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Remind Me

John Cassavetes Profile

John Nicholas Cassavetes was born December 9, 1929 to Greek immigrant parents in New York City. As outspoken and fun-loving in his youth as he would be as an adult (he was voted "Class Wit" in high school), Cassavetes seemed directionless after graduation, briefly attending Mohawk College, before transferring to (and flunking out of) Champlain College, hitchhiking to Florida, and eventually joining his pals at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts "to be near all those girls." Aside from chasing chicks, he also developed a passion for acting.

Upon graduation in 1950, Cassavetes faced the uphill battle of being a stage actor in New York, accepting bit parts for little or no pay, having great difficulty getting a toehold in the higher-paying stage, screen and television roles. But in his favor, Cassavetes had seemingly boundless confidence and energy. He was tirelessly persistent and extroverted in the extreme. Eventually these qualities -- while they may have annoyed some whom he hounded for employment -- did get him noticed by producers and casting agents, and the substance of his roles began to grow.

Around 1953, Cassavetes began dating actress Gena Rowlands, who had begun attending the AADA the semester after he left. Their personalities were radically different but they seemed to complement one another brilliantly. As Cassavetes biographer Ray Carney wrote, "He was the fast-talking, street-smart city boy. Rowlands was socially smooth and refined; Cassavetes rough-hewn, impulsive, passionate and driven. She cared what people thought; he didn't. She was cool, poised, charming; he was half-crazy, hot-blooded and Mediterranean. Sparks flew." They were married on March 19, 1954, and remained married until Cassavetes's death.

He began to land more substantial film roles. It was while promoting the film Edge of the City (1957) that Cassavetes's life took a fateful turn. In February 1957, he appeared on Jean Shepherd's eclectic Night People radio program and fantasized aloud about a world in which movies were made by people, not by the corporations. Cassavetes jested that listeners should send in contributions to support such an ambition. Surprisingly, they did, and Cassavetes found himself spearheading a rebellion within the film industry.

The making of Shadows (1959) turned out to be much more difficult and expensive than Cassavetes ever imagined, taking two years to finish, at a cost of $25,000 (spare by modern standards but almost four times the original $7,500 budget). Cassavetes would often use high-profile, high-paying acting appearances -- in such films as The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary's Baby (1968) -- to finance his more personal work.

In November, 1958, a series of screenings of Shadows was held at New York's Paris Theater. Although Cassavetes's cast and crew received encouragement from some viewers, the reception was largely negative. Other filmmakers might have given up or moved on to other projects -- but not Cassavetes. To him, the process of filmmaking was as important as the end result (if not more important), so he threw himself (and his collaborators) back into Shadows for reshoots and reediting, benefiting from the artistic and technical lessons learned.

On November 11, 1959, the revised Shadows premiered to wide acclaim at a film series called "The Cinema of Improvisation." A title card at the conclusion of the film claims, "The film you have just seen was an improvisation," but this is a bit misleading. True, the characters and story were developed through weeks of improvisation and dramatic workshops, but at the time of filming, there was a script and actors were well rehearsed.

"The emotion was improvisation. The lines were scripted. The attitudes were improvised," Cassavetes said, "I give somebody some lines, and the interpretation must be their own." The way in which Shadows was made and revised stands in direct opposition to the schedule - and budget-defined workings of the Hollywood factory system. But Cassavetes was an artistic idealist, and hoped that he could introduce this new form of filmmaking to the studios (and earn a paycheck to support his personal projects). To achieve this aim, Cassavetes signed to co-write and direct Too Late Blues (1961), a film intended to apply the free-form jazz-like rhythms of Shadows to a film destined for conventional commercial release. While it is an invigorating film that enjoys its own relaxed pace, Too Late Blues suffers from being neither as adventurous as Shadows nor as satisfying as a mainstream commercial film. Too Late Blues was an early indication that Cassavetes's style of filmmaking could not flower within the rigid schedules and regimented workdays of the studio system.

His second studio film, A Child Is Waiting (1963), produced by Stanley Kramer, suffered a similar fate.

Disenchanted with the Hollywood system, but not daunted, Cassavetes withdrew from the constraints of studio production and undertook another independent project in the style of Shadows. He began writing Faces (1968) in 1964, and shot the film over the course of seven months in 1965. Rather than concentrate his energies on the technical quality of the film (as is the convention in Hollywood), Cassavetes gave the actors and script the highest priority.

