Indie Inspiration

Indie Inspiration: John Cazale

It is a curious fact that the actor John Cazale appeared in only five feature films in his brief onscreen career, and all five were landmark classics of modern American cinema, all nominated for Best Picture Oscars, three of them winning the little gold statue. The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter. That is a hell of a streak for an actor. But it’s not luck. Those movies needed John Cazale in them, and he is a significant reason for their success. So let’s step away from trivia for a moment, and appreciate a great artist who was with us too briefly, but who through devotion to his craft had a lasting impact on our culture.

I urge you to seek out and watch the HBO documentary on John Cazale, “I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale”. In it, you will see masters such as Al Pacino and Gene Hackman describe how Cazale made them act better. Cazale inspires me because, by all accounts and by the evidence of his performances, he was all about the work. He would really work to get Pacino to step up his game. Pacino!

[Sidebar: if you have something dismissive to say about Al Pacino’s talent, or perhaps just want to do a lousy impression of him saying “Hoo-aw!”, please meet me in the parking lot after school where I will beat your ass. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but some opinions are just unconscionably ignorant.]

Cazale’s most famous role was that of Michael Corleone’s hapless older brother Fredo in the first two Godfather movies. In his first feature film role, Cazale goes toe to toe with Brando and Pacino and is superb at bringing to life a very complex character. In a movie populated with criminals, Cazale is the lowest of the low, so weak, self-serving, and resentful that he sells out his own family. And yet, the performer is so invested in his role, so fearless in his embrace of Fredo’s longings and frailties, that you can’t help feeling compassion for the guy.

The famous confrontation scene between Michael and Fredo in ‘Godfather Part II’ is extraordinary for many reasons, but what struck me, as someone who has both acted and directed actors, is the way Cazale uses that damn chair. He pours out all his grief and rage at being passed over by his father while slumped in an overstuffed recliner that almost engulfs him. He is completely animated and engaged with Michael, and yet sprawls and spasms in this chair like a beetle pinned alive to a board. Any other actor would have ejected himself from that chair for the main confrontation in that scene, the chair would make him feel to passive, weak, immobile. Not Cazale.

Few actors have more richly and precisely communicated the inner lives of their characters than John Cazale.

One of my favorite characters in cinema is Sal in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, which is Cazale again playing opposite Pacino. I watched this movie again recently, and thought, without this extraordinary performance, almost all of the tension would disappear from this movie. Sal is the wildcard. Painfully vulnerable and strange, when he whispers to Pacino’s Sonny that he is ready to start throwing dead bodies into the street, you can’t help but believe him.

Great acting is like any other great work of art. Every time you revisit a great performance you find something new. Few actors have more richly and precisely communicated the inner lives of their characters than John Cazale. To watch any one of his five remarkable performances in these five remarkable films is always rewarding and inspiring.

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‘It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale’ on HBO

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Watch a clip from ‘I Knew It Was You’: 

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