Saturday, February 11, 2012

The most masculine voice in town: Deceased Artiste Ben Gazzara

The last of Cassavetes' three “husbands” has now left us. Peter Falk may have been the crowd-pleaser of the trio, and Cassavetes the visionary, but Gazzara was the most intense, without question. His voice exuded machismo without seeming like a pose (John Wayne) or a threat (Eastwood). Put simply, he had the tones of a man who did not fuck around in his conversation. You could believe Ben Gazzara.

It’s interesting to consider that he had the spottiest movie career of the three gentlemen. JC appeared in crappy pictures and TV because he was financing his personal films; Falk made a bunch of meager choices in his later years, but would always “recover” with a better-chosen part (or just another Columbo TV-movie). Gazzara didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into any specific kind of role, and so he moved around from genre to genre. Thus, he was the kind of an actor who never gave a bad performance, but his reputation rests on a small handful of incredibly intense and charismatic roles.

He began as a stage actor, having attended the Actors Studio during the Fifties when that institution produced intense leading men like a well-oiled production line. His voice was the key to his performances — in the 2003 documentary Broadway: the Golden Age, Gena Rowlands reminisces about how Gazzara’s voice could reach the upper balcony clearly, even when he was whispering onstage.

We don’t have many traces of his stage work, except this wonderful clip of the 1955 Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which Ben originated the role of Brick. The clip is included in the aforementioned Golden Age documentary:

Prior to that play, he appeared in the play End as a Man, based on the bestselling Calder Willingham novel. The novel was eventually transformed into a film called The Strange One (1957), with a completely indelible finale. Here is the trailer:

Gazzara’s next scene-stealing big-screen role was in Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Throughout the Fifties and Sixties he thrived on both the stage (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and TV. Here’s a bit of the latter, Benny fooling around with Whitey Ford and Joe Louis on I’ve Got a Secret:

For a certain generation, Gazzara’s seminal role was on TV as a lawyer who has been told that he has no less than nine and no more than 18 months to live (what an imprecise medic), so he goes on the road searching for new experiences in the completely oddball dramatic series Run for Your Life (1965-68). Each new episode found Gazzara encountering a new group of people and making an impact on their lives (or they made an impact on him). Here is a confrontation with veteran tough-guy character actor Henry Silva:

An “ethnic” scene wherein Gazzara meets opinionated Sicilians Harry Guardino and Sal Mineo:

An encounter with a free-thinker and “pornographic” writer, played by Barbara Hershey:

It has been much discussed by fans and students of Cassavetes how the starring trio in Husbands behaved on-camera as if they had been friends for years. All three actors stated that they barely knew each other, except for having met at public events and parties. Gena Rowlands, though, did guest on Run For Your Life, and thus had some close encounters with Gazzara more than a decade before the two worked together in what I consider the only flawed film of Cassavetes’ personal work, Opening Night (1977). Here is a scene from that RFYL ep:

The stars of Husbands (1970) did seem like they were old friends. Perhaps Cassavetes’ intensive rehearsal period — wherein actors improvised their dialogue and “lived” in their roles — contributed to this, or maybe the three actors were just destined to be pals at some point in their lives. Whatever the case may be, it’s one of Cassavetes’ most emotional and unusual films, in that there are several sequences where the actors are clearly improvising on camera.

Perhaps because the film was funded by a large studio (Columbia), JC felt he could let loosen his rules for a bit, and thus the film has a very informal, and extremely real, aspect to it. An hour-long BBC documentary about the making of the film is available on YT here, and here is the trailer, narrated by the velvet-voiced William B. Williams:

Setting aside Opening Night, we wind up at the picture that has probably contributed the most to Gazzara’s cult status among indie filmgoers, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). The film was a massive failure in its first release (hear Ben talk about that here) and was basically “hidden” by Cassavetes in his lifetime (at least in the U.S.; in the Eighties, I was finally able to see it in Paris, where it was playing at one theater once every weekday).

It has since acquired a great reputation, and its appeal is tied up completely with Gazzara’s charismatic lead performance. His strip-club owner isn’t even on the show-biz map, and yet he’s a man with a moral code and a sense of duty about pleasing his audience.

