John Cazale: American Actor

Once upon a time there was a kid from a small town in Massachusetts who wanted to be an actor. He was unassuming, a bit scrawny, and talented well beyond most in his chosen field. He moved to New York to do theatre and eventually landed himself in the movies. Five movies, to be exact. Five movies over six years.

Of those five movies, three won Best Picture at the Oscars. Two of them were up against each other in 1975. The other one that didn’t win is still considered a classic to this day. His performance in all of these films earned him zero Oscar nominations and one Golden Globe nomination, which is the truest indictment of the awards shows system I can think of.

John Cazale was never a flashy actor. In fact, he was often quite the opposite. As Alfredo Corleone in The Godfather movies, he is often seen as a wimp whose weak mind mirrors his soft physique. His power came in his ability to be vulnerable in a way that other male actors were afraid to exhibit on screen. When you see him cower to his brothers and father in The Godfather, or see him sweating, shaken with nerves in Dog Day Afternoon, it’s easy to forget that he’s acting. Instead he’s tapping into his pathos, drawing you in using parts of himself to appeal to your sense of empathy.

And let’s not forget that because of Cazale, Meryl Streep got her first Oscar nomination. She only took the role in The Deer Hunter to be close to him while he was ill. One thing to remember when you watch that movie is that Cazale was dying while they made it. He knew it was likely his last role and he leaves it all on the screen. In fact, they shot his scenes first to make sure he could finish his scenes and he passed away before the movie was done filming.

Anyway, today is Cazale’s birthday and if you haven’t seen his work, please do so as soon as possible. Everyone talks about James Dean and his three-movies-in-two-years career with their eyes all agog. I would argue that Cazale’s run is more impressive. East Of Eden and Giant are both good movies, but Rebel Without A Cause is the one that catapults Dean. All five of Cazale’s films are arguably (I’m saying arguably, not definitely) better than Rebel. Don’t sleep on John Cazale just because he wasn’t a heartthrob like Dean.

Here’s a video I found (very poor quality and my apologies for a quick appearance by Bret Ratner for some reason):

The Godfather

The Godfather II

The Conversation

Dog Day Afternoon

The Deer Hunter