Monday, 27 June 2011

Peter Falk and John Cassavetes

Obituaries of Peter Falk have inevitably focussed on Columbo, and rightly so. He’s one of the greatest and most enduring TV characters of the 70s. His universal appeal is recognised in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, in which a group of Berliners see Falk (who plays a version of himself) walking across a patch of waste ground and call out ‘hey, Columbo’. But Falk also enjoyed a close and lasting personal and artistic relationship with the actor and director John Cassavetes, with whom he gave some of his most intense and revealing performances, and who drew forth (sometimes in the face of resistance) some of his finest acting.

Falk and Cassavetes met in 1967 at a baseball game (the LA Lakers, not that this means anything to me) during a half time break, as Falk got up to get a hot-dog. Both men new and admired each other’s work, and both had projects which they wanted to interest the other in. Falk had a script by Elaine May called Mikey and Nicky, which he was very enthusiastic about and thought would be perfect for Cassavetes. Cassavetes had the germ of an idea for a film called Husbands, and thought Falk would be ideal for one of the three male characters about whom the story centres. Cassavetes’ agreed to appear in Mikey and Nicky with such impulsive alacrity that Falk thought he was putting him on. When Falk tried to give him more details of plot and characterisation in order to sell the script to him, Cassavetes got animated and insisted that it was enough that he knew that May could write and Falk could act; anything else was just Hollywood business talk, which he was keen to avoid. It was an initial misunderstanding which characterised the tenor of their relationship – the one goading and wildly instinctive, the other cautious and prone to pontification. It was a meeting of opposites which somehow, against all odds (and sometimes against what Falk thought were his better judgements) worked.

The making of Husbands involved its three stars, Cassavetes, Falk and Ben Gazzara, getting to know each other intimately. In playing close friends on screen, they became close and lifelong friends in reality. The film shows how these three characters cope with the early death of another close friend by refusing to go home and going on a wild bender which starts in New York and ends up in London. Their boorish and overbearing behaviour is an instinctive expression of emotions which they can feel but can’t articulate. In the face of death, they try to demonstrate to one another that they are still alive and vital, and that their lives still mean something. Cassavetes had numerous meetings with Gazzara and Falk during which they would talk about their characters and what they would do and say. He wanted them all to bring something of themselves to the role, not necessarily in an autobiographical sense, but in order to reach something which they would personally recognise as true and honest. The results of these sessions would make their way into the scripts which Cassavetes was constantly refining, revising and adding to. The film wasn’t improvised in the shooting, but it had been improvised (probably more so than any other of his films) in the writing, which was a genuinely collaborative process. The personal nature of the film, and of the actors’ part in it was reflected in the fact that the characters’ names were originally simply John, Peter and Ben. When Falk and Gazzara suggested that a certain distance would be advisable, Cassavetes suggested they all choose the names they thought appropriate for their characters. He chose Gus for himself, Gazzara went for Harry and Falk Archie. As Falk recalled it, Cassavetes questioned his choice, at which point he pointed out that this was hardly demonstrating the freedom to create their characters from their own feelings which he had promised them. So Archie he was.

All for one - Archie, Gus and Harry in Husbands
The film has never been one which has found wide favour (and was only recently released on dvd), certainly not to the same degree as Faces or A Woman Under the Influence. Perhaps this is because the characters are not immediately sympathetic. We catch them at a painful and transitional point in their lives, and their reactions to their friend’s death is errant and desperate. As they draw closer together, their relationship with the wider world becomes more combative as they try to force some meaning from it. This is particularly evident in the mammoth drinking session during which they encourage people to sing songs which have some personal significance for them (they are evidently getting the rounds in to create a sense of instant camaraderie). They focus on one particular woman, a little more proper and reserved than the rest, and harry and bully her for the ‘inauthenticity’ of her performance of ‘it was just a little love affair. Falk eventually tries to goad a performance satisfactory to the three friends from the poor, bewildered stranger by promising to take off his clothes, which he proceeds to do, yelling ‘here they come baby’. The unfortunate woman who is the subject of his odd form of encouragement could be seen to stand in for Falk himself, who was unhappy with Cassavetes’ particular way of trying to coax performances out of his actors, often through elliptical suggestions, wild gestures or deliberate needling, but seldom through direct instruction. He wanted the actors to discover the core of their character for themselves, and the way in which they would therefore behave. Falk on the other hand wanted to be told the nature of his character and the way in which the director wanted him to play each scene. He initially felt that Cassavetes was leaving him in the dark and occasionally even deliberately misleading him. In Marshall Fine’s biography of Cassavetes, Accidental Genius, Falk says ‘in some ways, he deliberately tried to keep you off-balance, so you wouldn’t bring out old-fashioned technique and old ideas. But it was impossible. I didn’t understand him. I wanted to strangle him. I had no idea what Husbands was about. After it, I told him, “I’ll work with you as an actor, but not as a director”’. He would end up doing both.