In that regard, the most interesting anecdote that Gazzara told about the film was that he had to take Cassavetes aside a few days into filming to tell him something was wrong. Cassavetes had no idea what the problem was, and Gazzara mentioned that the girls weren’t undressing on-camera, and that the film was about a strip club. Cassavetes was actually kind of a prude when it came to nudity or sex, but Gazzara, staying true to the code of his character Cosmo Vitelli, knew what the right move was.

The first 15 minutes of the film are here, but here is perhaps the film’s best sequence, with Cosmo talking to his performers in the dressing room:

Another great moment:

Outside of the Cassavetes films and The Strange One, one of the strongest lead roles Gazzara had in a film was Saint Jack (1979), a tough, nasty little character study that was quite a surprise from cineaste/filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. The film has the feel of Chinese Bookie and has the added allure of having been shot in Singapore. It was produced by Roger Corman (as was Bogdanovich’s Targets), and supplies further evidence of Corman’s risk-tasking side. It received great reviews but generally tanked when it came out; now, of course, it’s seen as an absolutely terrific film:

Gazzara worked with Bogdanovich again on the romantic comedy They All Laughed (1981). The film is charming, but it has a sort of sadness hanging over it. The killing of Dorothy Stratten was the first sad incident associated with the film, but then one considers that the NYC it shows is long gone (something mentioned by Bogdanovich in the commentary track he did for the DVD), that happy-go-lucky costar John Ritter died at a younger age of heart trouble, and that Gazzara and costar Audrey Hepburn (who was not unwell during the film, but looks oddly tired throughout) were carrying on an affair that lasted for a short while. The real-life attraction between the two informed their love scenes:

Gazzara was so effortlessly macho that he could take a role that was sort of off-kilter and stabilize it. He does that with the lead role of the poet Charles Serking in the great Marco Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981). Serking is based on Charles Bukowksi, who wrote the source novel for the film, and there’s no question that, while Mickey Rourke might have been truer to Bukowski’s speaking voice (Snagglepus on booze), Gazzara was the dream version of Charles Bukowski, a macho boozer and brawler who was also acutely sensitive. In short, he had a LOT of fucking style:

But what will the average cable-viewer remember Ben G. for? His villainous turn in the super-schlocky Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House (1989). The movie is fun trash from beginning to end, and Gazzara makes a terrific villain, especially when he is able to tell off Swayze and then “beat him up,” courtesy of a much younger stuntman. Here Benny is, singing my mom’s fave, the whitebread cover of “Sh-Boom” by the Crew Cuts. Ben could be cool, even in the trashiest of trash flicks:

Gazzara suffered health problems in the last decade, including throat cancer that decimated his strong and clear voice. He was still a superb actor, so he thrived in supporting roles in more Road House-like crap and ambitious films like Lars Von Trier’s impressively abstract Dogville (2003). He also continued to work in live theater, playing in off-Broadway shows and receiving wonderful reviews.

He was not above hyping his work in the media, and perhaps one of the odder things I heard him on was the WOR-AM “Joey Reynolds Show” on the hour of the show that Joey dubbed “the Italian hour.” Il Grande Gazzara, who had once partnered with John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, was on that occasion sitting with a character actor (mob specialist) named “Cha-cha” and Joe Piscopo. At first I thought of this as a mighty fall for a guy who dwelt in the top tier of actors, but then I realized that despite whatever health problems he was having, Gazzara remained a working actor, and to plug the gigs he got, he had to do interviews.

The memory of that moment in his career where his opinions on acting were considered (on one radio show, at least) equal to those of Cha-cha and Piscopo makes me yearn for the type of interviews the European press conducted with him. Check him out here being interviewed by a French woman journalist for the show Cinema Cinemas on 42nd Street near Ninth Avenue. He holds forth on his favorite kind of part (“men who don’t always win the war”) and his love of reality in acting.

I’ll close this out with two clips related to Husbands. First, the nightmare vision of what the film might’ve turned out to be, if Cassavetes' strong radar for fine acting had ever slipped — here are Cassavetes, Gazzara, and Marty Ingels (!) cast as three poker-playing buddies in the goofy comedy If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969).

And there is no better way to feel the real-life vibe that the Husbands trio gave off than to watch this amazing Dick Cavett show from 1970 with the three men as his only guests. It’s been noted that these guys were “the Rat Pack of independent film.” That ain’t half wrong:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great article, you really captured his spirit