Icons / August 2019

John Cassavetes: Out of the Shadows

John Cassavetes was the godfather of American independent cinema. He was obsessed with intimacy and authenticity, and his style and sense of integrity were ahead of their time. In fact, today’s iPhone auteurs owe him a debt of gratitude…

John Cassavetes on set of Rosemary's Baby, 1967.

In early 1956, John Cassavetes was a guest on a popular evening talk radio show, Night People, where he was scheduled to promote some of his forthcoming projects. So far, so standard P.R.; Cassavetes was a 26-year-old actor whose dark, tousled good looks and wiry intensity had won him many roles — including a fair smattering of criminals and hoodlums — in jittery B-movies such as The Night Holds Terror and Crime in the Streets. A little way in, however, the conversation took a somewhat unexpected turn.

Cassavetes started lambasting what he described as the “artificiality” of Hollywood. “Most of what the studio system churns out is nothing more than repetitive and formulaic drivel,” he announced to his somewhat disconcerted interlocutor. He then set listeners a challenge: if they wanted to see something authentic, unpolished and intimate on screen, they should forward him the funds and he would make it happen. “After all,” he mused, “if there can be off-Broadway plays, why can’t there be off-Broadway movies?”

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Stuart Husband