John Cassavetes was a Greek-American actor, film director, and screenwriter. He is considered a pioneer of American independent film, as he often financed his own films.
Cassavetes was born in New York City in 1929 to Nicholas John Cassavetes and his wife, Katherine Demetre (1906-1983). Nicholas was an immigrant from Greece, while Katherine was Greek-American and had been born in New York City. The Cassavetes family moved back to Greece in the early 1930s, and John learned Greek as his primary language. The family moved back to the United States c. 1936, possibly to evade Greece’s new dictatorship, the 4th of August Regime (1936-1941). The seven-year-old John had to learn to speak English.
Cassavetes spent his late childhood and most of his teenage years in Long Island, New York. From 1945 to 1947, he attended the Port Washington High School. He wrote for the school newspaper and the school yearbook. The 18-year-old Cassavetes was then transferred to the Blair Academy, a boarding school located in Blairstown, New Jersey.. When the time came for him to start college, Cassavetes enrolled at Champlain College, located in Burlington, Vermont. He was expelled from college for poor grades.
After a brief vacation to Florida, Cassavetes enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, located in New York City. Several of his old friends were already students at the Academy, and had recommended it to Cassavetes. Cassavetes’s acting teacher was Don Richardson (1918-1996), who had also served as a mentor to Anne Bancroft, Grace Kelly, and Zero Mostel. Cassavetes graduated in 1950 at the age of 21. He started regularly performing in theater while also appearing in small roles in films and television shows.
His first notable film role was that of Robert Batsford, one of the three villains in the film noir “The Night Holds Terror” (1955). The other two villains were played by Vince Edwards (1928-1996) and David Cross (1933-1990). Cassavetes’s next major role was juvenile delinquent Frankie Dane in the crime film “Crime in the Streets” (1956).
Cassavetes gained a lead role in the film noir “Edge of the City” (1957), wherein he played drifter Axel Nordmann. His co-star for the film was Sidney Poitier (b. 1927), who played stevedore Tommy Tyler. The film was unusual for the time, as it portrayed interracial friendship among working-class men. Cassavetes gained critical acclaim for his role, and film critics compared him to then-popular actor Marlon Brando (1924-2004).
His success as an actor resulted in Cassavetes’s becoming a contract player for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). In 1959, Cassavetes completed the first film he ever directed, “Shadows”. It depicted the lives of three African-American siblings (two brothers, one sister) in New York City. It won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival.
His next directing effort was the drama “Too Late Blues” (1961), about the professional and romantic problems of a struggling jazz musician. The film was poorly received at the time, though its autobiographical elements are considered remarkable. In 1963, Cassavetes directed the drama “A Child Is Waiting”, depicting life in a state institution for mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed children. The film was a documentary-style portrayal of problems in the social services. It was praised by critics but failed at the box office.
In 1968, Cassavetes had a comeback as a director with the drama film “Faces”, which depicts a single night in the life of a middle-aged married couple. After 14 years of marriage, the two feel rather miserable and seek happiness in the company of friends and the beds of younger lovers, but neither manages to cure their sense of misery. The film gained critical acclaim and was considered among Cassavetes’s best. In 2011, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Cassavetes returned to the theme of a midlife crisis in his next film, “Husbands” (1970). The film depicts three men in middle-age, professionally successful and seemingly happily married. The death of a close childhood friend reminds them of their own mortality, and of their fading memories of youth. They flee their ordinary lives with a shared vacation to London, but their attempts to rejuvenate themselves fail. This film attracted mixed reviews, with some critics praising its “moments of piercing honesty” and others finding fault with its rambling dialogue.
Cassavetes’s next film was the romantic comedy “Minnie and Moskowitz” (1971). It features a romantic relationship between a seemingly incompatible couple, the jaded museum curator Minnie Moore and the temperamental drifter Seymour Moskowitz. It was well received and gained Cassavetes a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen.
His next film was the drama “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974), concerning the effects of mental illness on a working-class family. In the film, ordinary housewife Mabel Longhetti starts displaying signs of a mental disorder. She undergoes psychiatric treatment for six months while her husband, Nick Longhetti, attempts to play the role of a single father. But Nick seems to be a social misfit in his own right, and neither parent seems to be “normal”. Cassavetes was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for this film, but the award was won by Francis Ford Coppola.
Cassavetes next directed the gritty crime film “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976). In the film, Korean War veteran and cabaret owner Cosmo Vittelli owes a large debt to a criminal organization and is coerced to serve as their hit-man in an assassination scheme. He has been told that the target is an insignificant bookie, but after the assassination Vittelli learns that he just killed a high-ranking crime boss of the Chinese mafia and that he himself is now a target for assassination. The film gained good reviews and a cult following.
Cassavetes’s next film, “Opening Night” (1977), was more enigmatic, mixing drama with horror elements. Protagonist Myrtle Gordon is a famous actress, but aging and dissatisfied with the only theatrical role available to her. After seeing teenager Nancy Stein, one of her obsessive fans , get killed in a car accident, Myrtle starts having visions of Nancy’s ghost. As she keeps fighting the ghost, drinking heavily and chain-smoking, the film ends without explaining what seems to be going wrong with Myrtle’s perception of reality. The film was a hit in Europe but a flop in the United States.
Cassavetes had another directing comeback with “Gloria” (1980). In the film, Gloria Swenson (formerly a gangster’s girlfriend) is asked to protect Phil Dawn, the young son of an FBI informant within a New York crime family. After the apparent assassination of Phil’s parents, Gloria finds herself targeted by gangsters and wanted by the police as a kidnapping suspect. The film won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, and protagonist Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’s wife, was nominated for several acting awards.
Cassavetes’s 11th directing effort was the rather unconventional drama “Love Streams” (1984), concerning the love between two middle-aged siblings. In the film, Sarah Lawson suffers from depression following a messy divorce and moves in with her brother, Robert Harmon, an alcoholic writer with self-destructive tendencies. Though estranged from his ex-wife and his only son and unable to protect himself from violent foes, in the end Robert finally has someone to care for. The film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Cassavetes’ swan song as a director was the comedy “Big Trouble” (1986). Cassavetes was hired to replace Andrew Bergman (b. 1945), who was originally intended to direct this film. The film concerns an insurance agent who needs $40,000 for college tuition for his three daughters. He agrees to cooperate in an insurance scam with the wife of one of his clients, though the plan may require them to murder her husband. Several elements of the film were recycled from the plot of the film noir “Double Indemnity” (1944), and “Big Trouble” served as its unofficial remake. The film was not successful, and Cassavetes himself reportedly disliked having to work with this script.
In the late 1980s, Cassavetes suffered from health problems and his career was in decline. He died in 1989 from cirrhosis of the liver caused by many years of heavy drinking. He was only 59 years old. He is buried at the Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles, having left more than 40 unproduced screenplays and an unpublished novel.
His son, Nick Cassavetes (b. 1959) eventually used one of the unproduced screenplays to direct a new film, the romantic drama “She’s So Lovely” (1997). It was released eight years following John Cassavetes’s death and was well received by critics. It is a testament to Cassavetes’s enduring appeal.
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