John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes (December 9, 1929 - February 3, 1989) was an American actor, screenwriter, and director. Cassavetes created an American form of cinema verite with his innovative camera use, bleak outlook, and emphasis on improvisation. Film critic Ray Carney called him "the father of American independent film".

Cassavetes was born in New York City to Greek immigrants. He grew up in Long Island and attended Colgate University before moving to the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts. On graduation in 1950, he continued acting in the theater. By 1953, he was doing small parts in films; he continued to play a James Dean-like "juvenile delinquent" throughout the 1950s. Cassavetes also acted on television, which was still finding its feet as a medium. His experience working within television's budgetary and schedule limits influenced his later film production style.

During this time he met and married actress Gena Rowlands, a fellow television actor. By 1956 Cassavetes had begun teaching method acting in workshops in New York City. An improvisation exercise in one workshop inspired the idea for his writing and directorial debut, Shadows (1960). Cassavetes raised the funds for production from friends and family, as well as listeners to a late-night radio talk show.

Cassavetes was unable to get American distributors to carry Shadows, so he took it to Europe, where it won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. European distributors later released the movie in the United States as an import.

Although the viewership of Shadows in the United States was slight, it did gain attention from the Hollywood studios. Cassavetes directed two movies for Hollywood in the early 1960s — Too Late Blues and A Child is Waiting — but the experience was exasperating. The intervention of the studios, the lack of creative control, and the over-all dumbing down of his work was unbearable. Cassavetes refused to go through the process again.

His strategy, brought on by necessity, was to work as an actor in mainstream movies, and channel the funds he made there into his work as a director. He didn't just clockwatch as an actor, though; he did masterly work in blockbuster hits of the late 1960s, including World War II epic The Dirty Dozen (1967) — for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor — and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968).

His next independent film was Faces, which lay down new themes for later work. Starring Cassavetes's wife Rowlands, Faces depicted a contemporary suburban marriage in the process of slow disintegration, with the accompanying desperate and degrading sexual improprieties. Cassavetes held an unflinching camera on the pettiness and emotional greed of the distancing husband and wife and their lovers, but in the end the pathos of their story gives them an unexpected dignity. Faces was a critical and financial success, nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actor and Actress).

After Faces Cassavetes could concentrate more fully on his directorial work. He had enough leverage at this point that he could make movies in the studio system, yet retain full creative control. Husbands (1970) starred Cassavetes himself, with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. They play a trio of men escaping their marriages for minor peccadillos. Another in the 1970s include Minnie and Moskovitz, about a misdirected young woman seeking love, and starring Rowlands again with a small part for Cassavetes's mother, Katherine.

His two masterpieces of the 1970s, however, were made independently. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) stars Rowlands as an increasingly eccentric housewife trying to keep her hold on reality. Peter Falk played her husband, who tries to keep up a facade of normality, but ultimately makes the difficult decision of committing her to a mental institution. The characters were nuanced, and the ethical situations were measured in shades of gray. The wife's behavior, while disturbing and disconcerting for those around her, is not obviously dangerous or unstable. Rowlands is an expert collaborator in the story, playing Mabel with subtlety and energy; she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, while Cassavetes was nominated for Best Director.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) was a movie about the experience of men as much as Influence was about women. Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, a small-time strip-club owner with an out-of-control gambling habit, who is convinced by mobsters to commit a murder to pay off his debt. Driven by fear and uncertainty, Vitelli deceives friend and foe alike. Author Christos Tsiolkas said of Bookie that it showed "being a man means knowing gutlessness better than knowing courage, that failure stays with you long after success."

Cassavetes continued to work through the 1980s, although personal troubles with alcohol were beginning to take their toll. Gloria (1980) is a more conventional thriller starring Rowlands as a mob moll who runs off with a young boy orphaned by the mob and soon to be next. Love Streams (1984) starred Cassavetes as an aging lothario who suffers the overbearing affection of his recently divorced sister. Sadly, Cassavetes's last movie, Big Trouble (1986), was a last-minute project picked up as a favor when a younger director friend peremptorily quit the project. The movie, racked by incompatible studio and director edits, was, in Cassavetes's words, "a disaster". Already ill, he was heartbroken that it would be the last film he would do.

Cassavetes's personality was overpowering and driven. He lived to make film, and sacrificed his colleagues and himself to the process. The intense effort took its toll; an alcoholic, Cassavetes died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1989 at the age of only 59. He was survived by Rowlands, who continued to act, and three children. His son, Nick Cassavetes, followed in his father's footsteps, and made 1997's She's So Lovely from the elder Cassavetes's screenplay, and directed 2004's The Notebook.

