Natural Born Plumbers: John Cazale and the Character Actors of the 1970s
By Phil Dellio
American cinema in the 1970s will always be remembered first and foremost as a legendary decade for directors (the familiar litany of Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, and company) and secondly as a time when a new generation of lead actors superseded the Waynes, Newmans, and McQueens of the ’60s (Nicholson, De Niro, and Pacino preeminent among them). It’s not a decade famous for its character actors, those familiar-but-elusive faces that turn up in film after film to commandeer the proceedings with some memorable bit of business that stays in your mind long after everything else is forgotten–certainly not in the way that the 1940s, the height of the studio system, is widely regarded as the highwater mark of character acting. In O.K. You Mugs, an anthology of writings on the art of character acting, editors Luc Sante and Milissa Holbrook Pierson define the specialized appeal of the character actor this way: “As they reappear in one film and then another, it is as if they are returning in our very dreams; these characters take on character.”
Defined as such, the ’70s was actually a time of unforgettable role players. Their names haven’t as yet been accorded the same mythological status as Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Sidney Greenstreet, or Elisha Cook Jr., but men like Allen Garfield, Ned Beatty, Peter Boyle, Bert Remsen, Harry Dean Stanton, Michael Murphy, Burt Young, Billy Green Bush, and G.D. Spradlin left behind a body of work that was absolutely integral to the key American films of the era. If, like me, much of your movie-going sensibility was shaped by that time and place, De Niro’s “You talkin’ to me” monologue in Taxi Driver is like scripture; but you probably cherish Peter Boyle’s densely layered a-man-is-what-he-does lecture in the same film (culminating in his “It’s not Bertrand Russell, but what do you want, I’m a cabbie” apologia, a masterpiece of redundancy) just as much.
And most of all, you cherish John Cazale. Dead at 41 by cancer, Cazale’s filmography is endlessly fascinating in its haiku perfection. His career consisted of five films over a seven-year period: the first two Godfathers (1972/4), The Conversation (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and The Deer Hunter (1978). All five received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture (inexplicably, Cazale himself never earned a supporting nomination); three of them won, The Conversation lost to one of the other five, and only Dog Day Afternoon was beaten by a film that didn’t feature Cazale. Leaving aside the validity of the Academy Awards as a barometer of artistic worth (other than to observe that the awards given out during the ’70s tended to be more adventurous than at any other time in history), that’s a combination of brilliance and brevity unmatched by even James Dean. I’ve gotten into the habit of referring to Cazale as the Velvet Underground of actors, insofar as everything he ever did has its own secure niche in film history, without a single misstep along the way.
In trying to place Cazale according to Luc Sante’s classification of character actors (“Some character actors are foxes and some are hedgehogs: the fox knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing”), I’d say he was a hedgehog with a little bit of fox in him. His specialty, on full display in all his films but one, was everything that fell on the vulnerability end of the emotional spectrum: weakness, ineffectuality, fragility, resignation, invisibility. When Talia Shire pleads with Pacino in Godfather II to forgive Cazale’s Fredo, she pins down his overriding persona perfectly: “He’s so sweet and helpless.” To think of Cazale is to recall first his sad, imploring eyes, the mixture of inadequacy and shame he conveyed–he was one instance where the overused adjective “haunted” is justified. Cazale’s performances elicit feelings of protectiveness, a sense of having to look out for a younger sibling. Coppola expertly plays upon this instinct in the Godfathers by turning the Fredo-Michael relationship on its head: it’s the older brother who grudgingly submits to being watched over by the younger brother, in time coming to resent the arrangement so deeply that humiliation gives way to betrayal.
In Godfather II‘s scene inside the Corleone compound where Michael questions and then disowns Fredo, this resentment and humiliation reach their breaking point. Cazale has had relatively little screen time up until then–two significant scenes in The Godfather (most memorably, toadying up to Moe Greene to the withering dismay of Michael) and a lot of jumping through hoops in II (his debauched wife, Johnny Ola)–which makes his confrontation with Michael all the more remarkable. In a brother scene that stands alone with Brando and Steiger in On the Waterfront for its purity and intensity, Cazale seizes his big moment by venturing to a place where almost any actor would look foolish. He completely melts down–when Fredo snaps at Michael that “It’s not the way I wanted it,” Cazale does a thing with his arms that borders on epileptic seizure. It’s a startling transformation.
Cazale’s hedgehog-like ability to do one thing exceedingly well–to recede into the background and meekly defer to his superiors–also shapes his portrayals of Stan, Gene Hackman’s assistant in The Conversation, and Al Pacino’s accomplice Sal in Dog Day Afternoon. Stan is the least neurotic of Cazale’s characters, but he’s also such a cipher that he’s reduced to the role of chattering lapdog to Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul, maybe the most socially inept of ’70’s movie-loners. Harry manifests a painfully evident inferiority complex with just about everyone he encounters, but in his working relationship with Stan, it’s Cazale who’s shut out and made to feel like an intrusive amateur: “It wouldn’t hurt if you filled me in a little bit once in a while, Harry–did you ever think about that?” So he quits to go work for Harry’s number-one competitor, the despised William P. Moran (Allen Garfield), as a means of both revenge and retaining some self-respect. It takes all of a few nice words and a vague promise from Harry to bring Stan back into the fold–with a shrug betraying apathy as much as it does loyalty, Cazale reasserts himself as the ultimate pushover.
