Descending from Greek immigrants, John Cassavetes was born in New York City in 1929. A popular high-school student, Cassavetes’ fascination for the performance arts led to stint at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He graduated in 1950 and supported himself by playing small parts on stage and TV. As an actor Cassavetes was typecast as tough villains, notably in The Night Holds Terror and the live-TV drama Crime in the Streets. He first gained notice for his performance in the working-class drama Edge of the City. Cassavetes’ acting workshops conducted in New York inspired him to make a film with his students. He funded Shadows through money borrowed from family and friends as well as donations from listeners of the radio show Night People. The film became a landmark in American cinema, winning prizes at theVenice Film Festival. It presented a raw glimpse into urban America in its story of three African-American siblings in 50s New York. Its impact on the emerging independent cinema in America was analogous to the impact of the French New Wave in Europe.
Ironically, it also received notice from Hollywood studios. The two films Cassavetes made with studio funding – Too Late Blues and A Child is Waiting left him dissatisfied with the system and only strengthened his resolve to make films on his own terms. Like Orson Welles, Cassavetes would use money earned from his actors’ fees to fund his directorial projects. As an actor he appeared in notable films like The Killers, The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary’s Baby, The Fury and Mikey and Nicky. His 1968 film, Faces, would mark the start of the most important phase of Cassavetes’ career. Its cast included future regulars Gena Rowlands,Seymour Cassel and Val Avery. Where Shadows benefited from a raw improvisational style, Faces displayed better control of technique and increasing maturity in characterization. The film proved to be a financial and critical success, earning three Oscar nominations. His next films, Husbands and Minnie & Moskowitz, displayed a more light-hearted approach than Faces. The latter film, focusing on a New Yorker who moves to Los Angeles (played by Seymour Cassel) reflected on Cassavetes’ position at the time.
A Woman Under the Influence was another self-financed endeavour. Cassavetes expressed intense emotional states with no concessions made for commercial and audience palatability. Audiences are brought as close as possible to the messiness of real life, placing them on the same level as his characters. If Cassavetes claimed that his films were about “love”, about the various difficulties involved in relationships; critic Thom Anderson would regard his films as “comedies” which “face up to tragedy and reject it.” The fierce vitality of films like Minnie & Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night often left his audience drained. Cassavetes’ films often flirted with genre, a telling example being The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Initially conceived as a project for Martin Scorsese, the film became one of his most enigmatic works. This story, of a strip club manager pursued by the Mob over unpaid debts, became in Cassavetes’ hands a statement on the hard price paid for personal independence.
His final works included Gloria and Love Streams. The latter film was largely shot in Cassavetes’ house and served as his “testament film”. It returned to the themes of his earlier films, differing in its poetic approach to narrative and its unusual visual style. Cassavetes’ spent his final years working in theatre productions while developing film projects and ideas. He died in 1989 as a result of cirrhosis of the liver. His career became an inspiration for independent-minded artists like Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson. His films, ranking among the most uncompromising pictures of American society, would influence film-makers from around the world; among them such diverse artists as Maurice Pialat, Michael Haneke and Béla Tarr.