When I first began seriously writing in my early 20s, I remember hearing in a workshop, “Write what you know.” I soon noticed that the best stuff I was producing came from that place, specifically characters (including ones based on me) that were budding alcoholics and drug addicts and what they were doing with their fucked up lives. I was reminded of that when I took a look at the work of director, writer and Oscar-nominated actor John Cassavetes, who, on February 3rd, 1989, essentially drank himself to death at the age of 59 (when you’re an alcoholic and you die of cirrhosis, there’s no real debating that).
No one knows a drunk like a drunk, and John Cassavetes certainly appears to have been intimately familiar with the subject. When I was reviewing clips from his body of work, one of the first things I noticed was how many of the storylines revolved around boozing and alcoholic behavior, and how so many of his characters could have been classified as alcoholics by anybody with even a passing acquaintance of what the disease really looks like.
One of his most acclaimed movies, A Woman Under the Influence, stars his real-life wife Gena Rowlands (who starred in many of his movies, along with his friends Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara) as a mentally ill housewife with a pretty obvious booze problem, and she’s married to a construction worker who appears to be a bit of a drunk himself. Film critic (and 34-year sober alcoholic at the time of his death) Roger Ebert speculated that the characters in the film may have been “suggested by his own marriage” and judging by this clip that so unsexily portrays Rowlands picking up a guy in a bar with such authenticity, it looks like the handiwork of a director and actor who might have been deeply familiar with the world of drunks.
Cassavetes made a number of movies with alcoholism as a backdrop, including Opening Night, which was allegedly about a Broadway actress coming to grips with the aging process, but her alcoholism runs wild throughout the film. Just check out this liquor-fueled scene with Cassavetes, Gazzarra and Rowland. Then there’s Husbands, which starred Falk, Gazzarra and Cassavetes, and chronicles the adventures of three married men approaching the dreaded age of 40 that go on a horrifying bender together. Not only was the movie one long drunken binge but when the promotional tour hit The Dick Cavett Show, the characters more or less stepped out of the movie and onto the show. All three actors were completely smashed for their appearance, and Cavett even walked off the show at one point before the audience chanted, “Dick, Dick, Dick” and he returned.
In spite of his alcoholism, Cassavetes had an impressive and important career, and is often referred to as the Godfather of indie cinema for his pioneering efforts. He began as an actor in B-movies and TV, even starring in his own series, Johnny Staccato, in which he played a jazz pianist who doubled as a private detective (there’s two boozy professions). He used the money he made to finance his first independent film, Shadows, which won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1960. He continued his acting work and was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for The Dirty Dozen in 1967 and also played the husband in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
He directed a couple of other mainstream films before finding critical success with Faces, which details the deterioration of a middle-aged couple’s marriage (and included a healthy dose of badly-behaving lost adults and lots of booze). The film earned multiple Oscar nominations including Best Original Screenplay, was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and is said to have influenced Woody Allen and Robert Altman. Cassavetes went on to direct eight more films, including the aforementioned Husbands (1970), A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Opening Night (1977), as well as Love Streams in 1984. His films never reached wide audiences and some of his work was panned by critics but he was respected by those in the know.
Martin Scorcese was one of Cassavetes’ biggest fans, and in this interview, Scorcese said, “He was trying to create another cinema, another way…he’s the person who exemplifies independence.” The New Yorker wrote in 2013 that Cassavetes “may be the most influential American director of the last half century,” and the Independent Spirit Awards actually named one of their categories after him.
According to reports, Cassavetes was drinking a quart of vodka a day at the end before his doctors convinced him to put down the booze but the damage had been done, and he died what must have been a horrible death from cirrhosis in 1989. While I tend to think that those who believe that drinking or drugging makes them a better writer, musician or actor are usually way off base, Cassavetes drinking gave him a unique perspective into how to translate what the everyday alcoholism of the “functioning” alcoholic really looks like to film—much like Bukowski did with his writing and Tom Waits does with his music.
Unfortunately, he paid the ultimate price for his art.
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