1929-1989. An early American indie filmmaker. He was, first, an actor - sometimes acting gigs (and those of his wife, Gena Rowlands) would help finance his DIY filmmaking. Got friends to do the acting (in later years, that meant people like Peter "Columbo" Falk and Ben Gazzara); fellow maverick Charles Mingus did the soundtrack for Shadows, Cassavetes' debut. Somehow the films got made. His best work was an un-juvenile, unflinchingly unflattering, look at the male animal.

John Cassavetes is regarded as a pioneer of cinema verité and American independent filmmaking.

Born in 1929, the son of Greek immigrants, Cassavetes graduated from the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1950 and began acting in plays, television dramas and, later, films. He was often cast as a juvenile delinquent character in the James Dean style.

A turning point for Cassavetes came in 1956, when he began teaching method acting in NYC and Manhattan. He saw in one of his group's sessions the potential for a filmed version. To raise money, he appeared on a radio talk show and solicited listeners' contributions toward an alternative to Hollywood cinema, netting somewhere in the region of $20,000. He bolstered this with his own earnings, including those from the jazz detective TV series Johnny Staccato (1959), for which he took the lead role and sometimes directed.

The success of his fundraising enabled Cassavetes to release the 16mm feature Shadows in 1959, although it would not see a stateside release until 1961. Shadows is an important landmark in independent American film. Much of the dialogue was improvised and filmed "live", and the crew consisted chiefly of Cassavete's students, friends and other volunteers. The soundtrack is by Charles Mingus. The film centres around an interracial relationship in 50s beat generation NYC.

It's important to remember in today's post-Blair Witch, post-Dogme 95 landscape that the improvisational, "live" approach of Shadows stood in stark contrast to the film styles of the time, and forged a new path for American filmmakers (and audiences) to explore. The film won the Critics Award at the 1960 Venice Film Festival following its release in Europe, which helped it secure a US release (as a European import).

The critical success of Shadows led to offers of studio work, and as a result Cassavetes directed Too Late Blues (1962) and A Child Is Waiting (1963). These were not particularly successful critically or financially, and the experience of creative "intervention" while working under major studios (Paramount and United Artists, respectively) led Cassavetes to focus his future filmmaking efforts on purely independent productions.

These efforts would be financed mainly by Cassavetes' acting roles, which included memorable performances as Victor Franco in The Dirty Dozen and Mia Farrow's pact-making actor husband, Guy Woodhouse, in Polanski's Rosemary's Baby.

His next three films were Faces (1968) - which received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Writing for Cassavetes - Husbands (1970) and Minnie and Moskowitz (1971). All used improvised dialogue and handheld camera work.

Cassavetes' next film is often acclaimed as his masterpiece. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) featured Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes' wife since the 50s) and Peter Falk, and examined perceived mental illness and its effect on the lead characters' marriage. Cassavetes received an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and Rowlands received the award for Best Actress - results that were mirrored in the Golden Globe awards.

A Woman Under the Influence was unusual for a Cassavetes production in that he prepared a detailed script before shooting began, though it is not wholly without improvisation. Falk and Cassavetes funded the feature, and along with Rowlands they worked coast to coast on promoting, distributing and booking the title - Cassavetes had been unhappy with the distribution of his previous films.

He repeated the critical success of A Woman Under the Influence with his next feature, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), a highly atypical study of a mob-related murder.

Cassavetes directed four more films before his death, although the final title, Big Trouble (1986) was taken on as a favour to the producers after the original director quit, and Cassavetes considered the final result a "disaster", lamenting that "people not only would think I made Big Trouble, but that it was my final film." Sadly, it was his final film, and Cassavetes died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1989.

Cassavetes' work is sometimes criticised for being self-indulgent or slow, but it's undeniable that he provided an uncompromising antidote to Hollywood cinema, and served as a beacon of creative bravery and integrity. His films, though almost all are available on DVD, are relatively unknown among filmgoers. But he is still owed a great debt for his pioneer work and dedication; without his work, we would have a poorer cinema today. Sadly, Cassavetes' drive and passion for filmmaking often isolated him from the film industry and his colleagues, and took their toll in the alcoholism that would eventually kill him.

In 1984 Michael Ventura directed an acclaimed biography of Cassavetes, I'm Almost Not Crazy, although today this is hard to locate.

Nick Cassavetes, one of three children, is a successful actor/director, and in 1997 directed She's So Lovely from his father's script.

John Cassavetes, filmmaker, 1929-1989.

Works referenced:

  • Katz, Ephraim. The Macmillan International Film Encyclopedia, London, Pan Macmillan, 1994
  • Carney, Ray. Cassavetes' Biography. http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/cassoverview/biotext.htm. Accessed 11/8/03.
  • Acquarello. John Cassavetes. http://www.filmref.com/directors/dirpages/cassavetes.html. Accessed 11/8/03.
  • IMDB. John Cassavetes. http://us.imdb.com/Name?Cassavetes,+John. Accessed 11/8/03.
  • Various authors. John Cassavetes - Wikipedia. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cassavetes. Accessed 11/8/03.
  • Ankeny, Jason. John Cassavetes. http://www.blockbuster.com/bb/person/details/0,7621,BIO-P+84410,00.html. Accessed 11/8/03.
  • http://www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?PID=5932965. Accessed 11/8/03.

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