Not the End: Celebrating the Directing Career of John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes was a director’s actor, an actor’s actor and an actor’s director. It makes sense, then, that most of the films he made throughout his career would be, cinematically speaking, a pure actor’s delight. From the improvisational, “all accidents” romp that is Shadows, a movie with an initial cut that excited a most excitable Jonas Mekas, all the way to Big Trouble, a for-hire farcical take on Double Indemnity, Cassavetes was always strictly aiming for one thing and one thing only: performative truth.

He never strayed from the truth within his own persona. Boisterous, realistic and blunt, Cassavetes is known for having inspired even the greatest of our current filmmakers with his pursuit. He’s famously known, after a screening of Martin Scorsese’s Corman-produced Boxcar Bertha, to have noted, “Marty, you’ve just spent a whole year of your life making a piece of shit.” This was waged upon a young Scorsese with the addition of a tight hug. Cassavetes didn’t mean it out of indecency. He longed for a film from Scorsese that was truthful, not exploitative (although, sometimes those two can go hand-in-hand). Scorsese would then go on, of course, to make Mean Streets, one of his most personal, truthful films that would set the tone for later religiously-steeped masterworks like Raging Bull or The Last Temptation of Christ.

This longing for the truth in cinema led Cassavetes down a blistering path, one marked by addiction, financial strife and hardship. Cassavetes is, in many respects, the independent cinema’s martyr, the saint who — in the face of adversity — always laughed, drank and oozed enthusiasm. It was a life of determination to simply make the picture. It didn’t matter how many extra mortgages had to be taken out, how many things had to be sold, how many promises had to be made. He just needed to make the picture.

Cassavetes’ films form a mosaic of artistic fortitude, glued together with thought. Seymour Cassel, his long-time friend and collaborator, is understood to have drawn a stark parallel between a studio film and an independent film when he noted the difference between collective and individual thought. When Faces was released into cinemas in 1968, Hollywood was already undergoing a transformation. The American public’s taste was in for a swift, radical adjustment. The year 1967 included the releases of films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Point Blank and other New Hollywood classics. It’s typically perceived that the ‘68 Oscars led to the culmination of realized tensions within the studio system. It was In the Heat of the Night vs. Doctor Dolittle… and Doctor Dolittle was not going to win. Brewing beneath the studio push-and-pull of the safe and the risky, Cassavetes had carefully been crafting his own movement.

Gena Rowlands in Faces

Cassavetes had dealt with the studio before in both acting and directing. The TV studios had actually given him aid when he needed it most. When Gena Rowlands was pregnant with their first child, Nicholas, John broke briefly from the financial tightrope-walking of creativity and took the lead role in NBC’s Johnny Staccato while reshooting the second, finalized version of Shadows (that would repulse Jonas Mekas). The series provided him with a regular outlet, with practice in both direction and creative in-fighting, and some money — but not enough time for others. This was, similar to other points in Cassavetes’ life, an era of strained relationships and responsibilities. By the time he had finally moved on from Shadows and Johnny Staccato, Cassavetes was ready to take the studio plunge, not just because he felt electrified by the small success of Shadows, but also because he was ready to move forward in his creative life. As easy as it is to think of Cassavetes as the deeply anti-studio scoundrel, he willingly dealt fairly often in their proceedings, specifically both earlier and later in his career.

Paramount offered Cassavetes a picture, and he took it. Then the tensions began to boil. It’s a classic story for any Cassavetes enthusiast — he wanted Montgomery Clift and Gena Rowlands, they wanted Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens; he wanted it to be called “Too Late Blues,” they wanted it to be called “Dreams for Sale.” The final result was Too Late Blues, starring Darin and Stevens. It’s early Cassavetes, no doubt, polished and capitalized by the Hollywood studio system, but amplified by the ol’ Cassavetes eye. There are occasional glimpses into the creative future in Too Late Blues, highlighted by an elevated unprofessionalism. Darin and Stevens, the studio choices, are actually quite good — the former with his soft jaw and easy voice, the latter with her bright, endearing persona. However, it’s the background players, the ones Cassavetes no doubt had a bigger hand in choosing, who are enthralling to watch. Cassel and Val Avery eventually became regulars, but Everett Chambers, a producer from the set of Johnny Staccato who plays the slimiest trickster agent in the book, is an example of the kind of picker Cassavetes had. Chambers is a short, fiery, disturbed precursor to the contemporary Joe Pantoliano school of acting. It’s perhaps a total tragedy that he would, more or less, never really act in film again.