By the time of Dog Day Afternoon, Cazale’s an empty shell. Sidney Lumet’s casting deftly echoes the Fredo/Michael relationship by again placing Cazale in a position of feckless subservience to Pacino. Cazale’s Sal is afraid of everything: of Pacino’s wired unpredictability, of guns, of cancer, of planes, of being reported as a homosexual on local news broadcasts. Cazale comes up with a vibrantly tacky look for Sal–with his long hair, cheap suit, and extra-loud ’70s tie, he’s like a rough sketch of Benicio Del Toro’s character in The Usual Suspects–but the eyes are more lifeless than ever. A lot of Cazale’s screen time in Dog Day Afternoon consists of little more than a blank, uncomprehending stare at the unfolding circus around him. Pacino gyrates and schemes and exhorts; Cazale just stands by and waits for the bottom to fall out, which of course it eventually must.
Cazale was enough of a name after Dog Day Afternoon to get second-billing to De Niro in The Deer Hunter. Perhaps feeling boxed in by an emerging pattern of variations on Fredo, Cazale used his newfound visibility for a masterly about-face. This time, all the fumbling silences and little-man significance go to De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage (too much so–at times their lines seem to have been written by Barton Fink), while Cazale reinvents himself as a womanizing, vainglorious blowhard, again named Stan, who stays home and cultivates a moustache while his friends go off to war. Stan is crude, self-aggrandizing, reckless, and 99% bluff–it’s like Fredo has been inhabited by Moe Greene. When Cazale starts spewing invective at De Niro’s grandiloquent “this-is-this” rationale for not lending him some hunting boots–a scene of comical miscommunication that anticipates Raging Bull‘s “Did you fuck my wife?” interrogation–he’s a profane motormouth far removed from anything Cazale had previously attempted. Stan was a beautifully crafted adumbration of where Cazale might have gone if he hadn’t died–proof, really, that he could have gone anywhere.
If Cazale was the most purely gifted of ’70s character actors, Allen Garfield may have captured the tenor of the times better than anyone else. There’s no more emblematic ’70s image to my mind than Garfield stalking around in Nashville, waving off Ned Beatty and Michael Murphy with his mantra of “I got no time, Delbert–I got no time!” In O.K. You Mugs, Greil Marcus envisions the late J.T. Walsh as a reflection of Bill Clinton: a charming lout drifting from one tawdry role to another inside an ambiguous “haze of sincerity.” That’s the kind of irresistible analogy one can easily overdo, and to prove it, I’m going to overdo a different one: I’ve always viewed Garfield and many of the ’70s’ other key character actors as extensions of Richard Nixon, the inescapable white whale of another time.
Cazale was Nixon the brooding, self-pitying outsider–the eternal wallflower who felt inferior to East Coast intellectuals, the part of Nixon that wanted to crawl out of his own skin. You can easily envision Godfather II‘s compound scene played out between Nixon-as-Fredo and JFK-as-Michael: “I was in the White House before you, Jack, and I was stepped over!” Ned Beatty was Nixon the mechanical bumbler, the one who couldn’t work a tape recorder properly; Burt Young and Peter Boyle were Nixon the uncouth slob (all those expletive-deleteds); and G.D. Spradlin (Senator Geary in Godfather II, Nick Nolte’s imperious coach in North Dallas Forty) was Nixon the cooly manipulative despot. Garfield had some Nixon in him too, but most of all he was the ultimate Nixon flunky: the compulsive wheeler-dealer, sweating under his collar as he works the crowd, backroom rot with a smile. Garfield’s political ad-man in The Candidate (a prototype lifted intact from The Selling of the President 1968, Joe McGinniss’s account of how the “New Nixon” came to be) and his squalid wiretapper in The Conversation were two of the most gleefully amoral small-time operators of the era, natural born plumbers on the order of Hunt and Liddy. (Even as Ronee Blakely’s avowedly apolitical husband/manager in Nashville, Garfield still managed to come across as a weasel-for-hire.) When Garfield offered his assessment of some welfare mothers gumming up one of his ads in The Candidate, his words were as sure a marker as “Ohio,” Joe (Peter Boyle as the phantasmagoric embodiment of Nixon and Agnew’s “silent majority”), or All in the Family that the Nixon decade was well underway: “Grim scene, baby, grim scene…You look uptight and uncool. Nobody’s listening and nobody’s digging you.” To which Garfield, Robert Redford, and everyone within earshot burst out laughing.
The peculiarly feral quality of Garfield can be found in Steve Buscemi’s best work during the ’90s, just as Cazale and his contemporaries have their own modern-day equivalents in Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Imperioli, and Luis Guzman. In time, stray moments from this current generation of character specialists will seem much more vital than most of the huffing and puffing that now pushes them into the background (or a lot sooner than then–a few seconds of Guzman and Don Cheadle clowning around in Traffic is worth the whole Michael Douglas subplot). John Cazale packed more of those moments into five films than anyone I can think of. In Coppola’s hollow Godfather III, Fredo is only present as an absence, as empty space on a rowboat; Michael is consumed by the memory of standing at the window, looking out on the one murder that in time will come to weigh heaviest of all on his conscience. That flashback to the empty rowboat is The Godfather III‘s most resonant image–tribute to the enduring power of the first two Godfathers, but perhaps even more so to the deep impression left behind by Cazale.
(Originally published in Cinema Scope and re-published in rockcritics.com, 2001)