The strong weak man
There’s just something in that face that takes you into an area that’s very dark, personally dark, and heartbroken.
—Sidney Lumet (director, Dog Day Afternoon)
I’ve had a crush on John Cazale since I first saw him in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) when I was 15. He’s the kind of man you want to protect and take care of, but also get busy with at the same time. As creepy of an assessment as that may sound on my part, I felt oddly exonerated when I heard most everyone who was close to Cazale say basically the same thing—albeit more tactfully—in the first documentary ever about the actor, I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (2009) by director Richard Shepard.
It’s an apt title. Although Cazale never became a household name, even non-cinema-buffs will still recognize him from his role as Fredo Corleone, the infamously betraying brother to Al Pacino’s Michael in the Godfather films. Cazale only appeared in five movies before his life was painfully cut short, and as the documentary points out, all of them received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture. But even though a heartfelt interview in I Knew It Was You reveals Al Pacino himself saying, “I think I learned more about acting from John than [from] anybody,” Cazale never received an Oscar nomination.
John Cazale elevated the people around him. He knew that part of his job was not only to play his own characters with integrity, but to play them in such a way that made the other characters credible.
—Mark Harris (film historian)
Cazale’s strength was playing weak men, and portraying them with a complexity that was both intoxicating and tragic. When you watch him in a role you don’t think, “There’s a despicable worm,” or, “There’s a disposable villain,” you feel awash with a myriad of conflicting emotions that range from aversion to tenderness. It’s strange to empathize with characters who have a seemingly complete lack of principle, and yet when Cazale plays them, you do. They exist alongside the strong characters who make all the right choices—or at least all the successful ones—but for these amorphous men, integrity is not only not enough of a driving force, it is a moot one. They are so mired in insecurity, failure and shame that it’s not that the challenge of making the right decision is too daunting, it is so utterly beyond the scope of the characters’ developmental capabilities as to be irrelevant. The doomed characters in any piece are often some of the most fascinating. The world is a harder place for them, and they are pushed to choose wrong; slated to fail from the start. They aren’t weak because they choose to be, they’re weak because that’s truly the best they can do. And yet, Cazale makes them fully-realized people. He makes them vulnerable.
Vulnerable. Shepard’s documentary contains a wealth of interviews with others about the actor’s personal and professional life, and “vulnerable” was the magic word used to describe Cazale’s acting by nearly everyone who knew or knew of him. It was undoubtedly one of the many things that made him so appealing to women, including Meryl Streep (yes, Meryl Streep), who was Cazale’s devoted fiancee at the time of his 1978 death from lung cancer. There’s a great respect and reverence surrounding the actor when he’s spoken about by colleagues and friends, even as they affectionately recount peculiarities that sound suspiciously like obsessive-compulsive disorder.Streep’s discreet description of the man she loved coupled with Pacino’s impassioned admiration of his friends’ exceptional relationship speaks volumes about the realness of the bond Streep and Cazale shared. She was only 27 when Cazale died (he was 42), and he had already been diagnosed with lung cancer before he appeared in The Deer Hunter (1978), in which Streep also appeared. Director Michael Cimino was opposed to casting Cazale because his illness made him “un-insurable,” which roughly translates to, “If he dies before the movie is finished, it will cost too much to reshoot every scene he was in with a new actor.” In the end, it was colleague and friend Robert De Niro who ensured John could appear in what would be the last film of his life.
“Bob De Niro went to bat for John,” Streep said. “He won’t tell me because he’s a very generous person, but I think he secured the bond on John’s participation.”
“He was sicker than we thought, but I wanted him to be in it,” Robert De Niro said.
With a rearranged shooting schedule, Cazale completed all his scenes and gave an unparalleled performance that was in no way marred by his illness.
He died before The Deer Hunter was released.
I Knew It Was You is a lovely appreciation by Richard Shepard of an underappreciated actor, with some never-before-seen dvd extras that contain a couple black-and-white film shorts Cazale shot and appeared in in the 60s. It’s also a great holiday gift idea for fans of The Godfather, film documentary or 70s cinema. Or if there’s someone like me on your list who loves to see unconventional men finally get the accolades they deserve.
His compassion for [the] people he was portraying, and the sort-of responsibility he felt to a fictional character as if it were a real soul—that made him go that deep into his characters and do beautiful, beautiful work.