R.I.P. Ben Gazzara

It was my favorite type of career. Long-lasting, diverse, a little bit chaotic, not overly managed, with moments of brilliance, moments of just good workmanship … and you can tell, you can just tell, that his career has been about acting, yes, but it was really about forming relationships. He worked with friends. He was a people kind of guy. He was a collaborator. He devoted his time and his focus and his love on John Cassavetes’ films, starring in quite a few of them, but he had already been in the business for eons by that point, a highly successful Broadway actor, live television, movies (he was in Roadhouse, let’s not ever forget) … but I believe it is for his work in Cassavetes’ films that he will be remembered. It was the most unconventional choice he could make, to throw his hat into the ring with someone like Cassavetes, and Peter Falk, and Gena Rowlands, and Seymour Cassel … that merry band of lunatics.

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He was in his 40s when he found himself on the cutting edge of the independent film scene in America. He wasn’t a young, hungry guy. He was middle-aged. Married. With a kid. They all were married, with kids. It wasn’t a hipster sensibility, or a Bohemian type of “let’s make a movie with my friends” kind of thing. They were artists. Who understood compromise, they all had had extensive careers, but nothing compared to the roles that Cassavetes gave them. Gazzara had already been around forever. He had worked with Hitchcock, for God’s sake. And Kazan. So to take that risk … to sit in the theatre watching Cassavetes’ Faces and admitting that he felt jealousy. Jealousy of Cassavetes’ talent, and also – an ambition: I must work with that guy.

Gazzara had been looking for something in his life and his career, something that could make him feel creative again, a sense of agency in his own talent. So much of film acting is about hitting your mark, being a good boy, not being any trouble, and just doing what you’re told. Lots of actors (Brando, Penn, Crowe, Mickey Rourke) have admitted that they find some of it emasculating, humiliating. Especially if the director, or the producer, is a moron. But that happens all the time. Gazzara was a tough guy. If you’ve ever seen interviews or met him (as I have), you know that he’s a no-nonsense kind of tough Italian dude. Cassavetes allowed him to tap into the Gazzara-ness of his identity – his true unique self – in a way no other director had ever done. Cassavetes just let Gazzara be. With an actor like Ben Gazzara, it is my belief that the best thing you can do is just let him be. He’ll come up with shit better than you ever dreamed. It’s like Kazan’s comment about how Brando re-did the taxicab scene in On the Waterfront:

“What other actor, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it away with the gentleness of a caress? Who else could read, ‘Oh, Charley,’ in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy, and suggests that terrific depth of pain? I didn’t direct that; Marlon showed me, as he often did, how the scene should be performed. I never could have told him how to do that scene as well as he did it.”

What generosity. To hand over credit like that.

Cassavetes did not micromanage Gazzara. He set them up in situations where they could behave naturally, and have accidents, messups, flaws, be a PART of it, rather than moments to be edited out. It is not true that his films were 100% improvised. There were scripts. All you need to do is read the script for Opening Night to know that those actors were letter-perfect with their lines. It’s hard to believe. It looks completely improvised. (That movie is the movie that is my heart.)

Ben Gazzara loved Cassavetes. They were two tough guys, and their main bonding was about film and about sports. That was what they talked about, not their feelings for one another – but when Cassavetes died, Gazzara was devastated. He only realized at the very end how much he loved his friend. How much he relied on him, and also … how much Cassavetes had done for him. Gazzara felt that Cassavetes had handed him his full talent and genius right back to him … “Here you go. Play.”

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Gazzara’s career since Cassavetes continued in that trajectory. I was so happy when he showed up in something. Weren’t you? Didn’t you feel in good hands? Watching him and Anjelica Huston battle it out in Buffalo 66 made me so happy. It was such a funny and ridiculous scene. I loved watching his smooth corrupt character operate in The Big Lebowski. You think he’s one thing, then you realize … oh no no no I have underestimated him. Gazzara played the whole thing with a bemused relaxed smile on his face. Almost gentle and kind. He was terrifying.

His performance in They All Laughed is a quiet and heartbreaking masterpiece. I posted about it here and here. This past year I was honored to be asked to be a part of a documentary being made about They All Laughed, where I got to pontificate to my hearts’ content about one of my favorite movies. All of the surviving cast members were also interviewed, including Gazzara. The director, Bill Teck, showed me the footage of it on his iPhone: Gazzara, against the black curtain, talking in that distinctive voice. The documentary is still being created, and I haven’t seen it yet but I am so pleased, so very very pleased, that Gazzara was alive to speak about it, that his footage will be in the documentary. He has never been so sensitive or so open as he was in that film.

