When it was announced on Friday that the great Ben Gazzara had succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 81, I was struck with a profound sense of loss, similar to the passing of his good friend, Peter Falk last June.
Gazzara had it. He had the command, the effortless skill; it had it, and he could do damn near anything he wanted with it. He could be the tough guy, the quiet gentleman, the desperate friend, the compassionate lover – Gazzara could exceed the expectations set by most any role.
When news of his passing broke, I did what I always do when people I adore in the film business die: I went home and watched as much of his work as I could. I watched him gently control a section of the Bronx in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, steal a scene from Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, have an amusing affair with his neighbor in Happiness, and defend his honor in Anatomy of a Murder.
There was so much to take in: The Spanish Prisoner, Buffalo ’66, Dogville, and, of course, his revelatory work as part of the John Cassavetes troupe with wonders like Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night.
But after all these, the Gazzara role I found myself watching repreadtly this weekend was his heartbreaking turn in the “Quartier Latin” segment of Paris, Je’Taime.
The segment, directed by Gérard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin, is a simple dinner conversation between Ben (Gazzara) and his wife, Gena (played by Gazzara’s longtime friend, and the segment’s writer, Gena Rowlands). Seconds into their chat, we come to understand that this is the final conversation Ben and Gena are to have before they are officially divorced.
They talk about their time apart, the younger man Gena has been seeing, and the much younger, and recently pregnant, woman Ben plans to soon marry. “I never understood anything about you,” Ben politely offers at one point.
Ben carries himself amicably, but completely unapologetic; a modest contrast to Gena’s fidgeting pleas for reconsideration. They issue playful jabs, joking and prodding, and when she leaves, he doesn’t dare walk her out, offering only a gracious, “bitch” as a parting term of endearment.
Like all of Paris, Je’Taime's best segments, “Quartier Latin” is wholly effective in the very short time it has to tell its story. But there’s something I found haunting (or heartbreaking, or amusing, or all of the above) in Gazzara’s indifference. Sure, Gazzara was better in other roles, but I have a sneaking suspicion that when I want to remember the skill that one of my favorite actors possessed, I’ll refer to “Quartier Latin” time and time again.