John Cazale. Five films. Six years. A lifetime of legacy.
No one had the slightest clue who John Cazale was when he was cast as the weak, foolish Corleone brother in The Godfather. But at the behest of his good friend Al Pacino, Cazale was plucked from New York stage obscurity and sent to rally with guys like Brando, Caan, and Duvall. Which he did, with impossible emotion and vulnerability.
Vulnerability. That’s a word you hear a lot by people who describe Cazale, the man, and Cazale, the actor. He was completely willing to open himself up to each of the four characters he played. Sidney Lumet said Cazale possessed a “tremendous sadness” (the origins of which Lumet never pushed to discover). Whatever his methods were, Cazale transcended screen acting. He did it with his cold, dark eyes, with a glance, or a helpless whimper.
Cazale was 42 when he died in 1978 after a particularly grueling bout with terminal lung cancer. His credits are restricted to five films. Five classics that helped define the finest decade of American cinema. If I were to ever make a list of my top 10 favorite actors of all time, you can be sure that John Cazale would be ranked among them. Here’s why.
The Godfather (1972)
You don’t really notice Fredo much in the opening scenes of The Godfather. He’s standing in the background, off to the side, trying to hide how drunk he is at his sister’s wedding. He sits quietly, dutifully, always doing whatever menial tasks his father assigns. Really, it isn’t until Don Corleone is gunned down that Fredo gets his moment to shine. Which brings me to his:
Best Scene: It’s one of the most memorable fuck ups of film history. As two gangsters shoot Don Corleone what feels like dozens of times, Fredo stumbles from the car, trying desperately to grab hold of his gun. Once he realizes his father’s would-be killers have fled, Fredo looks down at his bloodied father, and that’s when we see them. Those dark, sunken eyes. He knells down and begs for his “poppa” to come back to life. Utterly devastatingly.
The Conversation (1974)
Cazale delivered his most understated performance (which is saying a lot, because Cazale was understatement) as Gene Hackman’s unassuming assistant in the masterful thriller, The Conversation. Director Francis Ford Coppola wrote the part of Stan specifically for Cazale, which makes perfect sense, seeing as how Stan is apparently nothing more than a normal guy. He’s a guy that gets frustrated by his job, talks when he’s anxious, and longs for a beer after work. He’s a guy that camouflages himself in the background, hidden underneath his wool caps. But when he’s called upon to hit his mark, holy hell, does he ever.
Best Scene: Soon after Stan and Hackman’s Harry get into an argument, Harry attends a conference for surveillance experts. While Harry is talking with Moran, his biggest competitor, out walks Stan, Moran’s newest employee. Stan walks onto the tradeshow floor and gives Hackman a look of such confounding defiance that I honestly cannot find the words to articulate it. It’s the kind of look that should win awards.
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
Moving from a background player to the film’s emotional anchor, Cazale is nothing short of revelatory in the second installment of The Godfather saga. He revolutionized his own acting abilities, sure, but also acting in general. It’s impossible to not watch Fredo defend his incredibly idiotic decisions and not be reminded of a young Brando. And tell me that a weak, limp Fredo sitting alone at his mother’s funeral isn't reminiscent of James Dean at his isolated best.
John Cazale’s performance as Fredo Corleone in this film is one of the very finest accomplishments in screen acting. Watching him in it is a lesson in the craft.
Best Scene: Fredo was stepped over, and he’s not exactly happy about it. More here.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Oh Sal, you poor, confused, simple man. There’s a common theme among Cazale’s work, that of utter hopelessness. When you watch him, you instinctively feel sorry for him. You want to grab him and tell him everything is going to be okay, even though you know it isn’t.
Watching Sal and Sonny (Al Pacino) attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank is like watching Murphy’s Law in motion. Whatever can go wrong, does – mostly because the people involved don’t have the slightest clue what they’re doing. At his core, I honestly think Sal is an earnest, kind man wrapped up in a bad thing for the wrong reasons. He wants nothing more than to escape from the madness of this day, but, sadly, life just ain’t that easy.
Best Scene: Lot to chose from. His iconic delivery of the word “Wyoming” is one, but my favorite Cazale scene here is when he tells Sonny that he’ll do whatever it takes to make it out alive, including killing their hostages. Listen to the way his voice cracks when he says, “I’m ready to do it.” Sends chills down my spine.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
How’s this for a heartbreaker: visibly losing his battle to cancer, director Michael Cimino agreed to film all of Cazale’s scenes in The Deer Hunter first. When the studio said they wanted Cazale off the movie because of his health, Cimino and Cazale’s then girlfriend, Meryl Streep threatened to walk away. The studio relented, but said they wouldn’t cover his insurance, so Robert De Niro fronted the bill.
That’s encouragement from your peers if I ever heard it. But what Cimino, Streep and De Niro all knew, and what we know now, is that by having John Cazale in the film, The Deer Hunter would only be better off.
Playing the most wiseass character of his career, Stosh is a small town fella living a small town life. He works all night, drinks all day, busts his friends’ balls, and so on. Stosh is another Cazale performance in which everything is done in the background. Like when everyone is getting their picture taken at a wedding, and Cazale checks to see if his zipper is down right as the camera flashes. Or the way he straightens his bow tie in the reflection of a car window before muttering out, “Beautiful.”
The Deer Hunter is one of my top five films of all time for a number of reasons. Other performers involved, like De Niro, Streep, and Christopher Walken, were given more to do in the film, but Cazale made his scenes just that: his.
Best Scene: It must be the infamous “This is this,” scene in which De Niro’s character berates Stosh for being a continual fuck up. Their argument, fueled by Stosh’s negligence, goes on and on, and if you stop to reflect, you realize that this could very well be the last time these two friends ever see each other. It’s heartbreak like that that makes the film, and Cazale’s performance, so memorable.
I Knew It Was You (2009)
I’ve been an incredible admirer of John Cazale’s ever since I saw The Deer Hunter as a kid. That was my first foray into his genius, and I’ve spent the subsequent years rewatching his films and gathering as much general knowledge about him as I can. Richard Shepard’s documentary I Knew It Was You is, perhaps, the best historical lesson one can find on Cazale’s legacy.
The documentary implores interviews from the people who knew him best including Pacino, Streep, De Niro, Coppola and Lumet, as well as people who only know him through his work, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell and Steve Buscemi. Each participant’s interview is thoughtful, engaging, and tremendously insightful. I’ve studied Cazale’s acting a great deal, but after watching I Knew It Was You, I had a newfound respect for his work
The only negative thing I have to say about this movie is that, at 39 minutes, it is far too short. Although Cazale’s time on screen was brief, his life could very well sustain a feature length doc. With that in mind, the underlying notion of I Knew It Was You is that Cazale’s talent will live on forever. Hidden in the background of five remarkable films, continually begging to be discovered.
William H. Macy