A Note On Improvisation

Rowlands has stated that the role of improvisation in Cassavetes films has frequently been misunderstood. Though Cassavetes allowed and even encouraged his actors to ad lib while filming, only very rarely, she says, were entire scenes filmed as they were being improvised. Rather, Rowlands reports, the actors would improvise from Cassavetes' scripts during rehersals, then Cassavetes would rewrite scenes based on the improvisations.

Tributes

Fugazi, a rock music group who shared Cassavetes' independently-minded aesthetic, titled a song after the filmaker on their 1993 In On The Killtaker album. Lyrics include: "complete control for Cassavetes/if it's not for sale you can't buy it"

Selected Filmography

  • Shadows (1959)
  • Faces (1968)
  • Husbands (1970)
  • Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
  • A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
  • The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
  • Gloria (1980)
  • Love Streams (1984)

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Lyrics include: "complete control for Cassavetes/if it's not for sale you can't buy it". Corbett and his wife Maureen had two children, one of whom, Susannah Corbett, is an actress, best known for the role of Ellie Pascoe in the BBC's television adaptations of Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe detective novels. Fugazi, a rock music group who shared Cassavetes' independently-minded aesthetic, titled a song after the filmaker on their 1993 In On The Killtaker album. He had died of a massive heart attack in the March of that year, at the age of fifty-seven. Rather, Rowlands reports, the actors would improvise from Cassavetes' scripts during rehersals, then Cassavetes would rewrite scenes based on the improvisations. Corbett's final acting role was in an episode of the Anglia Television anthology drama series Tales of the Unexpected, shot before his death and eventually transmitted two months afterwards, in May 1982. Though Cassavetes allowed and even encouraged his actors to ad lib while filming, only very rarely, she says, were entire scenes filmed as they were being improvised. As with many other British comedy programmes of the era, there were also two theatrically-released Steptoe and Son films: Steptoe and Son (1972) and Steptoe Rides Again (1973).

Rowlands has stated that the role of improvisation in Cassavetes films has frequently been misunderstood. Steptoe and Son did lead to Corbett gaining some work in comedy films, most notably starring in Carry On Screaming in 1966 and appearing in Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky (1977). His son, Nick Cassavetes, followed in his father's footsteps, and made 1997's She's So Lovely from the elder Cassavetes's screenplay, and directed 2004's The Notebook. A subsequent tour of a Steptoe and Son stage show in Australia in the late 1970s proved to be a complete disaster, as any sort of working relationship between the pair of them was now impossible. He was survived by Rowlands, who continued to act, and three children. Production on the series was also made stressful by Corbett's strained relationship with his co-star Brambell, and by the end of their time on the series they were not on speaking terms outside of takes. The intense effort took its toll; an alcoholic, Cassavetes died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1989 at the age of only 59. Although the enormous popularity of Steptoe and Son - as the series was titled - made Corbett a star, it proved to be a dead-end to his serious acting career, as he became irreversibly associated with the Harold Steptoe character in the public eye.

He lived to make film, and sacrificed his colleagues and himself to the process. The play was a huge success and a full series was soon commissioned, which eventually ran, with some breaks, until 1974. Cassavetes's personality was overpowering and driven. He played Harold Steptoe, a rag and bone man living with his irascible father Albert, played by Wilfrid Brambell, in a junkyard with only their horse for company. Already ill, he was heartbroken that it would be the last film he would do. In 1962 he appeared in The Offer, an episode of the BBC's anthology series of one-off comedy plays, Comedy Playhouse, written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. The movie, racked by incompatible studio and director edits, was, in Cassavetes's words, "a disaster". He also guested regularly in television dramas, appearing in episodes of popular series such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (as four different characters in four different episodes between 1957 and 1960) and Police Surgeon, the series that would later become The Avengers (in 1960).

Sadly, Cassavetes's last movie, Big Trouble (1986), was a last-minute project picked up as a favor when a younger director friend peremptorily quit the project. From 1958 he began to appear regularly in film roles, first coming to public attention as a very serious, intense performer, completely in contrast to the reputation he would later gain as a sitcom actor. Love Streams (1984) starred Cassavetes as an aging lothario who suffers the overbearing affection of his recently divorced sister. When asked, he would often joke that the 'H' stood for "h'anything" - a manner of saying the word 'anything' once popular in some English regional dialects. Cassavetes continued to work through the 1980s, although personal troubles with alcohol were beginning to take their toll. Gloria (1980) is a more conventional thriller starring Rowlands as a mob moll who runs off with a young boy orphaned by the mob and soon to be next. In the early 1950s he added the middle initial 'H' to his name in order to avoid confusion with the then-popular television entertainer Harry Corbett, who was well known for his act with the puppet Sooty. Author Christos Tsiolkas said of Bookie that it showed "being a man means knowing gutlessness better than knowing courage, that failure stays with you long after success.". Corbett himself served in the army during the Second World War, and following his discharge after the war's conclusion he took up acting as a career, initially in repertory theatre.

