the renaissance man:

john cassavetes

by james vickery


If Orson Welles is the godfather of independent cinema, then John Cassavetes is surely God himself. A New York-born writer-director-actor of Greek extraction, he was financing, creating, and distributing his films independently long before the indie cinema boom of the 1990s. Whilst Welles’ maverick status is under no doubt, the revolutionary impact of Cassavetes continues to be criminally overlooked outside of independent film circles.

It is telling and suitably ironic that the first of Cassavetes’ three Oscar nominations came in 1968. The same year saw the release of his long-gestating relationship drama Faces, his fourth outing as director. With its stark portrayal of a marriage in meltdown, Faces represented a new kind of American film, it was stripped down, improvisatory, immersive and volatile. Like Cassavetes’ first feature, 1959’s Shadows, Faces would go on to inspire the aesthetics and practices of the American New Wave.



It is apt that Cassavetes was nominated not in the director’s category, but for his supporting role in the star-studded studio movie The Dirty Dozen. Featuring acting with a capital A, Robert Aldrich’s WWII drama is a pulpy and perfectly thrilling romp. However, it could not be further removed from the groundbreaking, deeply personal films Cassavetes directed, many of which are bona fide masterpieces.

This contrast says as much about Hollywood’s myopia when it comes to Cassavetes, as it does about the tenacious versatility of the man himself. As an on/off-again actor he was more than capable of rubbing shoulders with the elite, he was even considered for the lead in Rebel Without a Cause. He used roles in studio productions like The Dirty Dozen to fund his personal projects. He may not have invented American independent filmmaking, but he did catapult it into the public psyche, providing a workable (if reckless) blueprint on how to operate outside the mainstream Hollywood system.  

Excepting his own films, perhaps Cassavetes most iconic screen role came as Mia Farrow’s conceited husband in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Pointedly he plays a struggling thespian who literally sells his soul (and his unborn baby) to Satan in order to further his acting career. But while Cassavetes was reputedly exploitative in getting his films made, he was anything but soulless, steadfastly refusing to sell himself to that Lucifer called Hollywood. In an era when so-called ‘indie cinema’ has become a mega industry, wholly supported by the Tinseltown apparatus, Cassavetes’ stubborn belief in his own principles is remarkably refreshing.

Most films, even the best ones, are inherently artificial. However the work of Cassavetes is raw and unfiltered in its honesty. From the staggering performances onscreen to the intimate and intense filmmaking process off it, his films are embarrassing in their authenticity. For certain critics, like the influential Pauline Kael, his fascination with mining the true depths of his characters was a perpetual source of scorn and derision. As such, unlike many of the young filmmakers he inspired, Cassavetes retained his outsider status to the extent that in 1974 when he released A Woman Under the Influence he was still relying on self-distribution. The industry only paid attention after it became a box office hit. It is dumbfounding to think that during the 1970s, a fecund period for American cinema which saw the emergence of innovators like Spielberg and Scorsese (both of whom cut their teeth on Cassavetes’s projects), he remained relatively undervalued and ignored by the mainstream.

In spite of the industry rejection Cassavetes invigorated a generation of filmmakers, not least of which was Martin Scorsese, whose breakthrough film Mean Streets was heavily indebted to the sparse immediacy and hand-held camerawork he’d seen over a decade prior in Cassavetes’ Shadows. A beatnik infused tale of three African American siblings in 1950s New York, Shadows is slow to the boil but unfolds like an escalating concussive punch. As Scorsese describes it: ''You can't gauge the amount of hope that such an act created for young people. It was like a starting pistol for a race that still keeps going".

After two disheartening experiences shooting studio features in the early 1960s, Cassavetes returned to independent filmmaking with Faces. Brimming with naturalistic and seemingly improvised dialogue (all of Cassavetes films are actually tightly scripted) it had a feeling of spontaneity and reality that Hollywood had shied away from in the past. Shot in black and white in a verité style, Faces also represented the first great part bestowed upon his wife and muse Gena Rowlands.

The 1970s saw a slew of stellar Cassavetes films, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night. A superb run as good as any one of the heavyweight American directors of the era. The fact that he wrote films with complex female roles at a time when most of his contemporaries were obsessed with masculinity is also a testament to his egalitarian worldview. He wasn’t interested in gender or race, so much as he was interested in people.

Obsessed with human relationships and emotions, he explored difficult themes like racism, mental health, ageism and gender roles. Crucially, he gave actors the freedom to express themselves, to express vulnerability. His dialogue is way more than a mere contribution to plot, it highlights people clamouring to be heard. Where many performers tend to portray weakness in a way that belies their true selves, the lead actors in Cassavetes’ films are not afraid to bare their flaws before an audience.

Heartbreaking and unabashedly humanist, A Woman Under the Influence is in my opinion Cassavetes’ greatest film. Rowlands is never better than as the mentally unstable Mabel while long-time Cassavetes disciple Peter Falk puts in a career best performance as her despairing husband Nick. Shot almost entirely in Cassavetes’ house, the film is split into two parts, life before Mabel’s committal and after her homecoming, six months later.

Filmed with a rag tag crew of unpaid AFI students using borrowed equipment, the haphazard production encapsulates the DIY spirit that governed Cassavetes’ filmmaking. For example, during one outdoor scene, equipment was powered with electricity redirected from a city power cable. Such tales of roguish ingenuity are fundamental to the Cassavetes legend. Whether he was crowdfunding in the 1950s, stealing electricity, or continually mortgaging his house, Cassavetes wasn’t trying to create a legend, he was making films any way he could.

The animosity Cassavetes motivated is baffling. Like Welles, his films never guaranteed commercial success. Perhaps it was because he had the audacity to label himself an artist at a time when most critics preferred their art subtitled. Right up until his death in 1989 aged only 59, Cassavetes never relented his faith in movies, in their ability to move us, to connect us to people around us. For him art was not a word to be mocked, but the reason to be alive. Cassavetes not only pre-empted the likes of Scorsese, Jarmusch, Lee, and Linklater, he helped will them into creation. As Scorsese noted, after Shadows, there were "no more excuses" for aspiring filmmakers, "if he could do it, so could we".