Cassavetes, Volatile Contrarian, Mulish Master of Improvisation

The movies of John Cassavetes are for and by actors—at their worst, they’re about actors, too. All those grainy close-ups that the director insisted on may be truthful, but it’s the truth of behavior, not drama—drama demands a sense of narrative.

Movies like Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) don’t announce their subjects, and sometimes you’re still not sure two hours later. They’re not even like movies so much as they’re like life—desperate people banging their heads together in the hope of making a connection, and in something perilously close to real time.

My favorite moment in Marshall Fine’s new biography of Cassavetes comes when Martin Scorsese, no demon for structure, is watching Cassavetes edit a scene from Minnie and Moscowitz (1971).

“Come on, John,” said Mr. Scorsese, “get to the point of the scene.”

“Never!” Cassavetes shot back.

He’s not, obviously, to all tastes. Roman Polanski, with whom Cassavetes feuded on Rosemary’s Baby (1968), sneered: “He isn’t a director. He made some films. Anyone can take a camera and make a film like he made Shadows [1959].”

Cassavetes was always very consciously marching against the prevailing tide of movies, and he did it both because of his aesthetic morality and because he was by nature a contrarian. As his producer, Al Ruban, tells Mr. Fine: “No matter what position you took, he was on the other side. If you changed your position, so would he. He wouldn’t allow you to join him because he enjoyed the conflict.”

If one of Cassavetes’ films previewed well, he’d recut it to avoid any kind of facile likeability. The pleasure principle was largely absent; a work of art, he believed, should be tough or upsetting. One of his favorite old movies was Angels with Dirty Faces, with the gloriously truculent James Cagney. And why did he like Angels? It was the ambiguity of the ending: Is Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan going to the chair scared? Or is he just acting scared? You decide.

Cassavetes was, of course, impossible. In his emotional vocabulary, volatility was a desirable characteristic. Pauline Kael panned everything he ever did, and once, when they shared a cab, he ripped the shoes off her feet and heaved them out the window. Even as a young actor, he would pick fights, then talk his way out of them more or less for the fun of seeing if he could do it. “He would assume a character,” writes Mr. Fine, “and play it for real, provoking a response and then responding to it and manipulating it as truthfully as possible—without ever letting on to the other people that they were, in fact, acting in a scene of John’s devising.”

As an actor, Cassavetes was mercurial and slightly unsettling—if he’d come along 10 years later, he could have made a fortune playing snaky villains in Italian westerns. As a man, he was protean, knowing all sorts of things about all sorts of subjects. Haskell Wexler, who worked on Faces for a while, reports that it “was like working on a film with a living sketch pad, when the artist has a sense of what the film should be, but he doesn’t know whether to use a pen or make this part longer. He would try not to impose his view and hope that the actors could improve and expand upon it with improvisation, without letting them know what he had in mind. They would try and please him and he would hope it would turn out better than he imagined.”

The Cassavetes method—a series of improvisations based on a rough outline that gradually evolves into a sort-of script—seems to be the pattern for Mike Leigh, though Mr. Leigh’s movies owe far more to the three-act structure than Cassavetes’. The everybody-into-the-pool approach (“Make mistakes,” he once snapped at Patti Lupone, “stop being careful”) is the antithesis of the highly structured Hollywood system, so it’s no surprise that Cassavetes’ films are such a calculated slap in the face, with choices that can swerve into the surreal.

The first time I saw A Woman Under the Influence, I thought I was hallucinating; one of the guys in Peter Falk’s construction crew looked like Leon (Daddy Wags) Wagner, a Cleveland Indians outfielder in the 1960’s who’d dropped out of sight. And, by God, it was Daddy Wags! Anybody can cast a great athlete for name value, but leave it to Cassavetes to cast a mediocre one—probably because he liked Wagner’s Tartar cheekbones.

Mr. Fine’s biography is primarily journalistic, but it lacks equilibrium, mainly because the great Gena Rowlands—a working-class Marlene Dietrich to her husband’s neo-realist von Sternberg—wouldn’t talk to him; nor would their three children. The family did, however, tell others they could be interviewed, so what you get is a fairly rich stew of anecdote about how the films were made, but little about the life that was fueling the work.

At one point, Mr. Fine implies that Cassavetes may have been less than a perfect husband. He doesn’t specify where this information came from, but it’s not much of a leap to extrapolate infidelity from the man who gave us the roaring men-children of Husbands (1970).

Cassavetes died fairly young—just shy of 60—in 1989. He’d contracted hepatitis in 1967, and was always something of a functioning alcoholic—toward the end, he was downing a bottle of vodka a day, without ever seeming to be drunk. Cirrhosis landed with both feet and grotesquely distended his abdomen. The doctors gave him the come-to-Jesus talk, and he quit drinking cold turkey, but by then it was too late.

I’m ambivalent about his work: I like the idea of John Cassavetes more than I do the experience of watching the films. He compels a sneaking admiration for his single-minded determination to be the most Cassavetes he could be, even if that determination perversely gets in the way of a full appreciation of all his lonely people groping in the dark.

I do think that A Woman Under the Influence is one of the few American movies worthy to stand alongside Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and Scenes from a Marriage—the gold standard for movies about brutal family lacerations. That said, having seen A Woman Under the Influence twice, I can’t imagine seeing it again—it’s too exhausting, too draining, too long. Which, I can just see Cassavetes saying with his most wolfish grin, is the point.

The man refused to water down his drinks. If you don’t like the burn, stay away.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer was published by Simon & Schuster last May; he reviews books regularly for The Observer.