Driven by fear and uncertainty, Vitelli deceives friend and foe alike. When he was very young his mother died, and Corbett was sent back to England where he was raised by an aunt in Manchester. Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, a small-time strip-club owner with an out-of-control gambling habit, who is convinced by mobsters to commit a murder to pay off his debt. His father was an officer in the British Army who was stationed in the country as part of the occupying forces there. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) was a movie about the experience of men as much as Influence was about women. Corbett was born in Burma, now Myanmar, while it was still a British colony. Rowlands is an expert collaborator in the story, playing Mabel with subtlety and energy; she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, while Cassavetes was nominated for Best Director. Early in his career he was dubbed "the English Marlon Brando" by some sections of the British press, but due to typecasting his career never really developed as a major film actor, much to his frustration.

The wife's behavior, while disturbing and disconcerting for those around her, is not obviously dangerous or unstable. Corbett (1925-1982) (born Harry Corbett on February 28, 1925 in Rangoon, Burma; died March 21, 1982 in Hastings, East Sussex, England, UK) was a British actor, who was best known for his starring role in the hugely popular and long-running BBC Television sitcom Steptoe and Son in the 1960s and 70s. The characters were nuanced, and the ethical situations were measured in shades of gray. Harry H. Peter Falk played her husband, who tries to keep up a facade of normality, but ultimately makes the difficult decision of committing her to a mental institution. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) stars Rowlands as an increasingly eccentric housewife trying to keep her hold on reality.

His two masterpieces of the 1970s, however, were made independently. Another in the 1970s include Minnie and Moskovitz, about a misdirected young woman seeking love, and starring Rowlands again with a small part for Cassavetes's mother, Katherine. They play a trio of men escaping their marriages for minor peccadillos. Husbands (1970) starred Cassavetes himself, with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara.

He had enough leverage at this point that he could make movies in the studio system, yet retain full creative control. After Faces Cassavetes could concentrate more fully on his directorial work. Faces was a critical and financial success, nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actor and Actress). Cassavetes held an unflinching camera on the pettiness and emotional greed of the distancing husband and wife and their lovers, but in the end the pathos of their story gives them an unexpected dignity.

Starring Cassavetes's wife Rowlands, Faces depicted a contemporary suburban marriage in the process of slow disintegration, with the accompanying desperate and degrading sexual improprieties. His next independent film was Faces, which lay down new themes for later work. He didn't just clockwatch as an actor, though; he did masterly work in blockbuster hits of the late 1960s, including World War II epic The Dirty Dozen (1967) — for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor — and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968). His strategy, brought on by necessity, was to work as an actor in mainstream movies, and channel the funds he made there into his work as a director.

Cassavetes refused to go through the process again. The intervention of the studios, the lack of creative control, and the over-all dumbing down of his work was unbearable. Although the viewership of Shadows in the United States was slight, it did gain attention from the Hollywood studios. Cassavetes directed two movies for Hollywood in the early 1960s — Too Late Blues and A Child is Waiting — but the experience was exasperating. European distributors later released the movie in the United States as an import.

Cassavetes was unable to get American distributors to carry Shadows, so he took it to Europe, where it won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. Cassavetes raised the funds for production from friends and family, as well as listeners to a late-night radio talk show. An improvisation exercise in one workshop inspired the idea for his writing and directorial debut, Shadows (1960). By 1956 Cassavetes had begun teaching method acting in workshops in New York City.

During this time he met and married actress Gena Rowlands, a fellow television actor. His experience working within television's budgetary and schedule limits influenced his later film production style. Cassavetes also acted on television, which was still finding its feet as a medium. By 1953, he was doing small parts in films; he continued to play a James Dean-like "juvenile delinquent" throughout the 1950s.

On graduation in 1950, he continued acting in the theater. He grew up in Long Island and attended Colgate University before moving to the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts. Cassavetes was born in New York City to Greek immigrants. Film critic Ray Carney called him "the father of American independent film".

John Cassavetes (December 9, 1929 - February 3, 1989) was an American actor, screenwriter, and director. Cassavetes created an American form of cinema verite with his innovative camera use, bleak outlook, and emphasis on improvisation. Love Streams (1984). Gloria (1980). The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976).

A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Minnie and Moskowitz (1971). Husbands (1970). Faces (1968).

Shadows (1959).

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