John Nicholas Cassavetes, December 9, 1929, New York City, New York, USA

February 3, 1989, Los Angeles, California, USA

To talk about John Cassavetes the great director, one must first recognise Cassavetes the actor. Not because acting was his first artistic passion; not because many of his closest friends, including his wife, were actors; not because Cassavetes himself acted in dozens of films, television shows, and plays. Acting as a profession and artistic endeavour is essential to Cassavetes the director because so much of what he did as a filmmaker was at the service of his actors. Story and technique were secondary to good characters, strong relationships, and performers who could find a truth in the fiction and make Cassavetes’ creations come alive with a vibrancy only he could generate. All of this comes through in Cassavetes’ directorial work, where one sees a unique polygamist marriage between director, writer and actor.

Cassavetes’ first serious step toward acting as a career was his 1949 enrolment in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Following graduation, he played in regional theatre and joined the Army Reserves, where he acted in its performing group. In the early 1950s, Cassavetes landed small television roles and appeared in his first credited film, The Night Holds Terror (Andrew L. Stone, 1955). During this time, he met Gena Rowlands, also a student at the academy. The two married on 19 March 1954, and while theirs would not always be a smooth relationship – creatively or personally – it would be one of the great cinematic collaborations and love stories. Cassavetes continued to act in dozens of television productions from 1954 to 1956, the year he prominently starred in Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets. Prior to landing the lead role in the television series Johnny Staccato (1959–60), Cassavetes was also making moves toward his directorial debut.

As Cassavetes put it, “Shadows [1959] began as a dream in a New York loft on 13 January 1957.”1 That loft was the home of The Cassavetes-Lane Workshop, where Cassavetes, theatre director Burt Lane, and a select group of actors improved scenes based on rough character sketches and scenarios. The idea was to take these improvisations and develop the results into a feature film. On the Jean Shepherd’s Night People radio show, Cassavetes issued a call to listeners, noting anyone interested in a US$7,500 project dealing with the “Negro-White problem”2 could contribute funds to get a film made on the subject. By week’s end, US$2,000 in donations had been accumulated, with most contributions no more than US$5. While race was part of Shadows’ initial conception, Cassavetes denied any overt message. But if the theme of the film was arguable, the creative nature of the effort was clear: it was “an experiment all the way, and our main objective was just to learn,” said Cassavetes. 3

John Cassavetes

Rupert Crosse, Hugh Hurd and Lelia Goldoni in Cassavetes’ directorial debut Shadows (1959)

Shadows’ jubilant energy feeds the film and finds a correlation in the movie’s grainy starkness, its disjointed dialogue, jumpy editing, occasionally incongruous mise-en-scene, and its aggressive shifts in focus and lighting. Unaffected performances by Ben Carruthers, Lelia Goldoni, and Hugh Hurd – who play a trio of siblings threatened by racial ignorance and the parameters of racial identity – are aided by Cassavetes’ penchant for long takes; when a scene went wrong, he would start at the beginning in order to give the actors room to settle in and resume the characters to their fullest realisation. Shadows is undeniably a film of its time, with the urban bustle, quick talk, and moody posturing of the “Beat Generation”. In its bohemian setting, individuals pontificate about art and muse about life. Conversations concerning sex and relationships vary from causal and dispensable to passionate and cathartic. At stake in the larger narrative of the film is the volatility of family dynamics, something at the heart of much of Cassavetes’ work.

Following three preview screenings of Shadows, a series of reshoots took place over 15 days, amounting to about an hour of new, comparatively more polished material. Some who saw and admired the rougher early cut, in particular critic and filmmaker Jonas Mekas, regarded the final release as a commercial concession. Contrary to its concluding title stating that the film is an improvisation, most of what ultimately made its way into the release version was scripted. While certain street scenes were captured on the fly, concealing the camera and shooting from a distance, dodging police as the crew lacked the requisite permits, several interiors were actually constructed sets in the Variety Arts studio. The film’s much heralded aesthetic was a quality born out of necessity and inexperience. “The things we got praised for were the things we tried to cure,” Cassavetes later commented.4 Elsewhere he claimed, “We didn’t know the first thing about making a movie. I never thought I’d be a director.”5 Nevertheless, a director he now was. Seen as a hot commodity, even if on the relatively obscure avant-garde scene, Cassavetes was promptly and somewhat surprisingly offered a contract with Paramount, which offered the opportunity to direct a film of his choice, with a US$350,000 budget, studio crew, and major actors. A good deal on paper, the strict six-week shoot, regimented filmmaking policy, and the lack of room for spur-of-the-moment inspiration left Too Late Blues (1961) a less distinguished work, and Cassavetes was deemed by many a Hollywood sell-out.

Even with its variance in production circumstances, Too Late Blues directly carries over from Shadows a recurrent Cassavetes theme – that of artistic integrity in the face of conflicting aspirations. This story of hip musicians and their professional and personal differences is populated by a rowdy male crowd of friends linked by combustible though enduring bonds, as they so often are in Cassavetes’ work, who find themselves clashing over individual goals. The supplementary plotline of a rocky romance between John “Ghost” Wakefield (Bobby Darin) and Jess Polanski (Stella Stevens) additionally yields unexpected sexual frankness, but is otherwise clichéd and cold.

Too Late Blues has a more controlled and balanced style than Shadows, which gives the film a more consistent, if less energetic, visual stamp. Within the confines of the clearly scripted scenario, even the arguments are more refined. As opposed to the narrative variability of Shadows, with its sometimes unsteady but always vibrant construction, the pacing of Too Late Blues gets bogged down in strained seriousness. The film tries to be hip, with dialogue Tom Charity dubs a “self-conscious cocktail of jazz jive and hardboiled poetics.”6 But as Marshall Fine contends, even in 1961 Too Late Blues looked “naive and square.” 7 It is ultimately a competent sophomore effort, even if it was a creatively compromised one.

Cassavetes’ next feature, A Child is Waiting (1963), was produced by estimable “problem film” aficionado Stanley Kramer. With Tinseltown luminaries Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland starring as teachers at a school for the mentally handicapped, this is the most explicit example in Cassavetes’ filmography of polished, Hollywood sheen. The film has a pictorial smoothness complemented by a wistful score, and while it effectively pulls on the melodramatic heart strings, its tone is generally muted. It may also be Cassavetes’ most sentimental work. Another less personal undertaking, A Child is Waiting still touches on recurrent Cassavetes motifs, such as the attempt to find meaning and purpose in life, the definition of normalcy in an abnormal world, and the delicate balance of professional responsibility and personal feeling. Still, the film saw Cassavetes’ short directorial career at a low point. Fights with the fragile Garland, clashes with Lancaster, and interference from a possessive Abby Mann, author of the source novel, were only exacerbated by later struggles with Kramer over the final edit.

Cassavetes’ much more characteristic follow-up was an unprecedented venture – “a feature-length home-movie paid for out of his own pocket,” according to Ray Carney.8 Faces (1968) is a provocative, uncomfortably intimate examination of middle age malaise and its concurrent communication breakdown. Shot with the bare minimum of equipment, with a cast and crew working for little to no pay (not the first nor last such arrangement on a Cassavetes film), production on Faces was “a triumph of begging, borrowing, and on occasion, stealing whatever was necessary to make it.”9 The six-month shoot (mainly at night so everyone could work their day jobs) yielded 150 hours of footage, itself gleaned from a script weighing in at around 320 pages. After three years of post-production work, Faces timed out with a 220-minute rough cut. Even with its practical complications, however, Faces had the benefit of being an independent production from start to finish, which meant there were no artistic compromises.

