Thursday 12 August 2010

In Memory of John Cazale

On the occasion of what would have been his 75th birthday, I thought I'd devote this blog post to perhaps one of the greatest losses the acting world ever saw. Today let's look at the life and career of Fredo himself, John Cazale.
More after the jump...

'Who's John Cazale?' you may ask. It's not an insult to not instantly recognise the name, but if you've seen any of the great 70's classics you'll definitely know the face. He only acted in five films in his short career, but all of those films were nominated for Best Picture Oscars. What did the filmmakers see in him to involve him in such high calibre projects, and what about him was drawn to these roles? He is definitely one of the key figures of 70's cinema, but is largely unknown to modern audiences.

John Cazale, like many of the key actors of the 70's era, started his career in the theatre. He had studied drama at Boston University and his first prominent role was in 'The Indian Wants The Bronx', in which he starred with future collaborator Al Pacino. They both won Off Broadway Theatre Awards (or Obie's) for their roles, and were brought to the attention of casting agent Fred Roos. He in turn suggested them to Francis Ford Coppola who was casting his drama about life in a Mafia led family, The Godfather.

Based upon the novel by Mario Puzo, the big name in the cast here was of course Marlon Brando. To many it has become Brando's signature role that he infamously refused to collect an Oscar for. The studio originally was unconvinced by Coppola's idea for casting an unknown actor in the pivotal role of Michael Corleone, but were eventually won over by Al Pacino's screen test. From there Pacino was able to score John Cazale an audition to play his older brother Fredo, a role that perfectly fitted Cazale's slightly awkward qualities.
Fredo was very much the forgotten son in the family. He lacked the bravado and temper of Sonny or the good nature and strong will of Michael. If I was to offer a modern analogy, Fredo is the equal of Buster Bluth in the television series Arrested Development. He's uninvolved with the family 'business' and isn't trusted to make important decisions. After Sonny's death and Vito's enforced retirement, the business should by all rights have fallen to the elder brother Fredo, but it's his younger brother Michael who steps forward to try and turn the operations legitimate.

This film continued John Cazale's working relationship with Francis Ford Coppola, but this film was a much different pace to the Godfather films. Cast as Stan, the assistant to Gene Hackman's surveillance expert Harry Caul, he is Caul's best friend who has to witness his paranoia spiral out of control. Hired to record a meeting between two people, Caul finds himself pulled deeper into a dark underworld that could lead to his death, and the tension builds as Harry Caul is forced to reassess his relationships with those closest to him. The Conversation is largely a one man show, and is very much a statement about fear of surveillance and the growing danger of our lives being constantly recorded in a post-Watergate society. Big Brother is watching and listening to our every move. This is one of those leading roles where everyone else just has to take a step back and let them do their work. Cazale's role is limited here as the technician Stan, but he conveys the potential underhandedness the role requires. Harry Caul doesn't know who to trust, and Cazale's shadowy demeanour perfectly feeds into that paranoia and fear of the unknown.

Following on quickly from the release of The Conversation, this film was released at the tail end of 1974. Unlike the first Godfather film, this installment was not based on an earlier novel. Coppola approached the original author Mario Puzo about continuing the saga of the Corleone family, and was able to take the story in any direction. Ultimately Coppola chose to chronicle the downfall of Michael Corleone, and mirrored that against scenes of his father's rise to power. After the first installment left the Corleone's with few family members left, a return for Fredo was inevitable. Cazale's role was increased this time around, as his character became an integral part of Michael's familial and moral downfall.
Fredo was a much more outgoing personality this time, clearly influenced by his time in Las Vegas, and rather than being controlled by his father or brothers, he had fallen in with another group of mobsters. When attacks are made against the family Michael has to confront Fredo about his involvement in it all. 'I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart!' Although he is given a stay of execution until after his mother's death, Fredo finally pays the ultimate price for his betrayal whilst fishing on Lake Tahoe.
A lot of people will describe Godfather Pt II as being a better film than the original. You may say that has a lot to do with Michael's story, but it also has a lot to do with Michael's downfall being epitomised by the treatment of his brother Fredo. At the end of The Godfather Pt II, the Corleone family is left in ruin, and Michael has to stand alone as the head of a non-existent family. All he has left is crime. With this film being released in the same year as The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola had two films nominated for Best Picture that year. It was this film that eventually won, and Coppola took home a Best Director Oscar for his efforts too.

After choosing to rob a bank on the worst day imaginable, Sal and Sonny find themselves part of a hostage situation and media circus in the middle of Brooklyn. There's no money in the bank, and all they want to do is make a clear escape. Sonny manages to relate to the growing crowd and get them on his side, but the police have them surrounded. Once again appearing with his close friend Al Pacino, Cazale got the part despite being completely wrong for the original character. Surprisingly, for a story about two men who decide to rob a bank to pay for a sex change operation, this was a true story, and the real life Sal was an 18 year old street punk as opposed to the 39 year old Cazale. Pacino was able to convince director Sidney Lumet that John Cazale was right for the role, and it's the only time he was recognised by his peers for any of his screen work, garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The story of John Cazale's role in the making of The Deer Hunter is definitely the most heartbreaking of his short career. At the time of filming he was terminally ill with bone cancer, making this his last role. He was engaged to Meryl Streep, having met whilst performing on stage in Shakespeare's Measure For Measure, and they would co-star here for the last time. To ensure he could complete his role, director Michael Cimino shot all of Cazale's scenes first. Even so, once the studio found out about his condition they wanted to re-shoot his scenes with another actor, but this resulted in Streep and Cimino threatening to walk off the project. As Cazale was un-insurable by the studio, Robert De Niro paid for his insurance, determined as much as the other cast to see Cazale appear in the finished film.

