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RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
- Audio Commentary from Director Richard Shepard
- The American Way,a 1962 short, directed by Marvin Starkman and featuring a young Cazale.
- The Box, another short, directed by Starkman and features Cazale as the director of photography
- Extended Interviews with Al Pacino and Israel Horovitz
Document the life and career of the late, great John Cazale.
Directed by Richard Shepard
Featuring interviews with Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Meryl Streep, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Richard Dreyfuss, Sam Rockwell, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, and more
John Cazale died in 1978 at the age of 42 due to lung cancer, but not before starring in supporting roles in five of the greatest films of the 20th century. His life, career, and everything in between are discussed in this short but affecting documentary
As a mostly excellent but extremely short documentary, a number of big stars are interviewed about the impact that John Cazale had on film in the very short time he was here. Through the five films he was in (The Godfather: Parts 1 and 2, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter) he ultimately changed the perception of what folks considered supporting actors to be. If you were to compile a list of the best five films of the 1970s, you’d probably think of those almost instantly. All were Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards, all are considered classics. He’s one of the biggest reasons for this. He was “an actor’s actor” as some in the film would point out, and this came across in his performances. He was never one to throw his weight around or upstage someone, which speaks to the nature of the roles he played. His best moments were of the introspective nature, as he generally played weak and uncertain men. He could clearly stand toe-to-toe with the greats. It’s something I probably didn’t realize when I first watched these films when I was much, much younger, but as I got older after watching them multiple times, Cazale’s performances began to stand out to me, and to this day he’s as much of a standout to me in those films as Brando or Pacino or DeNiro or Walken or whoever.
So many folks were interviewed for this film. The interviews were full of anecdotes either from personal experience that actors/directors/playwrights had with the man or just from those who are in the industry now and grew up watching his films. Al Pacino speaks about how he knew Cazale from when they were teenagers working as lowly messengers in New York City, and both starred in numerous theater productions together before hitting the big time. When Al Pacino was pegged to play Michael Corleone in The Godfather, he is the one who suggested that Cazale be considered for Fredo. Every young actor at the time was courted for the role, Richard Dreyfuss being one of them, but a Pacino recommendation and an audition later, and the rest is history. Steve Buscemi talks about how when him and his older brother were kids and fans of The Godfather, his older brother would say that he would be Sonny or Michael and Steve would be Fredo, meant as an insult, but Steve wasn’t upset at all. Fredo was the character he wanted to be. Just like Sam Rockwell declaring that any young actor would want to play Michael or Sonny, and not Fredo, talking about how hard it is to play weakness. And of course Meryl Streep, who was married to Cazale up until his death and was with him when he passed, refers to the fact (along with DeNiro) that DeNiro helped financially secure his role in The Deer Hunter even though he had just recently received his cancer diagnosis and was a liability to the production of the film as far as insurance goes. Unfortunately he passed away before the film was released.
If I had to pinpoint two things I don’t like about this documentary, one would be something I’ve already mentioned before: the length. 39 minutes is way too short to do John Cazale’s career justice, and I feel like there had to be more content that wasn’t thrown in, for whatever reason. I’m not saying this doc needed to be 2 hours, but it’s just way too short. The extras include a couple extended interviews but they don’t even scratch the surface on what they must have shot. The second thing is how the film tends to gloss over his childhood and personal life, which I feel would have lent to a more intimate profile of the man. We learn a tiny bit about his overbearing father and there’s an interview with his brother in which he gets pretty emotional discussing his brother, as can be expected, but there is very little link to the man behind the scenes.
You have to know who John Cazale is, right? Any film geek worth his underoos knows the man. But one of the sadder parts of this documentary demonstrates how the casual moviegoer doesn’t know his name, as photos of him are shown to passersby in New York and although some folks recognize him, no one knows his name. It’s not hard (but a little upsetting) to imagine how much that might have changed had he had a few more decades to become a household name.
Chances are you’ve seen the five films that he was in over and over again and you may have even cut your teeth on them when you were discovering what films could be. All are amazing films that wouldn’t be what they are without him. The emotion he could exhibit on screen was nothing short of emphatic. He was a true presence but usually played shy and somewhat infantile characters. He could explode at a moment’s notice and fire off a brand of intensity that was seldom seen, but there was a quiet and subtle magic to the guy that elevated anything he was in. He was an actor who used his own life’s pain (in this case, supposedly his father) to infuse his characters with realism and vulnerability. He is severely missed, and there’s no telling how many Oscars the guy could have won if he hadn’t passed away so early in his short but brilliant career.
First of all, this thing has some amazingly vibrant and colorful packaging. I was actually shocked at how good it looks. As for the actual features, there are a couple short films included on the disc. One of them, The American Way, was a strange mishmash of a film with tons of American symbolism (Mom, apple pie) which leaves you with a fresh “what the hell did I just watch?” vibe immediately after. I can’t even begin to accurately describe it. Cazale was the main star but he was silent throughout. The second short, The Box, was actually shot by Cazale but he was not in it; a friend of his, Michael Lombard (who was on Guiding Light, among other things) starred as a guy who brought home a television in a box, set it up, and discovered that clicking the remote control would cause various things in his apartment to fall down or move as opposed to actually controlling the television. It was very strange, but even stranger is how watchable and fun it is. For a 10-minute short, you could do worse. In the commentary, director Richard Shepard speaks about being blown away by The Godfather films as an 11 year-old and connecting with Cazale as Fredo. He also talks about how he was a fan of the other films Cazale was in but didn’t realize right away that Cazale was in all of them, and from that point on, it was considered “cool” to like Cazale by he and his friends at NYU. Another interesting tidbit was how Cazale had trouble finding work since no one believed that he was the same actor who played these amazing roles in those films. And Shepard jokes about how he always said that his 6th film should have been The Bad News Bears!
Out of a Possible 5 Stars