John Cassavetes

Gena Rowlands in Faces (1968)

Faces is Cassavetes at peak emotional rawness. With jagged cutting and wildly capricious shot selection, a profound familiarity is forged by the probing titular close-ups of the characters at their most animated. The coarseness of the film reflects the behaviour of everyone involved. The men can be crude, with a cruelness that is sporadic and acerbic, while the women can be rambunctious with their own codes of social/sexual conduct. Each group is quick to criticise the other, rather than recognise their own emotional frailties and insecurities. The film is a turbulent barrage of audio-visual components, where it is difficult to tell what is scripted and what are arbitrary digressions. The atmosphere is rife with yelling, laughing, excited gesticulations, and incessant movement. The dialogue goes around and around in largely irrelevant exchanges and there is no conventional story to speak of. Rather, Faces is a character-driven portrait of lives dictated by an oscillating range of emotions. Interactions are physically and vocally verbose, and reactions turn on a dime, reflecting and influencing the film’s formal features. When simply recording in the trenches of passionate warfare, the turmoil is shown in excruciating detail and duration. Like the characters, the audience is put through an emotional ringer.

Cassavetes commenced Faces with no expectations, but the film was a smash, garnering numerous awards, critical praise, and making more than US$8 million. “At once intimate and raw, obviously of its period and yet startlingly of the moment,” Fine says it “offers a surprisingly sophisticated deconstruction of male and female role-playing – and the explosive quality of honest behaviour when the roles are dropped.”10 Personally, Cassavetes considered the making of the film to be the best time of his life.

Cassavetes was already preparing an arguably more personal project before an American distributor was even in place for Faces. All three main characters in Husbands (1970) – Harry (Ben Gazzara), Archie (Peter Falk), and Gus (Cassavetes) – convey a variety of complex feelings, often expressed via equally complex behaviour, which results in a common complaint of frustrating inarticulateness. Described by Fine as “perhaps John Cassavetes’ most controversial film,” Husbands is “also one of his loosest and most adventurous.”11 An opening subtitle declares the film a “comedy about life, death, and freedom,” and these are indeed the primary topics under discussion (though the comedy part is debatable). Shaken by the death of a mutual acquaintance, three friends drunkenly delve into relentlessly boisterous examinations of what could have been and what comes next. Their introspection yields a profound sense of self-evaluation, but the men are mostly living for the moment as they uncover unpleasant truths about themselves, their own mortality, and their relationships (though Harry’s wife is the only one seen in the movie, it is curious that the men are identified by their marital status).

Filmed and acted with a gruelling directness, with certain sequences going on with no narrative progression and little character revelation, Husbands is a remotely affecting experience, one difficult to pin down or to easily digest. It exudes unrelenting movement and talk, and Cassavetes’ probing camera, which remains observational and subjective, records with an uninhibited, almost random realism. “Like life, it’s also very slow and depressing in areas,” writes Charity. “The one thing it’s not is a shorthand film.”12 Private macho roughhousing carries over into the public sphere, denoting a self-centeredness and carelessness regardless of surroundings. The men interact with women in a fashion no more pleasant than their own bathroom confessions between inebriated wrenching. When Cassavetes screened a version of Husbands to please Columbia executives, they thought the result not only satisfactory, but entertaining. Despite this – or because of it – Cassavetes continued to rework the picture and the release version was a critical and commercial disaster.

While publicising Husbands, Cassavetes wrote Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) in about three weeks. His “most optimistic and romantic movie, an affirmation of marriage and family,” according to Charity,13 this is indeed an agreeable, lighter work from the recently confrontational director. In a role resembling his own personality, Seymour Cassel plays the free-spirited, long-haired Seymour Moskowitz. As boisterous as other Cassavetes types, but with a markedly more appealing allure, Seymour exists on a lower run of society, setting up a sharp contrast with the more polished Minnie Moore (Rowlands). “Movies are a conspiracy,” Minnie states, decrying the way audiences are manipulated to believe in ideals relating to strength, good guys, and love. She is the female counterpart to the men in Husbands, an adult who has reached a cynical middle age and lives a lonely life of shattered illusions, courtesy of Hollywood, no less. While Seymour is personable in a way most prior Cassavetes male characters are not, displaying a genuine sweetness as he joyously acts on his whims, Minnie is reserved and calm. Like many a Cassavetes romance, Minnie and Seymour’s relationship is a belligerent one-on-one courtship, though a tender, affectionate rapport emerges. The two only know each other for four days before deciding to wed, but such is the satisfying charm of this refreshing Cassavetes romantic comedy, that one cannot help but get on board with the seemingly improbable engagement.

