In the course of little more than a week, purely by chance, I have watched four films featuring John Cazale: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation and The Deer Hunter.
Cazale’s filmography consists of only five features: the four mentioned above and Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. It’s a remarkable list – incontrovertibly five of the greatest films of the 1970s – and it makes Cazale unique among actors in having had every film he acted in nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
Striking in his physical appearance – the high forehead, haunted sunken eyes, angular nose – his presence on screen is often unassuming, but always magnetic. He was frequently cast as naïve loser characters – in the Godfather films as Fredo, the slow-witted Corleone brother, in Dog Day Afternoon as Sal, the bank robber whose concern that the media should not portray him as gay provides some light relief to the overlying tension, and finally in The Deer Hunter as the lovably downtrodden Stan, who never has any of his own kit for the friends’ hunting trips. The scenes where he overcomes his reserve and speaks out against those he feels have done him wrong – Al Pacino’s Michael in The Godfather Part II and Robert De Niro’s Mike in The Deer Hunter – magnificently exploit the innate vulnerability of his appearance.
Director Michael Cimino arranged the filming schedule of The Deer Hunter specially so Cazale’s scenes could be filmed first, in the knowledge that Cazale was suffering from the advanced stages of terminal cancer. Cazale completed his scenes but died before filming was completed. Meryl Streep, his partner at the time, was more pleased to land a role in the film because it meant she was able to nurse him on set than because of any artistic consideration.
Cazale’s name belongs alongside those more glamorous stars who died before their time – James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Natalie Wood, River Phoenix – and his legend and reputation have surely been enhanced by his tragically early death. His recorded legacy, though, is arguably the greatest of all. I must dig out Dog Day Afternoon, which I haven’t seen for years.
Tags: John Cazale