"We generally lit a room so we could shoot 360 degrees, which drove the light man wild," Cassavetes said, "Sometimes we'd shoot when the lights weren't ready...The actors were starting and he had to get rolling. We'd shoot whenever the actors were ready. We were slaves to them. The filming consisted only of recording what they did."

Cassavetes launched another film, Husbands (1970), and was able to recruit established actors Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara to co-star. It took just as long to shoot as Faces had, and was another mammoth editing project, but this had simply become part of the process. Columbia Pictures was eager to cash in on this counter-Hollywood voice to which the public was beginning to respond, and bought distribution rights for $3 million.

During the 1970s, Cassavetes was in his prime, reigning over a cottage studio that allowed him to explore the process of filmmaking rather than satisfying the masses. After the release of Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), Cassavetes took the idea of an autonomous filmmaking endeavor one step further and began distributing his own films. He called this company Faces International. Because he had become a voice to be reckoned with (Faces had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay), theatres were eager for his product and self-distribution was not as Sisyphean as it would become once audience interest began to wane.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974) perhaps marks the height of Cassavetes's success. It was capably released by Faces International, earned two Academy Award nominations (Best Actress -- Gena Rowlands, Best Director -- Cassavetes), and largely positive reviews. Woman, perhaps more than any other film, vividly reveals the overriding theme of Cassavetes's films: the struggle to express love and humanity from within the strictures of "proper" behavior. Whether they defy racial barriers (Shadows), class barriers (Minnie and Moskowitz), the rules of "proper" female behavior (A Woman Under the Influence), or male behavior (Husbands), Cassavetes's characters yearn to unleash the childlike joy of living that has been so deeply repressed. When this raw, genuine joie de vivre does escape, it is often so peculiar in form that we hardly recognize it.

Cassavetes savored his freedom from Hollywood industrial control but couldn't help being engaged in a push/pull relationship with the demands of the marketplace. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), on the surface, is an ordinary crime film, about a flamboyant showman (Gazzara) who is forced to assassinate an Asian gang lord to relieve a gambling debt. But the conventional exterior masks a deeper metaphor for Cassavetes's own relationship to the industry. Like the film's protagonist, Cassavetes himself was forced to compromise his morals in order to pay a debt. Instead of killing a bookie, he was compelled to make a crime film (something more financially reliable) as a means of paying his lab bills and keeping his operation afloat.

His 1977 film Opening Night was as complex and rewarding as his previous films, but when it failed to find an audience after a test release, Cassavetes pulled the film from distribution. It would not get a proper theatrical release until 1991.

To recuperate from the heavy losses incurred by Opening Night, Cassavetes chose to "kill a Chinese bookie." The film was Gloria (1980), a drama of a former gun moll who defends an orphan child against gangsters bent on killing him. It was funded and distributed by Columbia Pictures, and essentially marked an end to Faces International.

After the halcyon decade of independent film in the 1970s, Cassavetes found it difficult to continue functioning as a maverick producer and distributor. Love Streams (1984) was made for Cannon Films/Golan-Globus. Although Love Streams was critically celebrated in Europe (it won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival), it was largely ignored by American critics and audiences, and given a sparse theatrical release.

It would be the last of Cassavetes's personal films. He had been diagnosed with a fatal illness -- cirrhosis of the liver -- information he did not share with his collaborators.

In 1984, Cassavetes made an even greater concession to the marketplace. As a favor to Peter Falk (and to collect a $500,000 paycheck, with which he could finance another film), he took over direction of the comedy Big Trouble (1986), after director Andrew Bergman had artistic disagreements with Falk and left the project. Big Trouble does not represent a change in Cassavetes's style of filmmaking -- there is virtually nothing of him in the film -- but shows the extent to which he was willing to bend to keep his filmmaking "family" together.

Cassavetes died on February 3, 1989. His influence on independent film cannot be underestimated. He, more than anyone else, challenged the business model of the Hollywood studio system, willfully violated the continual obsession with aesthetic prettiness, and created a series of films that brilliantly defied the standardized laws of screenwriting and screen acting. Resisting the conventional in every regard, Cassavetes proved that rules -- even cinematic ones -- were meant to be broken.

by Bret Wood