A Child Is Waiting found Cassavetes making another early foray into the studio system, though it’d be the very film, along with Too Late Blues, that’d officially sour him on that type of creative process. The clashes from the set are historic: Burt Lancaster being forced to play scenes in a specific way; Judy Garland’s drinking; Stanley Kramer and Cassavetes supposedly getting physical with one another over the final cut of the picture. Granted, Cassavetes was initially given the film with the stipulation of creative freedom. It was the loose, invigorating nature of Shadows that was the entire basis of him getting this movie. However, in the end, Kramer simply wanted differently. He got it.

Cassavetes saw truth and humor in the performances of the mentally disabled children, whom the narrative surrounds. He shot hours of footage of them interacting with each other, with each child special and unique in their own way. And, yes, Cassavetes was right. The children in A Child Is Waiting are sometimes quite funny — never in a point and laugh way, obviously not, of course not, but rather in the innocent, playful way they interact with the actors and, clearly, with the camera crew, lending the film even further credence to a cinéma vérité nature. It occasionally does border on exploitative, but never crosses that line, thankfully.

John Cassavetes Essay - A Child Is Waiting

At its heart, a remains Cassavetes’ only genuine studio picture. Despite the on-set clashes, and despite Kramer getting the final cut, it feels truthful in the way only a Cassavetes picture can feel truthful. That much bleeds through in certain moments. The camera lingers on faces, disabled or not, and pushes performances from those faces that are endearing. Enraptured in feeling and humor and sadness, it’s purely empathetic, visceral in that way. The moment in which children surround Garland — who plays the piano, teaches them the lyrics and become overwhelmed with emotions as tears stream down her face — is just one of the many performative truths Cassavetes would unlock in his career. There is still a sheen of safety that surrounds this moment, however. Stardom is sliced away, but the “collaborative” thought process involved within the studio system hindered Cassavetes from achieving what he really felt was truly, personally his own.

Enter Faces, a film that’s not only the artistic key to unbolting the world in which Cassavetes wanted to operate, but also his independent masterwork. One-hundred seventy-five pages of dialogue personify before the viewer’s eyes in both searing and seething fashion, perfect fodder for the unfolding energy of a stage drama, where long stretches of dialogue occasionally crescendo in intensity and outbursting rage, but ultimately settle and continue forward. Speaking of energy, Faces is blistering with it.

The film begins with two friends celebrating in the company of a call girl, as the three dance, laugh, sing and tirade their own performances — and it doesn’t stop there. Faces is filled with joyous yelling and shouting and screaming. Cassavetes settles into the film’s lead dynamic, between John Marley and Lynn Carlin, and Faces splits from there. Both characters feel that their love for one another has emptied, and they visit the well of adultery and vice to replenish. This is a motif one can find in more of Cassavetes’ work, namely in his other masterpiece, Husbands.

That same fiery energy continues throughout each scene of Faces. No matter who the focus is racked on, all of these characters seem almost delirious, certainly at some stage of intoxication, and they’re all letting their masks slip for the night — their faces are being revealed, slowly and surely. Cassavetes shoots with both intimacy and distance, perhaps replicating the audience’s own attraction and disdain for these people. Even the sound design, because of the lower budget, feels distant and uncanny. When thinking of Faces, it’d be a hard task to uncover a happier accident, a more legitimate way to replicate alienation. That is, again, unless you consider Husbands.

John Cassavetes Essay - Husbands

Husbands is, no doubt, a relatable experience for many, specifically because it’s about death. On a more personal note, I had my first true encounter with death with the passing of my grandmother in late 2019. Sparing the details, it’s simpler to note that it was a shattering experience, to say the least. The family broke apart after her death, through alcohol, physical fighting, shouting, sharp arguments about inheritance, lawyers, money, what people did right, what people did wrong. Everything about her death was beautiful, repentant and peaceful. Everything after was a horrific nightmare, a surreal parade of the very worst things that grief can elicit. The funny thing about grief is that it’s painful, and makes you reconsider what you had in light of what you don’t have now. It’s something we all share.

In the end, through this sort of purging process, it can all be so painful, so funny and so painfully funny.

This is precisely what makes Husbands so engaging. In the case of these three men, these three husbands, it’s all the same. After you’ve experienced loss, it’s easy to understand exactly what Cassavetes is tapping into here — the raw, explicitly delirious and bizarre feelings that come raging out of a dynamic when the glue holding everyone together is melted. It’s a plodding experience of segments, played out in sometimes excruciating fashion, all devoted to removing the masks of these three friends, three characters who might as well be one, who exemplify everything about what it means to be a man; the ego, the drive, the competition, the mania, the depression, the laughter, the sensitivity, the friendship and the lust, with all of it stripped down, like a nail under the constant tutelage of a powerful drill. Driven to the well of vice, much like the characters of Faces, Cassavetes paints a characterized portrait attuned to the idea that pushing through grief is the easy part. It’s what we have to face afterwards, the return to normalcy, that’s hard… and yet, relieving.

This longing for normalcy is inherent in another one of Cassavetes’ films, Minnie and Moskowitz, in that it’s never attained. In true Cassavetes fashion, he doesn’t grant the characters, nor the audience, a sense of the usual at any point. It’s an exercise in the inverted, amplifying the “normal” with the “abnormal.”

The character of Minnie Moore (Rowlands) has no luck with men — zero, zilch, nada. Seymour Moskowitz (Cassel) has no luck with women. Together, they definitely, certainly have no luck with one another… until they do. This is no doubt Cassavetes at his weirdest in that he takes his time to reveal the genre in which he’s working. Some folks don’t even realize that this is a comedy. It’s easy to try and take Minnie and Moskowitz as seriously as possible, to analyze and break down every shot and every character trait, but as it continues, things get stranger, more unrealistic, more satirical, more awkward. It’s when Cassavetes seems to stick an actual blooper in the final scene that he’s telling you, yes, this is a joke.

John Cassavetes Essay - Minnie and Moskowitz

The text itself isn’t funny — the constant abuse and barrage of yelling aimed at one woman — but the subtext is indeed rather funny, rooted in slapstick mistakes and continued self-deprecation. Minnie just keeps falling for bad men. It won’t stop. It can’t stop. And, in a way, the audience ends up falling for a bad man, too. The romance is so inverted and awful, it circles around to being somewhat palpable. The representative nature of these poor people just trying to find love is kneaded further by the motif of parking cars. Seymour parks cars throughout the film a seemingly unlimited amount of times. Cassavetes seems to be firing a relatable warning shot for the audience. We’re all trying to park our own car. Make sure you find a good space.

Converging together these ideas of abnormality and alienation, Cassavetes would soon make what many consider to be his best film — A Woman Under the Influence. In a long history of insanity, it is perhaps most insane that Rowlands didn’t get the Oscar for her lead performance. The character Mabel Longhetti is so filled in — twitchy and awkward and strange — but devastatingly unforgettable in her devotion and ability, or propensity, for love. There is yet another common thread, a frequent trend in Cassavetes’ work. His films are about love… or, rather, about people who want to be loved, but can’t seem to get it quite right, and they suffer for it.

There are long stretches of beautiful, beautiful love in A Woman Under the Influence, of pure, true affection, between Mabel and Nick (and their children), aided and abetted by Peter Falk’s tragic performance as Nick. When they’re alone, love blossoms in its own way. It’s when other outsiders begin to infiltrate their home, when Nick’s overly generous nature brings others in, that things get strained and tense. Mabel is able to love Nick in her own individual way, and this keeps them connected, but she also tries to love everyone else. Mabel tries too hard, in fact. It weirds people out. And yes, she’s a bit of a weird one. Mental illness, no doubt, lingers as a shadow over the character of Mabel. But there’s still a tenderness to her. It’s that bizarre balance that makes A Woman Under the Influence such a whirlwind — the ability to balance the fighting, the singing, the silliness, the joking, the silence, the hatred and the love of life, all hinged on two great performances: the maniacal and the strained.

John Cassavetes Essay - A Woman Under the Influence

The maniacal is capitalized upon yet again in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. It is maybe the most personal work from Cassavetes in its subtext, which he explicitly stated was about his own creative process — Cosmo’s rotten, boring, terrible club shows are his art, while the gangsters are the forever interferers. This, of course, directly reflects the negative artistic process of constant alteration from money-hungry backstabbers. It’s interesting, then, tragic even, that The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is yet another movie that would also be interfered with. There are, today, two versions of the film. The ‘76 cut, which was a rushed version that is longer, and the ‘78 edit, which parses down some scenes and cracks open the diegetic world.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie can be appreciated mostly for how lived-in it feels. No matter how grimy and scummy it can get, Cassavetes shoots with raw appeal and Ben Gazzara cooks that appeal with everything he’s got. The viewer can feel, for just a couple hours, as if they are living in this world, although they might not like it. Despite the fact that it’s Cassavetes’ most personal work, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie does feel, admittedly, less intimate. Comparatively, it is a less honest portrait than something like Faces. There’s more surface-work, with beautiful imagery tinted red by the club atmosphere, but one might find themselves craving something more.

For Cassavetes, that “something more” was the esoteric. I’m personally not totally sold on the spooky apparitions of his next film, Opening Night, and it’s a joy to discover in research that Cassavetes wasn’t either. In Opening Night, there is a great deal of layered, textual material with the production of a play suddenly getting weighed down with the superstitious incarnation of a dead youth. Cassavetes himself has confirmed in his own writing that this section of the film involving the supernatural is also something he was hesitant about and that it’s the purely subjective imagination of Rowland’s character, rather than an actual ghost. This gels much better since the true ghost, the really frightening apparition of Opening Night, is opening night itself, the ever-looming premiere of a production still being tooled around by its lead actress.

John Cassavetes Essay - Opening Night

It’s an old woman’s play being performed by a middle-aged woman who’s being haunted by the loss of a younger woman. And yet, Opening Night is less about age, less about generations, and more about being categorized and pigeonholed. As the play’s title, “The Second Woman,” suggests, there is indeed a second woman. Is it the lead actress? Is it the writer? The dead fan? What about the director’s wife? The key is in the final freeze frame, a moment of embrace between two women, a moment of joy amidst tragedy. One woman has just seen another unlock her true potential, cracking the code of a serious play as being deathly funny, reminiscent of Minnie and Moskowitz, perhaps? And everything, more or less, ends up okay, despite the booze, despite the hallucinations, despite the anger and rage. It ends up okay in the end.

Where things don’t end up okay is within the painful, enigmatic universe of Love Streams. Much like the love it tries to investigate, this film is complicated. Like an enigma, it stands alone amongst Cassavetes’ other features, both similar and dissimilar. Here’s a smoother camera, less documentary-like by nature. And yet, this is perhaps the closest Cassavetes got to that truthful uncovering of the cinematic heart, the cinéma vérité, given that you actually blatantly see the camera crew at multiple times throughout the film.

When we talk about performative truths, Love Streams is as performative and truthful as it gets. While the film is narratively sloppier than any other movie Cassavetes made, it strips away the crude reality of cinema and leaves viewers with a bare, vulnerable message. Filmed in the same house as Faces, which was simply just John and Gena’s house in real life, Cassavetes provides an unofficial cap-off to the dynamic duo’s career together. If his films are about finding love and truth in performance, then this is the most stripped down version of that.

John Cassavetes Essay - Love Streams

Nearing the end of his career, Cassavetes would go on to make a few more studio-driven films, like Gloria and Big Trouble (with Love Streams in between). As per the norm, while they were studio efforts, Cassavetes’ heart shined through in its own brilliant moments. In Gloria, his talent is specifically shown off, given that he wrote the script with the sole intent to simply sell it to a studio for money, but then ended up directing it anyway and elevating it to a higher point than originally intended. Gloria runs the risk of repetition throughout and falls into it every once and awhile, with woman and child on the run from the mob, stopping in hotel after hotel, moving from run-in to run-in, but it all still clicks under the charismatic relationship between Rowlands, who spends the whole movie waving a gun around while stamping forward in designer heels, and Dominican child actor John Adames, who is directed by Cassavetes to essentially act like the most grown-up six-year-old ever, which is really both endearing and entertaining. So, while it’s certainly quite the thematic departure for Cassavetes, the heart-thumping passion with which he’s known for still beats beneath the chest of the film.

On the other hand, there is Big Trouble. It’s both easy and difficult to pinpoint what Cassavetes did and didn’t direct in the film. One sees him shining right through in the moments of purely chaotic vérité, such as a moment when Alan Arkin almost completely breaks character while spewing out his drink. It’s also the second film in Cassavetes’ filmography to feature a wild Falk bringing home with him a truck full of workers for some breakfast cooked up by his wife, no doubt a cutesy wink at the audience. Other than that, though, it just doesn’t feel like a Cassavetes film. That’s okay, given that it was his last film, a for-hire job, and holds within it a pure gem, an emotional punch, a final signing off from the director at the very end of the film. After the credits, there are three simple words that purely, perfectly exemplify The Cassavetes Way: “Not the End.”

Tyler Harris (@tylerjh01) is a film critic, English teacher and former theater manager from Louisville, Kentucky. He is a Paul Newman enthusiast, a John Cassavetes connoisseur and a Lars von Trier apologist. Tyler’s passionate love for cinema keeps him in tune with his writing.