John Cassavetes

Seymour Cassel and Gena Rowlands at the alter in Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)

Before a planned sequel to Husbands could see the light of day, Cassavetes wrote A Woman Under the Influence (1974), essentially to give Rowlands a noteworthy role. Initially conceived as a series of three interrelated plays, the theatrical possibility was a daunting task given the emotional and physical demands of Rowland’s Mabel character; one single film would suffice. After convincing the American Film Institute to name him filmmaker-in-residence, granting him access to equipment and facilities and providing students on-the-job training14 — free help — production on one of Cassavetes’ most successful films was soon underway.

The chaotic existence of Nick (Falk) and, especially, Mabel Longhetti is immediately evident as she scrambles to prepare for a night alone with her husband. For the first of many times to follow, one wonders if there is a genuine cause for chaos, if Mabel reacts with self-induced panic, or if the anxiety transpires from an overriding medical condition. Most Cassavetes characters act a little crazy, but Mabel is the first to be clinically unsound. Her childlike spontaneity and unpredictability makes the love between her and Nick an uneasy one. Meanwhile, as earnest as he may be in his own way, Nick is not emotionally equipped for proper caring and understanding. Mabel is confronted about her illness and is committed, but in the days that follow, Nick himself appears unhinged, irresponsible, and dangerous. With Mabel away, a clear co-dependency surfaces.

John Cassavetes

Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

A Woman Under the Influence presents several scenes of tremendous warmth, with sincere camaraderie, clumsiness, and sensitivity. At the same time, Nick’s inability to relate to Mabel’s affliction leads to explosive aggression and threats of violence. He dominates Mabel by being gruff, impatient, and sometimes brutally honest, but still she brims with great enthusiasm and vivacity. Mabel is thus an archetypal Cassavetes character, one mirroring his own brand of filmmaking. Like Cassavetes’ cinema, she creates unnerving situations, but as if eschewing the tendency for analysis, which Cassavetes often did in relation to his films, one of Nick’s biggest mistakes when it comes to Mabel is to rationalise her manner. While Cassavetes argues Mabel’s disquiet should not be surprising, stating, “I don’t put ‘fully competent’ women into my films because I don’t know any ‘fully competent’ anyone,”15 Carney also sees autobiographical parallels. “If Moskowitz represents Cassavetes’ bravado,” he writes, “Mabel figures his self-doubts, uncertainties and pains.”16

There is a wobbly acclimation process that wraps up A Woman Under the Influence, both for the viewer and the characters. But as with the unsettled conclusions of Faces and Husbands, the question of whether anything has been accomplished remains. Have Mabel and Nick even begun to confront the true nature of their marital and psychological differences? Though there is no pat resolution, the film’s end is nonetheless gratifying, if for no other reason than it achieves a state of respite where, regardless of the mayhem, love remains. As Carney states, Cassavetes’ work is “stunningly hopeful….[he] never gave up on the possibility of possibility.”17 A Woman Under the Influence is a perfect balance between Cassavetes’ consistently irregular aesthetic with a more cohesive causal progression. As a clear showcase for Rowlands, the film has a singular star focus, and, in large part due to her phenomenal performance, it received two Academy Award nominations, for her and for Cassavetes as director (making him one of eight filmmakers to ever be nominated for directing, writing [for Faces], and acting [for The Dirty Dozen, Robert Aldrich, 1967]).