I loved his work in HBO’s Hysterical Blindness (I loved everybody’s performance in that film – great stuff all around) … and it was particularly poignant to watch Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands, both of them old, but friends for decades … she the widow of his best friend … play scenes together. There’s one scene where they slow dance in an Italian restaurant and there was such intimacy between them, easy intimacy, merely because they knew each other so well. Cassavetes had a dream of creating an ensemble. Watching Hysterical Blindness, so many years later, you realize just how much he did that.

Gazzara worked quite a bit in Europe as well, and continued to do stage work (although his voice was nearly gone … his famous voice). Recently, he did a one-man show about Yogi Berra that got great reviews.

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I love his dedication to his craft. He was an old-school Method actor, and I love him for it, and I also love his dedication to his relationships. He was not a careerist, although he was tremendously ambitious. He was one of those guys who managed to have both in his life, they were woven together. Watch him and Cassavetes in Husbands, or in Opening Night … and you can see how he’s having it all.

His wonderful autobiography is chock-full of anecdotes, glimpses of Hitchcock, Tennessee Williams, Mariliyn Monroe. Gazzara was a member of the Actors Studio back in its heyday in the 50s. He was an up and coming Broadway star. He got involved in an Actors Studio project (notorious to us theatre people) called Hat Full of Rain, by a playwright named Michael Gazzo. The script was developed out of improvisations at the Actor’s Studio and if you read it, you can tell. The whole play not only starts in the middle of an argument, but mid-sentence. Now Clifford Odets had done this before, but Gazzo was a new generation. It was an exciting project. Gazzara got the lead (he was also quite instrumental in developing the piece) and Shelley Winters played the part of his suffering wife. It’s one of my greatest sorrows in life that I do not have a time machine so I could go back and see that production.

Gazzara is not shy in his book about writing about his talent, or how difficult he could be. He did not suffer fools, and he was quite honest about how that got him into trouble. He was a hothead. Much of acting, obviously, is about “playing well with others’ and Gazzara sometimes found that problematic. But his reputation at the time was growing, and his performance as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, with Barbara Bel Geddes, and Mildred Dunnock was a sensation. People still talk about it and talk about how even when Gazzara whispered he could be heard from the back balcony. His voice was quite striking, and he knew how to use it. He was up there with Olivier in terms of control of his famous instrument. It was a voice made for the stage. He could modulate it perfectly, like James Earl Jones does, so that you either found yourself leaning forward in your seat to catch everything, or it seemed to go directly into your ear – a true instrument.

I love the memories of people who saw Gazzara as Brick. He became a sex symbol, playing the part of a tortured impotent gay man, drinking himself to oblivion.

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Here is an excerpt from the rehearsal period and opening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I love looking at those moments when people, to quote Mercedes Ruehl who quoted Joe Papp in her Oscar speech, “find their light”.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Gazzara found his light.

But I also love, in the excerpt, how he talks about the struggle he had with that part, which, I believe, is the toughest role in the entire Tennessee Williams pantheon. Tommy Lee Jones played it, and he is eloquent on the challenges in that role. He feels that Cat is Williams’ only “truly great” play, a confrontational opinion, but one that interests me a great deal. Jones knew that Williams had read a lot of Nitsczhe, and he felt that there might be a clue there in how to play Brick. An unthought-of connection, unexplored in critical examinations of Williams’ work (which usually focus on either the hidden gay themes, or the sweeping Southern gothic tragedy/romance or Williams’ artistry as autobiography). But Jones thought the key to Brick was Williams’ reading of Nitzsche … and he found a lot of things to play off of, using that connection.

One of the things that is so great about this excerpt is Gazzara’s honesty about his continual struggle to “find” that part and how he got conflicting messages from people like “Gadge” (everyone’s name for Kazan) and others: don’t show contempt for Maggie! But make it clear you don’t like girls! But don’t be overtly gay! You were in love with your friend Skipper – so try to SHOW that … without really SHOWING that … You love Maggie … but not as a wife!

I mean, playing ONE of those things would be difficult. But to get it all in?

Even when the show opened he was far from DONE working on his character. He kept getting notes up until the last minute and he messed around, not sure what he was looking for, and then decided to ‘go back’ to what he had originally been doing. Easier said than done. He had lost his confidence. He had lost his vocal power (which he goes into below). He didn’t know what the hell he was doing, and he was on Broadway! I would hazard a bet that it was that very uncertainty in Gazzara, that not being sure of himself quality that helped to make his performance of Brick so memorable that people who were in the audience still talk about it, they still remember the BLOCKING, they remember his voice … even though it was almost 50 years ago.

