Realism, in the cinema of John Cassavetes, has an edge of madness, pain and neurosis. Cassavetes aestheticizes pain and anxiety to represent the truth of his reality. The line between performance and life blurs as characters assume versions of themselves, with their real life baggage peeking through. In Husbands, the intimacy becomes strengthened by the moral weakness of the characters who, after the premature death of their friend, feel an impulse to really “live” life. Rather than be motivated by a passion for living, this bender, which ends up leading the three lifelong friends to London, feels motivated by fear and inadequacy.
In a world so focused on authenticity, the worst thing you can be is a phoney. Echoing Holden Caulfield’s damaged psyche and favored insult, Archie (Peter Falk) calls Harry (Ben Gazzara) one, and it has explosive consequences. Not only does Harry try to physically attack Archie, but the unravelling of Harry’s life begins. And up to this point, it hadn’t seemed all too bad. To believe Harry is to believe that he and his wife are still crazy about each other, insatiably hungry for each other’s body and soul. However, after 48 hours away, a brutal morning reality tells an entirely different and disheartening story.
The root of phoniness comes several scenes earlier, as the drunken group assembles at an American style bar table and takes part in a singing contest. As they make the rounds, the men reach an older woman, Leola (Leola Harlow), who begins to sing “just a little love affair.” The group interrupts, chastises and bullies her, repeatedly asking the woman to start over and to be more “real.” Near tears, Leola holds her own, but she cannot overcome the cackling post-adolescents sneering at her attempts. Why do so many men value this impossible ideal of authenticity? The values these men often uphold are childlike, harkening to the heightened passions of youth when everything was still fresh and new. It’s hard to escape that some fans of Cassavetes’ work don’t seem how pitiable these desires are, blinded by their own fear of obsolescence.
When indulging adolescent ideals, tying vitality to virility has its appeal: rather than confronting truths about getting older, focus on getting your rocks off and prove that women want you. Picking up women seems like the ultimate test of being alive. The aggression of both Gus (John Cassavetes) and Harry finds a sexual counterpoint in the soft desperation of Archie. While in the London casino, Archie seems the most willing to find just about any girl to come back with him, as his rushed speech and dragging enthusiasm betrays his nerves. Harkening back to an earlier scene as the three friends discuss making love, Archie had said that he’s “slow.” Gus interpreted that as meaning he wasn’t particularly good at sex, which Archie denies — but with a wounded quietness. What does he mean? Slow as in shy and vulnerable, or inclined to falling in love?
Husbands, more so than most Cassavetes films, focuses on the damage of masculinity. The chummy schoolboy antics reduce the whole world to a middle school playground and the three old buddies are the rulers supreme. Reducing all women to objects in this reality has motivations of self-preservation as wives and lovers seem to be the only ones capable of bursting their middle-aged bubble. Women become objects to acquire, but also ones to handle with care, as the peripheral power they hold can shatter their fantasy immortality.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.