Never one to rest on the comfort of a recent success, Cassavetes takes The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and its backdrop of money, murder, and gangsterdom and repeatedly thwarts expectations of momentum and suspense.. For all its superficial generic trappings, the picture is a free-flowing movement of irrational behaviour and digressions in dialogue and narrative advancement, something that gives Killing a rhythm and pacing stilted by prolonging – or avoiding – resolution. The film’s seedy milieu is a foreign world for the average viewer, and with its nudity and bloodshed, a rare one in Cassavetes’ cinema. As one who inhabits this world, though, Cosmo Vittelli (Gazzara) is an emblematic type, albeit one with Cassavetes quirks. Things appear to be going well enough for the strip club-owning gambler, but there is an underlying sense of desperation. Cosmo is low on the proverbial totem pole, and as such, his life is a struggle. When Cosmo gives a pep talk at the end of the film, essentially on the virtues of being true to oneself – a Cassavetes dictum if there ever was one – he foreshadows his own downfall. In a concept echoed in Cassavetes’ next film, the danger for Cosmo arises from his showmanship (in)ability to assume a requisite persona without breaking from reality.

John Cassavetes

Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Gazzara commented that Killing “could have been a metaphor for John’s life: a man with a dream having to battle people without vision.”18 Fittingly, then, in a by now familiar process, Cassavetes encountered trouble with the film’s post-production and distribution. When it was eventually released, it was another critical and commercial disappointment. The original cut played for a week, was pulled, re-edited, and not released again until two years later. Cassavetes conceded (somewhat counter to Gazzara’s assessment), “It’s the only film I’ve ever made for reasons that were not altogether pure… I made this film as an intellectual experiment, not because I am in love with it. It is a film that has little to do with me and with how I feel about life.”19 Ultimately, he lost almost US$2 million of his own money and along with it, much of the respectability garnered with A Woman Under the Influence.

By the late 1970s, Cassavetes and Rowlands were grappling with the harsh realities of aging in show business, so their next collaboration was an explicit response to growing older and the continuing battle between men and women, especially in creative occupations. In Opening Night (1977), Rowlands stars as tenuous actress Myrtle Gordon. She is worn and weary, drinking and smoking profusely before heading on stage. This is just the beginning of her steadily deteriorating physical and mental state, a condition she shares with most of those around her, as well as other Cassavetes protagonists who reach a transitional breaking or turning point. Opening Night is another example of the blurring boundaries between artistic and personal life, as was so often the case in Cassavetes’ own filmmaking. As Myrtle’s co-stars rehearse a stage slap, the line between real and fake violence is broken down, and from there, the distinctions between the characters and their real lives are equally obscured. The play fuels discomfort, and along with it, Myrtle’s confusion and anxiety. When she says, “I’m in trouble, I’m not acting,” her evident self-awareness is devastating.

If all the world is a stage, that may explain why so many Cassavetes characters are keen on performance – singing, telling jokes, competing and so on – even away from an explicitly theatrical setting as in Opening Night. Performance is part of their real life. “There is a constant metastasis of energy, emotion, and role from stage to the world around it,” writes George Kouvaros. “In these films the dilemma faced by the characters cannot be summed up by the phrase Deleuze used in his discussion of Jean Renoir’s films: ‘Where then, does theatre finish and life begin?’ It is something more practical or mundane: how to continue to work and survive in an environment where performing and being are synonymous.”20 In the end, Opening Night is ultimately a case of professionalism prevailing. When Myrtle’s instability spills over to the stage, to a certain extent, and somewhat tellingly, improvisation saves the day.

Opening Night’s production issues ranged from unions threatening the film for its non-union crew and extras to a stunted release and an exceedingly cool domestic reception. “If The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was a commercial failure,” notes Charity, “Opening Night barely registered at all.”21

In February 1979, MGM contacted Cassavetes about providing a story for young star Ricky Schroeder. Completing a script titled One Summer Night, later renamed Gloria, Cassavetes had no intentions of actually making the picture himself – he saw the project as too commercial. But he also needed work. Partially cast with actual gangsters and “street-people,”22 Gloria (1980) depicts a remarkably salient New York City of the late 1970s. It is easily the most “New York” of Cassavetes’ films since Shadows, with gritty street photography that mixes both famous landmarks and rarely seen city locales. Rowlands plays the title heroine who reluctantly becomes embroiled in a world of pursuits, violence, and worst of all, children. She is no innocent, though. She is a capable gangster’s moll with her own criminal ties. But she is a good person at heart and compassion gets the best of her. This shift toward sympathy is in no small part due to the irresistible six-year-old Phil Dawn (John Adames, in the role written for Schroeder), the fleeing son of a mob target.

