In a moment I’m going to explain why I think Asian American actors would be doing themselves a big service by studying the work of the late, great John Cazale.
However, let me first broaden my scope and say that everyone who loves movies and sublime acting should check out the films of John Cazale. You really have no excuse since he only made five films before he passed away from lung cancer at the age of 42 in 1978. But if you were only going to be in five films, you couldn’t pick any better: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter. All five are considered classics, all five were nominated for Best Picture Oscars (three of them won) and Cazale is brilliant in all of them. When legends like Al Pacino and Meryl Streep (Cazale’s girlfriend during his final years) proclaim you to be the finest actor they’ve ever worked with, attention must be paid.
With the DVD release this month of Richard Shepard’s excellent short documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, you now also have an additional opportunity to learn more about the man and his work. The documentary features insightful interviews with Cazale’s friends and colleagues including Pacino, Streep, Robert DeNiro, Francis Ford Coppola, Gene Hackman and others, as well as interviews with the next generation of actors who have been influenced by him including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Rockwell. It’s a great introduction to the man and a master class in film acting to boot.
Like most moviegoers, I was first introduced to Cazale in The Godfather where he played Fredo, the “weakest” of the Corleone sons. I have to admit that Cazale didn’t wow me at first. He wasn’t playing a character who was as cool as those played by the other cast members—Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Talia Shire all had flashier parts. Cazale’s Fredo mostly hung in the background and when he took center stage, he was largely ineffectual as in the scene when he is unable to prevent his father from being shot by would-be assassins from a rival Family.
But as I’ve grown older and re-watched The Godfather over the years, the brilliance of Cazale’s performance became more and more evident. It’s not just that his acting style is so subtle and almost invisible that you never feel that he’s acting, but he’s playing a man that no one notices so we don’t really notice him—that’s the whole point. Other actors, especially male actors, have a tendency to play “weaker” characters with a certain distance—there’s a part of them that wants the audience to know they may be playing someone weak but they’re not like that themselves. No such vanity exists in Cazale’s performance. He is Fredo with all his flaws.
That’s why a moment like the aforementioned attempted assassination scene works so well. Up until that point, we’ve only seen Fredo in the background. Here is his moment. His father is being attacked, Fredo tries to retaliate but he fumbles with his gun and his father lies lifeless on the street before he realizes what has happened. In movies, action is character and this scene is one of the greatest examples of that. Fredo has no real dialogue here, but through the physicality of Cazale’s performance, you learn everything you need to know about the character. As a writer, I know you can’t write that, that’s all Cazale. Just the way he breaks down at the end of that scene and physically transforms into a scared, little boy is breathtaking.
But where Cazale really shines is in the sequel. Again, I had to watch The Godfather Part II several times before I realized that this really is Cazale/Fredo’s film. If the first one was about father (Brando) and son (Pacino), this one is about brother (Pacino) and brother (Cazale). Because of that, Fredo becomes the moral center of the film; its heart. He’s a man who knows that he will never achieve what he truly wants because his brother will always be in his way—it’s a fascinating character study. And when Pacino’s Michael has Fredo killed, we know that Michael has completely lost his soul. It’s one thing to murder your gangster rivals, it’s one thing to lie to your wife, but it’s another to kill your own brother—someone we’ve come to understand and care about. That’s unforgivable.
So why do I think Asian American actors should study Cazale’s work? Well, here was an actor who many initially considered “un-castable” at least by Hollywood standards, yet he was able to carve out an impressive career in a short amount of time. I’m sure that’s something many Asian American actors can relate to, but that’s not why I think his work is relevant to our actors.
If you look at most of the characters that Fredo played on paper, especially Fredo or Stan in The Conversation, they don’t appear to be all that interesting. They might even seem a bit stereotypical. Yet Cazale was able to turn those characters that in lesser hands could have become one-note stereotypes into fully realized and memorable people. It seems to me that this is a dilemma that Asian American actors still face today: if you’re going to be cast at all, it’s usually going to be in parts that are uninteresting or not fleshed out at best, stereotypical at worst. So how do you take a part like that and make them three-dimensional, real human beings? I don’t think any actor was able to do this very thing as well as Cazale did. Study his films and it’s all there.
He achieves this by infusing his characters with such specificity of detail. Look at the scene in Godfather Part II where Fredo finally confronts Michael in the boathouse. Fredo is sitting in a plush over-sized chair and the way Cazale uses that chair to convey his character’s emotions is amazing. He turns the chair into an extension of Fredo himself. I’ve never seen an actor use a prop/set item so effectively to help create the character’s emotional state.
But it’s really the smaller details that makes Cazale great—things that most moviegoers will probably never notice, but that collectively add up to create a character. I Knew It Was You includes some of the ways he did this such as the little things Cazale does in the opening wedding sequence in The Deer Hunter. The way he checks to see if his fly is zipped as they are about to take the wedding photo or the way he quickly tries to step on the train of the bride’s wedding dress as she walks down the aisle. Again, action creating character and in this case, employing the smallest of details to create the pieces of the larger mosaic. And with Cazale, these things are never distracting or feel like tics as they may with lesser actors because he does everything in character. Everything feels organic. There’s nothing showy about it. He’s there to serve the character and nothing else. As someone who works on the other side of the camera, those are the types of actors you’d kill to work with.