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Cinema: The New Hollywood Is the Old Hollywood

5 minute read

I LOVE independence more than anything,” says John Cassavetes. With the dedication of an artist and the disposition of a Greek gunrunner, he has spent much of his professional life fighting for it. So, by all rights, this should be his era—the era of the “new Hollywood,” born out of the success of Easy Rider, and a time in which film makers can enjoy unrestricted personal expression. Cassavetes has heard a good deal about the “new Hollywood.” He just cannot find it.

In the search, he has had a few bad scrapes. His first film, Shadows, was begun independently and as an act of love. It was finished on contributions from a radio audience who heard Cassavetes plead for funds on the Jean Shepherd show late one night. His next film, Too Late Blues, was financed—and controlled—by Paramount. Stanley Kramer, executive producer of A Child Is Waiting and a director himself (On the Beach, Judgment at Nuremberg), fired Cassavetes before he could even complete editing Child.

By then (1964), Cassavetes had decided that artistic control and freedom from front-office interference are as necessary to moviemaking as a camera and film. He was through with Hollywood, new or old. Hollywood was only too glad to reciprocate.

Counterassault. “What they do is, they let you love it,” Cassavetes says. “They let you love what you’re doing. Then they take it all away from you.” Not so with Faces, which was made over a four-year period of financial uncertainty but with complete freedom. The result was a fiercely personal, dynamic film that unashamedly celebrated its own independence.

Husbands was bankrolled privately so that Cassavetes would be beholden to no executive boards or studio vice presidents. He shot the footage he wanted at his own pace and to his own taste. When he finally sold the distribution rights to Columbia Pictures, the company started suggesting cuts and compromises and refused to give him a definite opening date for the movie. Cassavetes quickly launched a counterassault. He and his co-stars would sneak out in the early hours of the morning and paste Husbands posters all over Manhattan. He organized his own preview screenings, angrily fired off lengthy letters to the chain of command and in general exhausted the entire executive branch of Columbia Pictures. Wearily, they finally backed off.

They should have known better than to try to control him. Son of a freewheeling, Harvard-educated Greek immigrant, Cassavetes grew up in an upper-middle class Long Island home where the parents “allowed their two sons to be individuals. My family was a wild and wonderful place, with lots of friends and neighbors visiting and talking loud and eating loud and nobody telling the children to be quiet or putting them down.” Cassavetes majored in English at Colgate and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but the hell with all that. “I’m a New York street kid,” he says. “Not that I like to fight so much —it’s just that I like to win.”

Momentarily Appeased. After days of testy negotiation, Columbia decided to hold its own screening of Husbands (“This is our screening, John”) as a sneak preview at one of New York’s chichi East Side theaters. “My God,” Cassavetes said when he heard about it. “They scheduled it for Friday the 13th.” Despite a bone-chilling rain, the theater sold out two hours before the picture was scheduled to start, and when Cassavetes arrived he was turned away by an usher. Cassavetes eventually established his credentials, and took a seat in the balcony to watch audience reaction. “I love that stuff,” he says with a glee that seems sometimes to border on masochism. “When Peter Falk has that scene with the Chinese girl and he treats her so badly . . . well, people boo and I love to hear it. Afterward they accuse me of being a racist. Of course, I tell them that I am.”

Sitting in front of Cassavetes that evening “were these two fags. During the scene where the two guys get sick in the bar and throw up, one fag turned to the other and said, T know what those critics are going to say about this. They’ll say it’s incisive.’ That was just about the time another guy sitting down front went running up the aisle, getting sick to his stomach. Terrific. I really loved it.”

Columbia, convinced at last, promised Cassavetes an imminent opening for the film. Appeased for the moment, Cassavetes flew back home to Los Angeles to spend Thanksgiving with his wife, Actress Gena Rowlands, and his three children, Nick, 11, Xan, 5 (who appear in Husbands as Gus’s kids), and a new baby daughter named Zoe. He plans another trip East “to check the opening,” and to begin collecting money for his next highly independent movie, Women.

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