John Cassavetes - Director

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 9 December 1929. Education: Mohawk College, Colgate University, and New York Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduated 1950. Family: Married actress Gena Rowlands, 1958, two sons, one daughter. Career: Title character in TV series Johnny Staccato , 1959–60; directed first film, Shadows , 1960; hired by Paramount, then by Stanley Kramer, 1961; worked as independent filmmaker, from 1964. Awards: Critics Award, Venice Festival, for Shadows , 1960; Best Screenplay, National Society of Film Critics, and five awards from Venice Festival, for Faces , 1968; Golden Lion, Venice Festival, for Gloria , 1980; Golden Bear, Berlin Festival, for Love Streams , 1984; Los Angeles Film

John Cassavetes
John Cassavetes
Critics Career Achievement Award, 1986. Died: Of cirrhosis of the liver, in Los Angeles, 3 February 1989.

Films as Director:


Shadows (+ sc)


Too Late Blues (+ sc, pr)


A Child Is Waiting


Faces (+ sc)


Husbands (+ sc, role as Gus)


Minnie and Moskowitz (+ sc, role as Husband)


A Woman under the Influence (+ sc)


The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (+ sc)


Opening Night (+ sc)




Love Streams


Big Trouble

Other Films:


Fourteen Hours (Hathaway) (role as extra)


Taxi (Ratoff) (role)


The Night Holds Terror (Stone) (role)


Crime in the Streets (Siegel) (role)


Edge of the City (Ritt) (role)


Saddle the Wind (Parrish) (role); Virgin Island (P. Jackson) (role)


The Webster Boy (Chaffey) (role)


The Killers (Siegel) (role as Johnny North)


The Dirty Dozen (Aldrich) (role as Victor Franko); Devil's Angels (Haller) (role)


Rosemary's Baby (Polanski) (role as Rosemary's husband); Gli Intoccabili ( Machine Gun McCain ) (Montaldo) (role)


Roma coma Chicago ( Bandits in Rome ) (De Martino) (role); If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (M. Stuart) (cameo role)


Two-Minute Warning (Pearce) (role); Mikey and Nicky (May) (role)


The Fury (De Palma) (role)


The Tempest (Mazursky) (role)



Faces , New York, 1970.

John Cassavetes, Peter Falk , edited by Bruce Henstell, Washington,

D.C., 1972.

By CASSAVETES: articles—

"What's Wrong with Hollywood," in Film Culture (New York), April 1959.

" . . . and the Pursuit of Happiness," in Films and Filming (London), February 1961.

"Incoming Tide: Interview," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), no. 1, 1962.

"Faces: Interview," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), Spring 1968.

"Masks and Faces: Interview," with David Austen, in Films and Filming (London), September 1968.

"The Faces of the Husbands," in New Yorker , 15 March 1969. Interview with Jonas Mekas, in Village Voice (New York), 23 December 1971.

Interview with L. Gross, in Millimeter (New York), April 1975.

" Shadows Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 December 1977.

"Cassavetes on Cassavetes," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), June 1978.

"Le Bal des vauriens. Entretien avec John Cassavetes," with Y. Lardeau and L. Marcorelles, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1978.

"Crucial Culture," interview with R. Appelbaum, in Films (London), January 1981.

"Retracting the Stream of Love," an interview with Richard Combs, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), April 1984.

Interview with Brian Case, in Stills (London), June-July 1984.

Interview in Film Comment (New York), July-August 1988.


Loeb, Anthony, editor, Filmmakers in Conversation , Chicago, 1982.

Alexander, Georg, and others, John Cassavetes , Munich, 1983.

Carney, Raymond, American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience , Berkeley, 1985.

Gavron, Laurence, and Denis Lenoir, John Cassavetes , Paris, 1986.

Carney, Raymond, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies , Cambridge and New York, 1994.

Amiel, Vincent, Le corps au cinéma: Keaton, Bresson, Cassavetes , Paris, 1998.

On CASSAVETES: articles—

Taylor, John Russell, "Cassavetes in London," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1960.

Mekas, Jonas, "Cassavetes, the Improvisation," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1962.

Sarris, Andrew, "Oddities and One-Shots," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1963.

Guerin, A., "After Faces, a Film to Keep the Man-Child Alive," in Life (New York), 9 May 1969.

"Robert Aldrich on John Cassavetes," in Dialogue on Film (Washington, D.C.), no. 2, 1972.

