Daily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir:
In the Moment: My Life as an Actor, by Ben Gazzara
It’s 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 has also been about forming relationships. He works with friends. He’s a people kind of guy. He’s 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.
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 was no dummy. He 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, or whoever … is a moron. But that happens all the time. Gazzara’s a tough guy. If you’ve ever seen interviews or met him, 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 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, changing the focus of it:
“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 (or any of his actors). He set them up in situations where they could behave naturally, and have accidents, messups, flaws, show up and be a PART of it, rather than something 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. It’s astonishing.
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.” it was as if Cassavetes had said.
Gazzara’s career since Cassavetes has continued in that trajectory. I’m so happy when he shows up in something. Aren’t you? Don’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. This guy is a bad dude. But Gazzara plays the whole thing with a bemused smile on his face. Almost gentle and kind. 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 now, but friends for decades … she is the widow of his best friend … play scenes together … There’s one scene where they slow dance in an Italian restaurant and there is such intimacy between them, merely because the two actors know each other so well … It killed me. Beautiful work, the two of them. Gazzara works quite a bit in Europe as well, and continues to do stage work (although his voice is nearly gone … his famous voice). Recently, he did a one-man show about Yogi Berra that got great reviews.
So I just love him. I love the scope of his career, I love his dedication to his craft – he’s an old-school crazy Method actor, and I love him for it … and I also love his dedication to his relationships. He’s not a careerist, although he is tremendously ambitious. He’s one of those guys who has managed to have both in his life, and weaves the two together. Watch him and Cassavetes in Husbands, or in Opening Night … and you can see how he’s having it all.
His book is chock-full of anecdotes, enough to make a crack-ho like myself satisfied. 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 … 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 about writing about his talent, or how difficult he could be. He did not suffer fools, and he’s quite honest about how that got him into trouble. He’s a hothead. Much of acting, obviously, is about “playing well with others’ and Gazzara sometimes found that problematic. But his reputation 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. OH TO HAVE SEEN THAT PRODUCTION. 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 could modulate his voice perfectly, a la James Earl Jones, 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 that tortured gay man, drinking himself to oblivion, until he feels “the click”. (What a great great line. Why don’t you stop drinking?? people ask Brick. I haven’t felt the click yet, he replies. Chilling.)
I was really torn on what excerpt to choose from his wonderful book. I loved the section about the filming of Husbands, the first film he did with Cassavetes … but I decided to go further back, and take 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 lexicon of Tennessee Williams’ work. 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 challenging 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 that connection. An unthought-of connection, unexplored actually 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 found a lot of things to play off of, using that connection. I love smart actors.
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?
I love love love Gazzara’s talking about his process here. And how 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 lost his confidence. He 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 … 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.
Oh, and one last thing: 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.
Anyway, enjoy the excerpt.
An amazing career, and a lovely book.
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.
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 —
It can, it is, for God’s sake.
… 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 oly by going moment to moment would I recapture what I’d lost.