He said that because of his confusion, he wasn’t able to enjoy his big Broadway debut. He was more focused on figuring out what the hell he was doing. Having sat through many a Broadway show, where someone is making their debut, and that person’s entire energy is: “HOLY SHIT. LOOK AT ME MAKING MY BROADWAY DEBUT. AREN’T I AWESOME???” … I can say that I would prefer to see an actor focused on the matter at hand, meaning: the PLAY.

It was an amazing career, one of my favorite kinds. He’s a real hero of mine. I’m sad.

EXCERPT FROM In the Moment: My Life as an Actor, by Ben Gazzara

All the action in the play takes place in Brick’s and Maggie’s bedroom. The only furniture was a bed and a stand where Brick could refill his drink. He’s been injured during a sporting event and he’s drinking a lot. His leg is in a cast and he uses a crutch throughout the play. I had to find a way to move like the athlete he was. And I had to make his melancholy and reticence understandable. The audience had to be made aware of his painful secret.

BRICK
Why can’t exceptional friendship, real, real, deep, deep friendship between two men be respected as something clean and decent without being thought of as –

BIG DADDY
It can, it is, for God’s sake.

BRICK
… It was too rare to be normal, any true thing between two people is too rare to be normal. Oh, once in a while he put his hand on my shoulder, or I’d put mine on his, oh, maybe even, when we were touring the country in pro football an’ shared hotel-rooms, we’d reach across the space between the two beds and shake hands to say goodnight, yeah, one or two times we –

He’s married to a beautiful woman, and I had to make it clear to viewers that rejecting Maggie doesn’t come from his dislike or disgust, but instead from the death of Skipper, the friend he’d loved with a love he never admitted, even to himself. The loss of Skipper leads Brick to more and more booze and even greater disgust with people’s mendacity, especially his own.

Gadge liked what I was doing. I had heard that he got his nickname, Gadge, from the fact that he often came up with the perfect gadget to make something work. He kept his direction to a minimum, letting me find my own way. I worked on reaching into myself to find the broken part of Brick. On the whole, rehearsals went well, but Tennessee thought that Barbara Bel Geddes, who played Maggie the cat, wasn’t enough of a cat, not complex enough. She was much too wholesome for his taste. He was looking for something more neurotic, but I’m sure that Kazan had cast Barbara precisely for that wholesome quality. Theatergoers loved Barbara and therefore she would be able to make audiences embrace this complicated and not always likable character. Gadge was absolutely right about that.

But Tennessee felt there were problems during the scene where Barbara is on her knees embracing my legs and making a plea for me to take her to bed. Tennessee said something like, “Gadge, she’s fuckin’ with my cadence.” He may have thought he was whispering but Tennessee had a deep, mellifluous voice which at that moment was too loud. And he’d been drinking. Well, I looked over and Barbara was gone. She’d run off the stage in tears, so I went after her to console her. When I came back Gadge looked at me for a long time and said, “You’re a nice guy.” I didn’t understand. Wasn’t it normal to help a lady in distress?

Mildred Dunnock played Big Mama. When she came onstage you saw a lean, almost frail-looking woman, but her vocal equipment was commanding. In most of her entrances she was followed by Pat Hingle, who played Brick’s brother, and Madeleine Sherwood, who had the part of Pat’s wife. Here again, Pat was the only southerner in a play about the South. There was an innocence in his performance that made his character’s greed less melodramatic. I was shown Millie Dunnock’s motherly affection both as Big Mama’s son Brick and as Millie’s fellow actor Ben. I will never forget her warm, comforting smile.

Before leaving for out-of-town tryouts, we had a run-through on the stage of the New Amsterdam Roof. This was the first time I met Marilyn Monroe. This time she came backstage, she wore no makeup, her hair was windblown, she was girlish and very pretty, and she was ecstatic about what she’d seen. She arrived with Lee Strasberg, who liked it – in fact, he was very enthusiastic, which made me proud.

We opened in Philadelphia to great reviews. William Faulkner came to see it, as did Carson McCullers and John Steinbeck. One day in the bar of the St. James Hotel where we were all staying, they were seated at the same table. Kazan invited me over and as I sat down, I thought, My God, look who I’m sitting with. I felt pretty inadequate. But they were pleasant and complimentary about my work. They talked about fishing, hunting, and good restaurants, but not one word about literature. They do it, so why should they talk about it?

