John Cazale: Stepped Over
by James MacDowell
John Cazale has what is probably the most impressive complete resumé in Hollywood history. He appeared in only five films before succumbing to bone cancer at the age of 42; those films, however, were The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part 2 (1974), The Conversation (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and The Deer Hunter (1978). Whatever one may personally think of them, it is difficult to think of another actor who appeared solely in movies that have been so consistently highly praised; apart from anything, each one was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and three won. In 2009 a short documentary called I Knew It Was You was made about Cazale’s life and career (watch it here). It features interviews with those one would expect, including Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Meryl Streep (whom Cazale was dating at the time of his death), and Al Pacino - who claims he learned more about acting from Cazale than from anyone else he has ever worked with. It also features testimonials from a number of younger actors equally eager to praise him for his craft, such as Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The overall thrust of the documentary, hinted at in its title, is to suggest how unfair it is that Cazale is not more well known, given his talent and track record. While I certainly agree with this, I would also suggest that it is in a sense unsurprising - and even somehow perhaps sadly fitting - given both the roles he played, and his films’ treatment of his characters.
In his seminal book Stars, Richard Dyer writes that, “Stars… are the direct or indirect reflection of the needs, drives and dreams of American society.” Cazale’s career suggests that this holds both for those figures who are constructed to embody such dreams, and for those who are required to embody their lack or failure. While Cazale was emphatically not a ‘star’ in the conventional sense, this fact is in itself telling in relation to the kinds of roles he played, and holds a special significance for Cazale’s relationship to the kinds of needs and drives Dyer refers to.
All of the five films John Cazale appeared in during his short career can be seen as indicative of the well-documented sense of national malaise that was so observable in certain corners of the post-Vietnam American cinema. They are all films that, in different ways, asked demoralising questions about what it meant to achieve that form of success so often referred to in mythic terms as ‘The American Dream’. In each film he plays a supporting role to a major Hollywood star which, in pre-Vietnam cinema, could perhaps quite easily have been comic: each has the potential to be the role of the dim-witted friend or side-kick who amuses with his charming ignorance. These, however, were films of the 1970s so-called 'Hollywood Renaissance' - films that often attempted to reflect the extent to which Vietnam and had given the U.S. a sense of its own mortality, and the possibility of failure: films in which pursuit of the American Dream was a dangerous, and perhaps doomed, matter of “life and death”. I want to look briefly at how Cazale’s characters are treated in two of these films: The Godfather Part 2 and Dog Day Afternoon. (I should say, if such a warning is needed for these films, that there will be spoilers...)
In both The Godfather Part 2 and Dog Day Afternoon Cazale's characters are continually being undermined, in different ways, by the star of both films, Al Pacino. This happens on the level of plot, but it is also happening consistently stylistically. For instance, one way in which The Godfather Part 2 often communicates Cazale’s inferiority to Pacino is through framing. We can see this, for example, in the scene in which Michael disowns Fredo (watch a portion of it here). In the scene’s long shots Fredo is seen sprawled on a recliner along the bottom right-hand side of the frame while Michael towers over him, commanding the eye.
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