22 for a memorable afternoon of clips and conversation, with Cassavetes as charming and erudite as he’d been 14 years prior, and Rowlands vivifying the proceedings with her inimitable down-to-earth chic.
Little had changed since the first tribute. Writing in the Festival program guide, David Thomson noted that Cassavetes “persists in making complex, personal feature films, outside the Hollywood conventions of narrative pace and funding.” He’d most recently done so with Love Streams, in which Cassavetes and Rowlands play siblings whose relationship is fraught with a characteristic blend of affection, loyalty, turmoil and betrayal. The film was shot in the couple’s private home in Los Angeles, thus further blurring the line between fact and fiction in their onscreen relationship. “Our film life and real life are almost interchangeable,” Rowlands told Carl Maves of the Peninsula Times Tribune.
Having just won a Golden Bear in Berlin, the film was slated to screen at the Festival until its noncommittal distributor pulled the print at the last moment, fearing that a negative reaction would ruin the film’s box-office potential. (Predictably, it tanked regardless.) Programmers scrambled behind the scenes to fill the vacated slot and were fortunate to track down a copy of Opening Night, a little-seen Cassavetes gem from 1977 in which he, Rowlands and Gazzara star alongside former bombshell Joan Blondell. Despite its pedigree, the film had never before shown in San Francisco. In addition, audiences were treated to screenings of Gloria and A Woman Under the Influence.
In a conversation with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Edward Guthmann, published on the day of the tribute, Cassavetes and Rowlands assessed their unique status as seat-of-the-pants free spirits both on and off screen. “I’ve had a very strange life. I’ve never been a mainstreamer,” the director stated with a matter-of-factness that couldn’t quite mask a hard-earned sense of pride. “I have a different way of thinking, which doesn’t necessarily conform to lifestyles.” Echoing her romantic and professional partner, Rowlands summed up their ethos with a clarity that so many Cassavetes characters strive for but never quite achieve: “Doing the fashionable thing is the kiss of death.”
Cassavetes continued to do the unfashionable thing for another five years, though he only directed one more film, Big Trouble, before succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1989. Rowlands remains active as a brilliant actress; recently, the grande dame of independent film appeared in daughter Zoe Cassavetes’ first feature narrative, Broken English (SFIFF 2007), carrying on her husband’s legacy of performing without artifice and having a hell of a good time.