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John Cazale: Pound For Found The Greatest American Actor Of All Time?

By Petr Knava | Career Assessments | July 12, 2016 |


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38 years ago at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden, Massachusetts, the world said goodbye to John Holland Cazale. Shy and sensitive, he was 42, and the lung cancer that took him deprived American cinema of one of its most distinctive, empathetic, and generous actors.

Making his screen debut alongside his communal housemate at the time, Al Pacino, with The Godfather in 1972, Cazale appeared in just five feature films over the course of his too-short career, but each one of those movies was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, with three winning the award. The five movies wound up garnering 40 Oscar nominations between them, 14 of those for acting categories.

In the wise and measured words of sages and kings: that’s fucking ridonculous.

What’s even more bugfuck ludicrous is that despite this avalanche of Oscar gold that his projects were buried under, Cazale himself never once received a single nomination. You wanna talk about Leo DiCaprio’s years in the Oscar wilderness before last year’s The Revenant?

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Cazale’s monumental talent may not have been recognised by the Academy, but it was certainly noted by his peers; one of whom also decided to say yes to his marriage proposal during their early days in the theatre together: Meryl Streep.

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During the worst of his illness, Streep put her career on hold and lived with him in the hospital. Al Pacino said: ‘I’ve hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was. To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming.’

Nevertheless, despite his sad end, the body of work John Cazale left behind speaks for itself, and the movies taken together constitute one of the strongest runs — perhaps the strongest — in American cinema history:

The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974) — dir. Francis Ford Coppola
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Originally working as a messenger for Standard Oil (where he also initially met Al Pacino), Cazale soon got into theatre, shooting into critical acclaim and winning Obie Awards, and in turn being noticed by casting director Fred Roos, who suggested him to Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather.

The Godfather and its sequel are of course rightfully recognised as some of the finest, most monumental works in world cinema, and Cazale’s Fredo is a sad and tragic creation in a saga that is perhaps the quintessential movie tragedy. In some ways Fredo, spurned and sadly bitter for being passed over for elevation to the patriarch of his family’s organised crime dynasty in favour of his younger brother, is the story’s scarred, beating heart. Eventually meeting (spoiler alert for a 40 year old classic) his grisly and heartbreaking, though inevitable, end on Michael’s orders, Fredo, as an embodiment of basic human impulses — and simultaneously a creature of his family’s world and outside it — is one of the most relatable characters in Coppola’s grand tapestry. None of that would have been achieved if it hadn’t been John Cazale’s eyes beseeching you from under his heavy brow.

The Conversation (1974) — dir. Francis Ford Coppola
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In between detonating two of most searing flares ever committed to celluloid, Francis Ford Coppola took a detour into another staple of 70s American cinema, the conspiracy thriller, and in doing so provided one of its finest examples; as well as one of the greatest, most understated and nuanced performances of Gene Hackman’s career. The movie — nervy, formally brilliant — is filled with fantastic turns from other stalwarts of the era like Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall, but it is again John Cazale who, with minimal screen time, manages to stand out — though crucially without overwhelming the material, or his co-performers. This generosity and deeply understood sense of team play was after all perhaps Cazale’s greatest asset as an actor. He never showboated; he was always present; and he knew that a movie’s quality is only as good as the totality and interplay of everyone’s performances.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) — dir. Sidney Lumet
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The later master Sidney Lumet’s mid-decade low key tour de force is quite the nexus of talent: it reunited the director with Al Pacino (with whom he had previously worked on Serpico); teamed him up for the first and only time with John Cazale; and was the second of the three collaborations between Pacino and Cazale. It is also, in this author’s humble opinion, Cazale’s finest performance. As Sal, the pathetic, dim-witted partner-in-crime of Pacino’s hapless, would-be bank robber, he becomes one of the most piteous, sympathetic characters ever depicted on the big screen. Every move and tic and awkwardly spoken word is a masterclass in an actor getting not just underneath their character’s skin, but inhabiting them fully, from the absolute base level of their soul. His (again, spoiler alert for a 40 year old classic) demise in the film’s final act rivals that of — and may even surpass — Fredo’s in sheer pathos. I re-watch this movie roughly once a year, and whenever he is onscreen, Cazale is nigh-on impossible to take your eyes off of, even when sharing space with one of Pacino’s all-time great performances. If you haven’t seen the movie for a while, do so now. Pacino once said, ‘All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life. He was my acting partner.’ Dog Day Afternoon, perhaps more than any other film, gives substance to that claim.

The Deer Hunter (1978) — dir. Michael Cimino
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Cazale’s final movie. Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the time, director Michael Cimino agreed with Cazale and Meryl Streep to re-arrange the shoot schedule so that all of his scenes could be shot first, before he got too ill to work. Cimino’s elegiac Vietnam movie is an emotional gut punch as it is, but when you watch it with the knowledge that John Cazale, with his soulful, sorrowful eyes and increasingly gaunt face, was imminently set to depart this world, and Meryl Streep, devoted, professional, and deeply caring to the final hour, didn’t leave his side until the end — well, it becomes something else entirely. At the time, because of his illness, the studio behind the movie wanted to fire Cazale, but Streep and Cimino threatened to walk if they did. In addition to that he was also uninsurable because of the state of his health. His co-star, Robert De Niro, knowing the value the inestimable Cazale would bring to the movie, paid for his insurance. Cazale’s performance in the movie is, as was his infallible way, nuanced, deeply felt, and technically brilliant and generous.

John Cazale died on March 12, 1978, in New York City, months before The Deer Hunter was finished and screened. He never got to see it.

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Petr Knava
lives in London and plays music


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