Gloria is as securely efficient a film as Cassavetes ever made. Bill Conti’s energetic score, the suspense of the story, the comedic foil of ill-suited, incompatible types, and even a car chase all give the film a conventionally fulfilling profile. As much as it may not be a classic Cassavetes entry, the picture is unavoidably endearing – much like Adames, who charms with banter like, “He don’t know the score. He sees a dame like you and a guy like me, he don’t know.” Despite difficulties with the strictures of a structured shoot, Gloria is one of Cassavetes’ least demanding, though still genuinely engaging, films.

With a story derived from a trio of works titled Three Plays of Love and Hate, Cassavetes found an unlikely partner for his next feature, Love Streams (1984). Under the auspices of Cannon Films, the action movie company formed by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Love Streams audaciously drops the audience into the hectic, messy lives of the womanising, alcoholic writer Robert Harmon (Cassavetes) and his unstable sister Sarah (Rowlands), who is in the midst of a bitter custody battle with Jack Lawson (Cassel). As has been seen before in Cassavetes’ work, chaotic disarray is intensified by familial bonds, first between Robert and his estranged son, then between he and Sarah. Though Robert resides in a house full of young women, he struggles to secure a firm relationship with anyone. Meanwhile, Sarah, recently institutionalised, is an emotional wreck who manages to remain optimistic in the face of adversity. The two lead unconventional lives, certainly, but the film is primarily concerned with how well they live them. Are they doing the best they can? The impetus for their livelihood is the importance of pressing on: “Love is a stream,” Sarah says. “It’s continuous. It doesn’t stop.”

John Cassavetes

An aging Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes as the troubled siblings in Love Streams (1984)

Aside from a slow-motion car crash and a rather striking overhead traveling shot – both stylistic touches uncommon for Cassavetes – Love Streams is basically an unadorned work, except when it comes to character disposition. With individual lives in shambles, common denominators for the brother and sister are irresponsibility and heedless abandon. Overblown madness results in hysterical fits of laughter and demonstrative physicality, coupled with the film’s piecemeal explication and the characters’ frequent recklessness. As Cassavetes rightfully acknowledges, Love Streams is “a very crazy film.”23

Cassavetes’ next work was arguably his least typical as director. It was also his last. Asked by Peter Falk to step in after Big Trouble’s (1986) original director, Andrew Bergman, left the production, Cassavetes was ironically given one of his highest budgets to make a detached, impersonal film. As a riff on Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and an opportunistic reteaming of Falk and Alan Arkin, co-stars of Arthur Hiller’s successful The In-Laws (1979), there is in Big Trouble some early rapid-pace repartee that appears to point to Cassavetes’ fondness for expedient oratory. As time goes on, however, this type of exchange becomes plainly contrived, even if a manic tone remains. The men are disorderly and Conti’s bubbly score again helps keep a progressive pace, but the anxiety of the film is derived from bumbling criminal scheming far removed from the more authentically poignant drama that drives most of Cassavetes’ work. Although not a great film, Big Trouble is still a clean, clear comedy with a straightforward story and reasonable humour. At 90 minutes, it is a harmless movie, though Cassavetes’ opinion was less than enthusiastic: “God, I don’t want this to be my last picture so I’ll be known for this piece of shit.”24 While he considered a sequel to Gloria as well as a potential film with Sean Penn (She’s De-Lovely), Big Trouble would indeed be Cassavetes’ final feature as director. He passed away less than three years after its release. The Penn project, retitled She’s So Lovely (1997), was ultimately directed by Cassavetes’ son, Nick.