Benoit, C., and A. Tournes, "Femmes et maris dans l'oeuvre de Cassavetes," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), September/October 1976.

Simsolo, Noel, "Notes sur le cinéma de John Cassavetes," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1978.

Courant, G., and J. Farren, "John Cassavetes," in Cinéma (Paris), October 1979.

Stevenson, J., "John Cassavetes: Film's Bad Boy," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), January/February 1980.

Landy, M., and S. Shostack, "The Cinema of John Cassavetes," in Ciné-Tracts (Montreal), Winter 1980.

Prades, J., "La méthode de Cassavetes," in Cinématographe (Paris), April 1982.

"John Cassavetes Section" in Positif (Paris), January 1985.

Doorn, F. van, "Wonderkind en eeuwige angry young man," in Skoop , vol. 25, February 1989.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 8 February 1989.

Obituary in Time Out (London), 15 February 1989.

Brent, Lewis, "Cassavetes Recalled," Films and Filming , no. 414, April 1989.

Carney, R., "Complex Characters," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 25, May-June 1989.

Katzman, L., "Moment by Moment," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 25, May-June 1989.

Seesslen, G., "Liebesstroeme, Todesbilder," in EPD Film (Frankfurt/Main), vol. 6, June 1989.

Roy, A., "Flots de vie, flots de cinema," in 24 Images (Montreal), no. 43, Summer 1989.

Mongin, O., "Courants d'amour et de haine," in Esprit , no. 7, July-August 1990.

Viera, M., "The Work of John Cassavetes: Script, Performance Style, and Improvisation," in Journal of Film and Video (Atlanta), vol. 42, no. 3, Fall 1990.

Sayles, J., "Maverick Movie Makers Inspire Their Successors," in New York Times , 12 May 1991.

Hoberman, J., "Cassavetes and Leigh: Poets of the Ordinary," in Premiere (Boulder), vol. 5, October 1991.

Ciment, M., and others, "John Cassavetes," in Positif (Paris), special section, vol. 377, June 1992.

Gelmis, J., "Aussi longtemps que nous restons fous," in Positif (Paris), no. 377, June 1992.

Bendetto, L., "Forging an Original Response: A Review of Cassavetes Criticism in English," in Post Script (Commerce, Texas), vol. 11, no. 2, 1992.

Carney, R., "A Polemical Introduction: The Road Not Taken," in Post Script (Commerce, Texas), vol. 11, no. 2, 1992.

Viera, M., "Cassavetes' Working Methods: Interviews with Al Ruban and Seymour Cassel," in Post Script (Commerce, Texas), vol. 11, no. 2, 1992.

Zucker, C., "The Illusion of the Ordinary: John Cassavetes and the Transgressive Impulse in Performance and Style," in Post Script (Commerce, Texas), vol. 11, no. 2, 1992.

Landrot, M., "L'enfant terrible," in Télérama (Paris), 1 September 1993.

Cassavetes, J., "Peut-etre n'y a-t-il pas vraiment d'Amerique, peutetre seulement Frank Capra," in Positif (Paris), no. 392, October 1993.

Norman, B., in Radio Times (London), 2 October 1993.

Carels, E., "Love, Love, Love . . . ," in Andere Sinema (Antwerp), no. 118, November-December 1993.

Levich, J., "John Cassavetes: An American Maverick," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 20, 1993.

Scorsese, Martin, "Ida Lupino, John Cassavetes, Glauber Rocha: Trois portraits en forme d'hommage," Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 500, March 1996.

Chéné, Marie, and others, "John Cassavetes," Positif (Paris), no. 431, January 1997.

* * *

As perhaps the most influential of the independently produced feature films of its era (1958–1967), Shadows came to be seen as a virtual breakthrough for American alternative cinema. The film and its fledgling writer-director had put a group of young, independent filmmakers on the movie map, together with their more intellectual, less technically polished, decidedly less commercial, low-budget alternatives to Hollywood features.

Begun as an improvisational exercise in the method-acting workshop that actor John Cassavetes was teaching, and partly financed by his earnings from the Johnny Staccato television series, Shadows was a loosely plotted, heavily improvised work of cinema verité immediacy that explored human relationships and racial identity against the background of the beat atmosphere of the late 1950s, given coherence by the jazz score of Charles Mingus.

