November 12, 2010
I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale
Phil Hall READ TIME: 2 MIN.
John Cazale only appeared in five films, but the quality of his output more than compensated for the quantity: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter. His cancer-related death in 1978 at the age of 42 took away an uncommonly gifted character actor.
Richard Shepard's documentary offers a sketchy but touching celebration of Cazale's life and career. A generous display of clips from his film work confirms his versatility and willingness to take risks with unsympathetic roles: as the weakling Fredo in The Godfather films, as the morally ambiguous surveillance professional in The Conversation, as the dim bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon, and as the sleazy mill worker in The Deer Hunter. When going up against major talents like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and Robert DeNiro, Cazale had a unique talent for stealing scenes with inventive line readings and unexpected gestures.
The documentary is somewhat less successful in trying to present Cazale's off-screen life. His early years and his pre-film work in New York's Off-Broadway environment is presented in a rushed aspect that offers no depth in regard to his professional development; very brief clips of Cazale's work in an obscure short film and a role on a TV drama series offer fleeting evidence of his ability to handle comic parts.
However, Meryl Streep, his co-star and girlfriend in his final years, offers a warm recollection of the qualities that made Cazale so special. And his on- and off-camera collaborators (including directors Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet) offer very generous comments on his talent - though, oddly, no one ever explains why he was constantly bypassed for an Oscar nomination.
Phil Hall is the author of "The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time