Falk and others often spoke about Cassavetes’ need for love, and through that, his channelling of characters who were themselves desperate for affection. Perhaps as a result of this connection, Cassavetes was able to convey his love of people, especially likeminded people, via a nonjudgmental presentation. “His art is, ultimately, an act of empathy,” writes Carney, “rather than standing outside and judging, he goes inside to understand.”25 He not only identified personal imperfections, he revelled in them, recognising everyone is, in one way or another, emotionally and psychologically volatile. His characters are confused, argumentative, and difficult, but they have passion, for better or worse. Like Cassavetes himself, they display vitality and a verve for life.

The presentation of multifaceted individuals could lead to a sense of moral ambiguity, a distorting of social mores, ethical action, and a frustration of identification and comprehension. Normal life is insane, and in that insanity, Cassavetes found familiarity. In the chaos, he found sympathy and affection. He put tremendous value in his creations: “You can trust my characters. Whatever they are – and they’re not always nice – at least they’re upfront.”26 Cassavetes also found humour and relief in male-female disparities and the inevitably ensuing confrontations. As difficult as the concept and establishment of love is, the achievement of such an expression, the seeking of that connection, is worth the struggle. There are sure to be failures – failures in relationships, professional failures, social failures, failures of the human condition – but this is what Cassavetes was striving for. “My idea of a love story is when two people get together and go through so much turmoil and so much pain in just loving each other,” he said.27 “My films are about personal things – marriages breaking up, love transformed by mutual treachery, the difficulty that two people have in communicating even though they live together.”28

Though he sometimes spoke to his actors as cameras rolled, Cassavetes gave little direction, preferring to let the drama unfold as the actors discovered their characters. His instructions “had more to do with tempo and pace… than character or tone,” according to Fine.29 As much as anything, his were films for these actors, and his primary concern was to highlight their performances. It was a delicate balance of guidance and freedom, of setting the stage but keeping both himself and the camera as unobtrusive as possible. He was often unconcerned about actors hitting their marks, about every utterance getting adequately recorded, or even every movement being kept clearly in view. Cassavetes’ actors were granted freedom and given due credit. While he would oftentimes jump in and play out all the parts himself, his actors were ultimately granted ownership of their characters. “I help stimulate the actors’ emotions but don’t tell them how to depict them,” he explained. “I simply cannot direct. Every time I try, the scene stinks.”30 He was not above relinquishing some control and fixing what may be broken, rewriting as the production went along. Fine argues that for Cassavetes, acting was about “finding something unplanned and spontaneous, creating happy accidents that yielded surprising behaviour and truthful emotions.”31 It was a process of self-exploration. “Be in touch with yourself,” as Cassavetes advised.32

In his films’ apparent spontaneity, Cassavetes emphasised the dual nature of cinema’s seemingly inherent opposition between technique and naturalism. In touting a resistance to formal conformity, he was also calling attention to the conventions and clichés of each aesthetic principle. Cassavetes had an intuitive visual sense, frequently manning his own handheld camera and somehow knowing where his free-range actors would appear. The erratic footage did not always result in the sharpest photography, but there was always a liveliness to his images – acting and directing were visceral processes. Even with the out of focus shots, apparently haphazard movements defying the limitations of the frame, and the occasionally indistinguishable placement of characters in their surroundings, Cassavetes’ films still bear more than their fair share of beautifully arranged compositions.

Cassavetes also liked to keep audiences off balance and insecure, with scenes that “begin and end in what would be the middle of the scene in a more conventional film,” as Fine writes.33 Explicit motivations and conventional plotlines were in many ways inconsequential and deliberately discomforting: “That’s why my pictures are so long! Hours of beginnings, no endings.”34 Cassavetes played mind games with his actors to elicit desired results and he took a similarly antagonistic approach to audiences (to say nothing of his calculated antipathy toward studio bosses). He did not care what people thought of his films. What mattered most was the instinctive response, good or bad. “It doesn’t matter whether audiences like it; it matters whether they feel something,” he explained.35

While he had a faithful circle of supporters, John Cassavetes met considerable difficulty throughout his filmmaking career, yet he was more than willing to suffer the consequences of his stubborn independence. Despite what he endured for his art – financial, physical, and spiritual hardships – he was hesitant to consider himself a qualified director. “Directing is really a full-time hobby with me. I consider myself an amateur filmmaker and a professional actor,” he said,36 adding, “I think I’ll be remembered as an actor. Not as a director.”37 Though he is perhaps more widely recognised for his roles in Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) or The Dirty Dozen, John Cassavetes’ true impact on film history surely suggests otherwise.



