He was the undisputed heavyweight champion of independent cinema. John Cassavetes earned that title not simply because he worked on the cheap, shooting in his house, casting his family, and snubbing Hollywood conventions, but because of the fierce, cantankerous, unhinged energy with which he did it. Watching his movies is a thrilling, discomforting experience. We delve so deeply into his characters’ private lives that we often need to turn away when they make eye contact with us. In 11 feature films as a writer-director, Cassavetes created people — fragile, flawed, achingly human — who are all searching for a connection in their crazy world. ”Film is an investigation of life,” he said. ”What problems do you have that I might have? What part of life are we both interested in knowing more about?”
Thirty years ago, his glorious final masterpiece, Love Streams, came out in theaters. Now newly restored in a triumphant, about-time Criterion Blu-ray edition, the film is the ideal capper to a binge of his work. (More accessible than some of his earlier movies, it’s also a good entry point for the uninitiated.) Cassavetes, a lifelong smoker and drinker, was told by doctors when he started shooting Love Streams that he had only six months to live. So he rewrote the script as a wistful final expression — vital as ever but limned with a sharp layer of melancholy. ”Love,” says one character, ”is a stream. It’s continuous, it doesn’t stop.” ”No,” says another, ”it does stop.” (The filmmaker went on to live another five years before succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1989 at age 59. Though he left this world without winning an Oscar, he worked so far outside the mainstream that the seven nominations he and his films earned are a testament to his achievements.)
Love Streams, starring the director and his wife, Gena Rowlands, as unraveling siblings, cemented his maturation from an angry young guy into an endearingly grumpy, soulful old man. Gone are his handheld-camera and improv-around-the-clock schematics, but still present are the danger, humor, and exposed nerves. He ends the film with a nod to the magical in a scene involving a dog transforming into a man — a moment that seems positively loopy in Cassavetes’ universe, but really, no more absurd than life itself.
Before you dive into Love Streams, treat yourself to these eight must-sees
Born out of acting-class improvisations and shot for next to nothing on the streets of NYC, Shadows was his first daring expression of the low-budget, high-emotion ethos that would become his signature.
His stark, surprisingly funny study of a loveless couple scored three Oscar nominations, including for supporting players Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin, who had been Robert Altman’s secretary.
”I love men,” Cassavetes said of his self-consciously chauvinist, semi-improvised story of three married guys (Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and himself) in free fall after their friend (David Rowlands) dies. ”We’re so stupid.”
Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
Rowlands and Cassel star as misfit lovers in Cassavetes’ sweetest film — or as sweet as it can be with the director playing an abusive ex who smacks Rowlands to the ground.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Cassavetes and Rowlands got Oscar nominations for this emotional fireball of a drama about a housewife descending into madness. Their most red-hot electric collaboration.
The Killing of A Chinese Bookie (1976)
The director’s loose, shaggy attempt at a gangster movie was a flop with audiences, but Gazzara is terrific as a strip-club owner saddled with debts and at odds with the Mob.
Opening Night (1977)
Rowlands walks the tightrope again, this time as a Broadway actress confronting her demons of age and alcoholism. In one lengthy, bravura sequence, she performs in a play while fall-down drunk.
Rowlands earned her second Oscar nomination as a Mob moll protecting an orphan boy. It inspired Luc Besson’s The Professional, Julia with Tilda Swinton, and the woeful Gloria remake starring Sharon Stone.
”I loathe the simplicity of Hollywood movies,” said Cassavetes, who viewed working for the studios as akin to selling one’s soul to the devil. But he took acting jobs to finance his own films, and ironically, his most famous performance is as an actor who impregnates his wife with Satan’s seed in Rosemary’s Baby. He also played a small-time hood in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen, appeared opposite his good friend Peter Falk in Elaine May’s Mikey & Nicky (1976), and literally exploded from the inside out in the finale of Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978).
Few filmmakers have ever written as many complex roles for women. Cassavetes created seven blistering characters for the indomitable Rowlands, his co-conspirator, muse, and wife. From her beguiling close-up in the beginning of Faces to the scene of her pulling into a driveway in a taxicab full of barnyard animals in Love Streams, the actress tapped every last reserve of strength and vulnerability.
The Dirty Dozen (1967): Supporting Actor: John Cassavetes
Faces (1968): Supporting Actor: Seymour Cassel, Supporting Actress: Lynn Carlin, Screenplay: John Cassavetes
A Woman Under the Influence (1974): Actress: Gena Rowlands, Director: John Cassavetes
Gloria (1980): Actress: Gena Rowlands
People He Influenced
Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, Pedro Almodóvar, Steven Soderbergh, Sofia Coppola, Mumblecore filmmakers, Nicole Holofcener, Paul Thomas Anderson, Judd Apatow, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch