Thursday, June 3, 2010

"I'm Smart!" - John Cazale's Brief Career and Legendary Performances in 5 Films that Helped Define the 1970s

John Cazale as Sal in "Dog Day Afternoon"

 
John Cazale and Meryl Streep                                                                                           Cazale and Streep in Measure for Measure

I Knew It Was You: Remembering John Cazale by Richard Shepard

I was a student at NYU in the mid-70s when a film crew took over 9th avenue (aka Prospect Park West) around the corner from my home on 17th Street in Windsor Terrace.  Some old storefronts were reconfigured into a bank and the great Al Pacino, fresh from his Godfather 2 triumph, explored a new character in Sidney Lumet's classic Dog Day Afternoon.  Sharing the screen was another remarkable actor, John Cazale, probably best known as Fredo in the Godfather series. Cazale appeared in only 5 films before he succumbed to cancer at the age of 42 but they were all critical, box office and Oscar favorites. A mainstay of the New York off-Broadway theater scene, Cazale was an enormous talent, and director Richard Shepard (Scotland, PA and The Matador) has created a touching and fascinating film portrait of his too brief career.

HBO is running this documentary in June and it also is available on HBO on Demand. Shepard was taken by the impact of Cazale -- ironically, at once familiar yet little known to film audiences who recognize him from his key roles in some of the pivotal films of the 1970s, yet his name was not widely recognizable. Shepard's documentary will clearly change all that, as he interviews Cazale's friends, acting colleagues, family, and others to learn more about the late actor's life, talent and work.   Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert DeNiro, Sidney Lumet, Gene Hackman, Playwright Israel Horovitz and others talk about working with Cazale and how his gifted acting style and unique personality helped to open up and expand their own performances and added so much to every film and play in which he appeared. Steve Buscemi, Brett Ratner, and film historian Mark Harris discuss Cazale's impact. Wonderfully, everyone interviewed -- some of the greatest American actors -- talk about Cazale with great love, affection and admiration, about his generosity as a performer and his impact on their own work and lives.

Sidney Lumet:  "When Al asked him during a scene, 'Is there any country you want to go to?' Cazale improvised his answer by saying, after long thought, 'Wyoming.' To me that was the funniest, saddest line in the movie, and my favorite, because in the script he wasn’t supposed to say anything. I almost ruined the take because I started to laugh so hard... but it was a brilliant, brilliant, ad lib."


Al Pacino: "It's great working with John because he has a way of getting involved - in the whole thing, in the characters. He asks so many questions - he was just brilliant. It was tough to sell Johnny, but once Sidney got to see him read, and work with me, it turned out great."

In his final screen role, and despite being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Cazale continued work with fiancée Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter. "I've hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was," said Pacino. "To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming.

Director Michael Cimino "rearranged the shooting schedule," wrote author Andy Dougan, "with Cazale and Streep's consent, so that he could film all his scenes first." He completed all his scenes in this legendary film that gave a dramatically new perspective to the human toll on the lives and families of the US soldiers weho fought in that conflict, but died soon after, on March 12, 1978, before the film was finished. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden, Massachusetts.

I Knew It Was You is a fascinating, touching and wonderful exploration of  the life of a major American actor whose too-brief life and career during the turbulent 1970s has left an indelible mark on American films that helped to define a generation.

I Knew It Was You trailer here.

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