Only two days before we were to open on Broadway, Tennessee and Kazan came backstage. Tennessee said, “If you like Maggie too much, Ben, then we have no play. If Brick likes her, we have nothing.” In those days you couldn’t be open about homosexuality on Broadway. It would not sell. So Tennessee clouded the matter masterfully. What probably disturbed him was that I was not cold enough toward her. Gadge said, “Distance yourself from her, Ben.”

So I tried something I didn’t have much faith in but took a chance on anyway. At the time of the New York opening my performance was still pretty much intact. The play received terrific notices and the critics raved about my acting, using words like “marvelous”. But that confused me even more. What the hell was going on? Why were Williams and Kazan asking me to tamper with a good performance? Even though I didn’t fully understand what the hell they wanted, I tried to do it. I tried to distance myself, but didn’t really believe it, so I never found a believable way to do it.

A month into the New York run, I decided I couldn’t make their idea work. I needed to reverse direction to find my original performance. I’d felt that it had always been clear to the audience that Brick won’t go near his wife because he’s mourning the loss of his friend Skipper. To me, mixing the affection that had once existed between Brick and Maggie was far more interesting than the changes I was being asked to make. But when I tried to get back to that original performance, I found myself being tentative and my vocal energy was low, so low that it resembled my work in the beginning of rehearsals, when I was still finding my way, working to get ahold of the character. One night, from the balcony of the Morosco Theatre, someone yelled, “Louder!” It happened on other nights, also. It was the actor’s nightmare, the audience demanding something you can’t give. I knew Barbara heard it, too. What was she thinking? I felt a hot blush of embarrassment. I was mortified, but I didn’t know what to do, where to go for help. Kazan was in Greece on vacation. The character of Brick had been my creation but I felt Gadge and Tennessee had damaged it. In fact I never got it back to what it first had been. I was starring in my Broadway debut and I should have been thrilled. But instead of Cat being an event for me to enjoy, it had become a problem. Going onstage was no longer fun. I had to find my way back. I was determined to slow things down, to simplify my movements and remain in the moment until Brick was again fully realized. I knew then that only by going moment to moment would I recapture what I’d lost.

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16 Responses to R.I.P. Ben Gazzara

  1. JessicaR says:

    And he could be sweet and tender too, he’s just plain lovely in They All Laughed, the adoration he looks at Hepburn with, and the affectionate way he treats Hansen.

  2. sheila says:

    Yes, I added a paragraph about They All Laughed. He is so so heartbreaking in that movie. I love the dynamic with Hansen! He was such a prototypical Leading Man, with a dark dark underbelly.

  3. sheila says:

    I am so glad to hear there is so much love out there for They All Laughed.

  4. JessicaR says:

    It’s just waiting its turn, honestly this would be a perfect title for Criterion, they’re good about presenting forgotten or undervauled classics like that.

  5. sheila says:

    Well, hopefully this documentary I was a part of (and Gazzara was a part of, and Bogdanovich and all the others!!) will help resurrect this forgotten film. It’s a treasure!

  6. Irv O. Neil says:

    Great post. Loved the book excerpt too. I’ve never seen They All Laughed, but now I’ll keep an eye out for it.

    I’ve always loved his work in Anatomy of a Murder. What a perfectly believable couple he and Lee Remick made.

  7. Eileen Chang says:

    Ben Gazzara is one of my all-time favorites. And a real man. He just had such power. Great post, and looking forward to the documentary, Sheila; it’s fantastic you were asked to be a part of it!

  8. april says:

    What a lovely tribute, Sheila… just the sort that I have a feeling Gazzara would have valued. A wonderful group of artists, that “merry band of lunatics…”

  9. sheila says:

    Eileen – Hi, you! I love to hear your thoughts on Gazzara – yes, a man. Old-school. I’ll keep you posted on the documentary! I will miss him, man. So good.

    Oh and weirdly – I went looking for you on FB the other day but couldn’t find you. Put up a post in which you make a cameo appearance.

    Hope you are well!

  10. allison says:

    how sad! i hadn’t heard. i, too, loved him in they all laughed…can still see his face in the opening scene when hansen picks him up in the cab and keeps catching glimpses in the rearview mirror. thank you for introducing me to that wonderful movie. RIP, ben.

  11. Peter says:

    He was great in Husbands. The last piece I saw him in was Paris, je t’aime (Quartier Latin), with Gena Rowlands and Gérard Depardieu. It’s a lovely segment.

  12. Ron G says:

    a great New Yorker too. Used to always see him at Manganaro’s on 9th Ave.

  13. B Albright says:

    I always liked him. One movie that I loved, although it’s been 30 years since I’ve seen it, was Saint Jack. I know it’s considered a minor movie, but I thought his performance had nuance and heart that really made it stand out.

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