The origins and style of Shadows were to characterize John Cassavetes's work throughout his directorial career, once he got the studio-financed production bug out of his system—and his system out of theirs.

The five prizes garnered by Shadows , including the prestigious Critics Award at the 1960 Venice Film Festival, led to Cassavetes's unhappy and resentful experience directing two studio-molded productions ( Too Late Blues, A Child Is Waiting ), both of which failed critically and commercially. Thereafter, he returned to independent filmmaking, although he continued to act in mainstream movies such as The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary's Baby , and Two Minute Warning. He continued directing feature films, however, in his characteristic, controversial style.

That style centers around a freedom afforded his actors to share in the creative process. Cassavetes's scripts serve as sketchy blueprints for the performers' introspective explorations and emotional embellishments. Consequently, camera movements, at the command of the actors' intuitive behavior, are of necessity spontaneous.

The amalgam of improvisational acting, hand-held camera work, grainy stock, loose editing, and threadbare plot give his films a texture of recreated rather than heightened reality, often imbuing them with a feeling of astonishing psychodramatic intensity as characters confront each other and lay bare their souls. Detractors, however, see Cassavetes as too dedicated to the performers' art and too trusting of the actor's self-discipline. They charge that the result is too often a mild form of aesthetic anarchy.

At worst Cassavetes's films are admittedly formless and self-indulgent. Scenes are stretched excruciatingly far beyond their climactic moments, lines are delivered falteringly, dialogue is repetitious. But, paradoxically, these same blemishes seem to make possible the several lucid, provocative, and moving moments of transcendent human revelation that a Cassavetes film almost inevitably delivers.

As his career progressed, Cassavetes changed his thematic concerns, upgraded his technical production values, and, not surprisingly, attracted a wider audience—but without overhauling his actor-asauteur approach.

Faces represented Cassavetes's return to his favored semi-documentary style, complete with the seemingly obligatory excesses and gaffes. But the film also contained moments of truth and exemplary acting. Not only did this highly charged drama about the disintegration of a middle-class marriage in affluent Southern California find favor with the critical and filmmaking communities, it broke through as one of the first independent films to find a sizable audience among the general moviegoing public.

In Husbands , Cassavetes continued his exploration of marital manners, morals, and sexual identity by focusing on a trio of middle-class husbands—played by Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, and Peter Falk—who confront their own mortality when a friend dies. Director Cassavetes's doubled-edged trademark—brilliant moments of intense acting amid the banal debris of over-indulgence—had never been in bolder relief.

Minnie and Moskowitz was Cassavetes's demonstration of a lighter touch, an amusing and touching interlude prior to his most ambitious and commercially successful film. The film starred Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes's wife) and Seymour Cassel as a pair of dissimilar but similarly lonely people ensnared in a manic romance. Cassavetes again examined miscommunication in Minnie and Moskowitz , but in a much more playful vein.

A Woman under the Influence was by far Cassavetes's most polished, accessible, gripping, and technically proficient film. For this effort, Cassavetes departed from his accustomed style of working by writing a fully detailed script during pre-production. Starring Gena Rowlands in a magnificent performance as a lower-middle class housewife coming apart at the seams, and the reliable Peter Falk as the hardhat husband who is ill-equipped to deal with his wife's mental breakdown, Woman offered a more palatable balance of Cassavetes's strengths and weaknesses. The over-long scenes and overindulgent acting jags are there, but in lesser doses, while the privileged moments and bursts of virtuoso screen acting seem more abundant than usual.

Financed by Falk and Cassavetes, the film's crew and cast (including many family members) worked on deferred salaries. Promoted via a tour undertaken by the nucleus of the virtual repertory company (Cassavetes, Rowland, Falk) and booked without a major distributor, Woman collected generally ecstatic reviews, Academy Award nominations for Cassavetes and Rowlands, and impressive box office returns.

Cassavetes's next two films ( The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night ) feature a return to his earlier structure (or lack thereof)—inaccessible, interminable, and insufferable for all but diehard buffs. However, Gloria , which showcased Rowlands as a former gangster's moll, while uneven in tone and erratic in pace, represented a concession by Cassavetes to filmgoers seeking heightened cinematic energy and narrative momentum.

"People who are making films today are too concerned with mechanics—technical things instead of feeling," Cassavetes told an interviewer in 1980. "Execution is about eight percent to me. The technical quality of a film doesn't have much to do with whether it's a good film."

—Bill Wine

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