John Cazale unfortunately passed away on March 12th 1978, before the release of The Deer Hunter, and was unable to see his final role on the big screen. He was seen on screen in one more film, when archive footage was used during the denouement of The Godfather Pt III. Although I wouldn't classify this as an acting role of John Cazale, once again the film was nominated for Best Picture.

One of the saddest things about Cazale's death is imagining what a career he could have had, had he lived. Who knows, maybe he could have moved into more leading roles, maybe he would have won an Oscar, or maybe the quality might have dipped. I'm sure Al Pacino and Robert De Niro never saw their careers taking some of the twists and turns they have in the last 30 years. He's certainly no unjust martyr. Yes, he may have achieved some interesting statistics that are good to know if you're part of a quiz league, but there's clear acting talent here that has affected the way other actors have approached roles.

If you want to discover what legacy he left, you just have to look at the scores of supporting actors that fill our screens nowadays. Maybe everybody wants to be the star or the leading man, but for a number of actors that's just not feasible. It's just as much an artistic triumph when you can take a seemingly small supporting role in a film and quietly steal it away from the lead actor. Without him as the shining example of a character actor who can become a cult favourite we might not have Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell, Steve Buscemi, etc.

I'm really only scratching the surface here, and I hope that people who read this will be able to appreciate and recognise Cazale's work on a different level. There has recently been a documentary directed by Richard Shepard about Cazale's life and work called 'I Knew It Was You', of course referring to his signature performance of Fredo Corleone. Currently it's being screened in America by HBO, so hopefully we'll get to see it soon either on television or DVD.

You can't dispute the mans legacy and he's got a batting average there that no-one will ever be able to match again. In six years he played four roles in five films, all nominated for multiple Academy Awards, three of which won Best Picture. His roles in these films were integral to the story and to their success, and for those in the know he's the archetypal character actor. It's such a shame his life and career was just so drastically short, but we have five films that remain his legacy and will always be a part of our culture.


  1. i saw the documentary which you mention. i love how you dole out the information about john cazale as if it came out of your own research and then only passingly mention the movie at the end, bringing nothing more to equation. well done, slacker.

  2. Thanks Anonymous, that's a lovely piece of feedback.

    I'm pretty sure you've not paid too much attention to what I've written as I've clearly stated that the documentary isn't available yet. I'm situated in the UK where, so far, there's no immediate plans for its release. I'm eager to see it as I'd love to learn more about John Cazale, but it's a bit harsh for you to claim I've not done any research.

    I honestly don't know if there's any overlap with that documentary, but given that it's about the same subject I'd assume so. I DID do research for this, but my sources were limited. I'd never claim that this was a definitive source for people to learn about Cazale's life and career, but a lot of my readers would be wholly unfamiliar with him so I hoped this would act as a gentle introduction to him.

    Thanks for tarnishing what I was trying to achieve here.

  3. i won't dispute whether or not you saw the movie in question. i'll just say that none of your research existed prior to the release of this fine film, and therefore you unwittingly passed on nothing more than it covered. as far as tarnishing goes, let's not get too self-important shall we? you're the one who calls himself a slacker, afterall.

  4. Dear Anonymous,

    I absolutely respect your right to reply, but I think you've missed my point. In case you haven't noticed, my site is powered by blogspot. I don't have the resources of a full website, nor do I want to write a full dissertation on the subject. This was my daily blog post and I felt as though I'd offered an original viewpoint. As I stated, if some of what I've written crosses over with the documentary, that was inevitable and unavoidable. From what I found in the research I did, most of this information was TOTALLY available before the release of that film. To be blunt, John Cazale passed away 32 years ago, and I can't see what information has only come out recently.

    The implication was that I've used that documentary as crib notes, or taken it from sources about the documentary, and that I see as tarnishing my reputation and the work I put into this. I personally can't stand the idea of stealing information from someone else's work, and would never consider doing it. Admittedly, I don't do references, largely due to the fact that most of the information I've used has been picked up via osmosis, but I still check that my facts are correct.

    Ultimately though, all of this information is in the public domain, and if I have unknowingly passed on any new information that was originated by the documentary, I consider it my job to pass it on to the people that choose to read my site.

    My site is Slacker Cinema, and that refers to the content and type of films I review, not necessarily to the attitude I take towards my writing. I'm not a professional journalist and wouldn't claim to be, but I think I put enough effort and personal opinion into my writing to make it valid.

    Personally, I felt as though I offered a brief but limited look at John Cazale and his career, and mentioned the documentary as a possible way for those interested to find out more. When it becomes available in the UK, I certainly will be doing the same.

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