Number of movies John Cazale appeared in: five. Number of those movies that earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture: five. Number of those movies that won: three. Number of Oscar nominations John Cazale earned for his work: zero.
Few people on the street know John Cazale by name. If you show them a photo of him alongside fellow cast members in The Godfather, they know he’s Fredo. Nobody forgets Fredo. There are several clips of Cazale as Fredo in I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, and a couple of those clips made my eyes well up all over again. That amazing scene in Part II:
Fredo: I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!
Michael: That’s the way Pop wanted it.
Fredo: It ain’t the way I wanted it! I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says… like dumb… I’m smart and I want respect!
Not to mention the wordless scene at their mother’s funeral, when Michael shows up, and Fredo looks up, puts out his cigarette, and hugs his kid brother as if he were a lifeline. Jesus Christ, that’s why I love the Godfather movies. Not for Michael, who turns into a cold cod and a prick. Not for Tom Hagen. But for poor, sweet, stupid, stupid Fredo, who wants to be a man of respect like his Pop, but ends up lording it over some rinky-dink nightclub.
John Cazale was born to play roles like that. His strength was in finding the truth in weakness. In this 40-minute documentary, there’s a parade of great actors — those who worked with him, and those who might’ve been old enough to catch his films on cable back in the day — who genuflect before the cracked glory of John Cazale. Pacino. De Niro. Streep. Hackman. Dreyfuss. And the kids: Steve Buscemi. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sam Rockwell. (All of whom have taken a page or two from the Cazale playbook. I’m surprised the director, Richard Shepard, didn’t get Paul Giamatti, who may be the closest thing to Cazale we have today.)
The doc itself is point-and-shoot, talking-heads, nicely chosen clips (with some rare photos and footage — I hope we get more of that footage as extras on the eventual DVD). It’s essentially an extended version of the Oscar-night tributes they sometimes make room for (like this year’s John Hughes toast). Things I didn’t know about John Cazale: his dad was a coal salesman; he met Pacino while they were both struggling young actors working as delivery boys; the “Wyoming” thing in Dog Day Afternoon was his improv; he did everything slowly and meticulously (friend Robyn Goodman tells a good story about him coming over to calibrate her new TV). Things I still don’t know about John Cazale: everything and nothing. Watch him at work and you feel you learn as much as you need to know about him.
I’ll say it: you cannot call yourself a lover of movies until you have seen all five John Cazale film performances. And you don’t even have to love Deer Hunter — lots of people don’t — just watch it for Cazale (and Walken). I was electrified all over again by his shifty, implosive Sal in Dog Day Afternoon; saddened by his gaunt appearance in The Deer Hunter (you feel real warmth between him and De Niro, and the whole “This is this” scene where De Niro refuses Cazale the use of his spare boots feels kind of false because of it¹); intrigued by his hangdog assistant in The Conversation, which I haven’t watched in too many years; annoyed and moved and heartbroken by goddamn Fredo. In Nick Tosches’ epic Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, the writer pegs the supremely indifferent Vegas god Dean Martin as a menefreghista, a man with menefreghismo, the quality of not giving a fuck. Fredo was the opposite of a menefreghista, and so was Cazale.
Cazale acted in five movies and a lot of plays in between. He met and fell madly in love with Meryl Streep, and she him. She and De Niro moved heaven and earth to ensure that Cazale, by then dying of lung cancer and uninsurable, could be in The Deer Hunter and be in close proximity to Streep. Al Pacino testifies that, as much as he holds Streep’s acting in profound regard, when he thinks of her, he thinks of how devotedly she stayed by the side of his dying friend John Cazale right to the end.
What would John Cazale have done if he’d lived past the age of 42? He would be turning 75 this August. Pacino turned 70 in April. De Niro hits 66 in August. Streep crosses the big six-oh in a few weeks, as I write this. Would Cazale have kept up the high quality? (Some — okay, many — would argue Pacino and De Niro haven’t.) He was essentially a character actor, not a star. That was the beauty of him: he was happiest, and brightest, when giving his fellow actors a hand up. He would come in for a scene, rock the fucking house, and disappear again. He appears in a flashback in Godfather III, and he haunts the entire flawed movie: Coppola knew he needed Cazale one more time, to bless the event. The story is about a soul-sick Michael trying to buy his way to respectability, and you don’t have the story without knowing intuitively how Michael felt about Fredo and his role in Fredo’s fate. And you don’t have that without Cazale.
Anyway, I’m thinking Cazale might’ve had a hard time of it in the ’80s, when Hollywood trended away from the kind of movies in which Cazale thrived. The ’80s were about strength and balls and Sly and Top Gun and Axel Foley. Cazale might have gone sideways, though, to appear in films by indie artists like Jarmusch or Lynch or Spike Lee (hell, Richard Edson in Do the Right Thing was completely a young-Cazale role; back in the early ’70s Cazale would’ve played the shit out of Vito opposite circa-Mean Streets De Niro as Pino). Those who grew up worshipping Cazale might’ve put him in their films, the way Steve Buscemi cast Seymour Cassel in his directorial debut Trees Lounge. I can see Tarantino wanting to give Cazale the Tarantino Comeback Role; I can see Coppola working with him again (what is Vincent Gallo in Tetro but a randier, scruffier Cazale?); I can maybe even see him playing Paul Child opposite Streep’s Julia Child in Julie & Julia.
But he died 32 years ago. And we’ll never know.
¹Really, what that scene feels like more than anything is an actors’-workshop exercise. “John, you forgot your boots. Bob, you don’t want him to borrow yours because he’s always forgetting stuff. Make it into a scene.” De Niro’s character comes off like a dick, and you end up siding with Cazale. I have a lot more to say about this problematic but, I think, great film, but I’ll save it for a proper review.