The legendary director would have been 94 on Dec. 9, 2023
There are a select handful of filmmakers who can be credited with truly changing cinema. The people that spring to mind are men like Orson Welles, John Ford and Stanley Kubrick. Each of them were larger-than-life personalities and created towering, larger-than-life films. Their films were epic in nature, set in fantastical worlds, and dealt with national, global, even cosmic themes.
But for John Cassavetes, another rarefied filmmaker who helped change cinema, the scale tended to be a bit smaller. Cassavetes was a director interested in the nature of everyday life, in the struggle human beings faced in communicating and expressing themselves truthfully. He was consciously interested in what he called “small emotions.”
The son of Greek immigrants, Cassavetes started out as an actor — one with both a gift for, and a fascination with, improvisation. In 1957, he made his directorial debut with “Shadows,” which started out as an exercise in an acting workshop Cassavetes ran. He entered into a contract with Paramount Pictures, directing two films for them. But studio filmmaking left a bad taste in Cassavetes’ mouth and, determined to maintain creative control, he wouldn’t work another mainstream directing gig for the majority of his career. He took a short hiatus from directing, acting in television guest parts, as well as major releases such as “The Dirty Dozen” (1967) and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968). Using the money he made from his film and TV work, Cassavetes returned to the director’s chair for “Faces” (1968). A disjointed story of marital decay set in the suburbs of Los Angeles, “Faces” would set the stage for the rest of Cassavetes’ career. The film dealt with ambiguous, contradictory emotions, featured heavy improvisation and starred members of Cassavetes’ future stable of actors — Seymour Cassel and Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands.
After finding his style in “Faces,” Cassavetes set off and made a series of films in the 1970s that continue to define his career. “Husbands” (1970), a deeply personal film Cassavetes made after the untimely death of his brother, focused on three married men thrown into a mid-life crisis by the sudden death of their mutual friend. “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974) earned Gena Rowlands rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for her portrait of a suburban housewife on the verge of a breakdown. “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976) saw Cassavetes leave suburbia for a Los Angeles-set noir about a gambling addict forced to make terrible decisions in the wake of his crippling debt to the mob. “Opening Night” (1977) goes back to the director’s roots in the theater, depicting a Broadway actress who becomes increasingly unstable after witnessing the accidental death of a fan.
While each film was different in content, they were all deeply rooted in Cassavetes’ trademark direction. His films rejected any attempt at simplistic psychoanalysis, instead embracing the messy, imperfect expressions of their difficult characters. He pushed for emotional honesty, even if it was painful, something that fueled (and was fueled by) his lifelong struggle with alcoholism.
Cassavetes eschewed any overt stylization for an approach that prioritized his actors and their performances, lighting up entire rooms and doing his best to keep the camera out of the actors’ way. He stood firmly against the notion of the auteur, believing instead in a highly collaborative process that gave the actors the freedom to interpret their characters as they saw fit; he would even rewrite scripts to their liking.
Throughout his career, Cassavates struggled with financing his films. He refused to work with major studios, not wanting them to compromise his artistic instincts for commercial appeal, and thus he had to raise the money himself. To fund “A Woman Under the Influence,” Cassavetes mortgaged his and Rowlands’ house and eventually took a job teaching at the American Film Institute (AFI), where he recruited his students as crew members and even borrowed AFI film equipment to finish shooting.
Distribution didn’t come easy either. Major distributors didn’t take an interest in Cassavetes’ films and when they did, the films tended to flop anyway. He continued to work intermittently throughout the 1980s, returning to the crime genre with “Gloria” (1980) and directing his last independent feature “Love Streams” in 1984, both which starred Gena Rowlands and the latter of which he acted in himself. Cassavetes’ final film was “Big Trouble” (1986), a studio comedy that he despised and practically disowned. Towards the end of the decade, Cassavetes was facing health problems from his alcohol addiction, though he still managed to find work in the theater and write a script that his son Nick turned into a film —“She’s So Lovely” — in 1997. In 1989, Cassavetes died from cirrhosis of the liver, leaving behind Rowlands and their three children.
John Cassavetes’ influence can be seen in the anxiety-ridden, improvisational films of the Safdie brothers, in particular, “Uncut Gems” (2019). Cassavetes was also a mentor to Martin Scorsese, always steering the younger filmmaker away from commercial concerns and encouraging more personal films. Cassavetes’ method of improvisation was passed on to Scorsese, who implemented the technique into his filmmaking skillset.
But beyond just the individual filmmakers he inspired, Cassavetes is important because he quite literally pioneered independent filmmaking. As gatekept as the film industry is today, it was even harder to break into when Cassavetes started out. Before the advent of digital cameras, filmmaking was an especially difficult field, one that took time and money most people simply didn’t have. But Cassavetes proved that you could make small-scale movies on a tight budget and still achieve artistic fulfillment. As Cassavetes himself said, “Money has nothing to do with film.”
John Cassavetes is not a household name, and there’s little to suggest that he’ll ever become one. He was a man who gave everything he had into his movies and who never bothered trying to make something marketable, instead interested in raw, unfiltered truth. He was, to his core, a truly independent filmmaker.