Shadows (1959) also writer

Too Late Blues (1961) also writer and producer

A Child Is Waiting (1963)

Faces (1968) also writer and producer (uncredited)

Husbands (1970) also writer and star

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) also writer

A Woman Under the Influence (1974) also writer

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) also writer

Opening Night (1977) also writer and star

Gloria (1980) also writer

Love Streams (1984) also writer and star

Big Trouble (1986) also writer


Select Bibliography

Carney, Ray, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (Cambridge Film Classics) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Carney, Ray, John Cassavetes: The Adventures of Insecurity (Walpole, MA: Company C Publishing, 2000).

Carney, Ray, Cassavetes on Cassavetes (London and New York: Faber and Faber Limited, 2001).

Charity, Tom, John Cassavetes: Lifeworks (London: Omnibus Press, 2001).

Fine, Marshall, Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the Independent Film (New York: Hyperion, 2005).

Kouvaros, George, Where Does It Happen? John Cassavetes and Cinema at the Breaking Point (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).


Articles in Senses of Cinema

All the World’s a Stage: John Cassavetes’ Opening Night by Matthew Clayfield

The Cinematic Life of Emotions: John Cassavetes: George Kouvaros Interviewed by Needeya Islam

Identity in the Films of Cassavetes by Maximilian Le Cain

Performing the Everyday: Time and Affect in John Cassavetes’ Faces by Effie Rassos

Places in the Heart: Where Does It Happen? John Cassavetes and Cinema at the Breaking Point by George Kouvaros by Brad Stevens

Meet John Cassavetes by Christos Tsiolkas

Impromptu Entertainment: Performance Modes in Cassavetes’ Films by Pamela Robertson Wojcik

Maurice Pialat and John Cassavetes by Philippe Lubac

John Cassavetes Filmography by Brad Stevens



  1. Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes (London and New York: Faber and Faber Limited, 2001), p. 55.
  2. Ibid., p. 55.
  3. Ibid., p. 57.
  4. Ibid., p. 97.
  5. Marshall Fine, Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film (New York: Hyperion, 2005), p. 80.
  6. Tom Charity, John Cassavetes: Lifeworks (London: Omnibus Press, 2001), p. 36.
  7. Fine, p. 132.
  8. Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, p. 133.
  9. Ibid., p. 142.
  10. Fine, p. 151.
  11. Ibid., p. 202.
  12. Charity, p. 85.
  13. Charity, p. 94.
  14. Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, p. 317.
  15. Ibid., p. 298.
  16. Ibid., p. 305.
  17. Ray Carney, John Cassavetes: The Adventures of Insecurity (Walpole, MA: Company C Publishing, 2000), p. 21.
  18. Fine, p. 320.
  19. Ibid., p. 332.
  20. George Kouvaros, Where Does It Happen? John Cassavetes and Cinema at the Breaking Point (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), p. 136.
  21. Charity, p. 167.
  22. Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, p. 447.
  23. Fine, p. 414.
  24. Ibid., p. 419.
  25. Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, p. 139.
  26. Ibid., p. 170, original emphasis.
  27. Ibid., p. 373.
  28. Ibid., p. 198.
  29. Fine, p. 218
  30. Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, p. 157.
  31. Fine, p. 4.
  32. Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, p. 17.
  33. Fine, p. 260.
  34. Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, p. 493.
  35. Ibid., p. 257, original emphasis.
  36. Ibid., p. 183.
  37. Ibid., p. 510.

About The Author

Jeremy Carr is a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for Cineaste, Film International, CineAction, Cinema Retro, MUBI’s Notebook, Vague Visages, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Moving Image.

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