The morning after - Husbands
The drinking scene is followed in the natural course of things by another which also received a great deal of criticism at the time. In this one, Gus and Archie lengthily and loudly throw up in the bathroom. This is a kind of emetic throwing up of emotions, violently and bodily brought to the surface. It takes place in the claustrophobic, black walled confines of toilet cubicles – a kind of literalised dark interior in which the black-suited friends crouch and huddle. In the way of close circles of friends, Harry becomes the third man in this scenario, feeling excluded from Archie and Gus’ intimacies (he is literally shut out from the toilet cubicle, against whose door he insistently hammers). He sadly reflects on how he can’t even vomit, as if this is an emotional failing on his part. Harry is in fact the one most prone to violent mood swings, allowing the intense quality of Gazzara’s acting full expression. Falk’s Archie is bewildered and slightly lost throughout, perhaps reflecting the actor’s discomfort with Cassavetes’ working methods. But this in itself leads to a touching and authentic portrayal of a man out of his depth, drawn into a series of events and encounters for which he is ill-equipped. When the three make their way to London they decide to pick up three women to bring back to their adjacent hotel rooms. Archie, who we witness making two exquisitely embarrassing failed pick-up attempts, ends up with a young Asian woman who seemingly speaks no English. In an awkward scene of non-communication, shot in the kind of extreme close-up which Cassavetes favoured, in which every flicker of reaction would be captured, her muteness forces Archie into self-revealing babble, beginning with softly crooned songs and ending with pleas for her to say anything, in whatever language. An innate reserve and hesitancy in Falk comes through here, and adds a touching air of bewilderment to Archie’s character. He simply isn’t bastard enough to carry through his seduction on an unwilling participant. He requires some tenderness. When she does respond, he recoils, and voices his confusion with reactive aggression. Again, this doesn’t make us feel very sympathetically towards his character, but it does display a kind of honesty.

Peter, John and Ben really did become the best of friends whilst making Husbands, and when the filming ended, there was a genuine sense of sadness. The emotions on display in the final scene in London, with Gus and Archie saying goodbye to Harry, who tries to disguise his distraught feelings with a rendition of Dancing in the Dark (songs always play an important part in Cassavetes films), are genuine. They did quite a few promotional shows around the film’s release, partly in order to extend the feeling of closeness and newly discovered intimacy which they had taken from the shoot. The Dick Cavett show, which you can find on You Tube here, here and here, set the tone, with the three friends conspiring to put their host on and essentially behaving as extensions of Gus, Harry and Archie. Falk makes the distinction between real sentiment and sentimentality, asserting that Husbands is full of the kind of emotions which are not contrived but genuine. Evidently, despite his reservations about Cassavetes’ directorial style, he was proud of the work which they had produced together.

Testing friendships - Mikey and Nicky
Cassavetes was as good as his word when it came to Mikey and Nicky, too, which he made with Falk under Elaine May’s directorship in 1973, although a torturous post-production process meant that it wasn’t released until 1976. Ostensibly a gangster picture in which Cassavetes’ small time hood Nicky awaits the inevitable hit after he has stolen a considerable pile of mob loot, it is really a study of an old friendship, upon which time, accumulated grudges and harboured slights have taken their toll. Falk’s Mikey accompanies Nicky on a night journey through the city. Nicky soon sees through his offers of help, realising that he is there to usher him in to the sights of the hitman, and that his small betrayals and bullying inconsideration have led to this one grand betrayal on Mikey’s part. Mikey apparently prevents Nicky from committing suicide at the outset of the film, and there’s a sense that Nicky has no real intention of escaping his fate. He leads Mikey on an antic dance through the dark, however, making it as difficult as possible for him to carry out his duty. The roles were once again perfectly suited for Cassavetes and Falk, and you get the sense that they reflected something of their own friendship. Cassavetes the extrovert, never afraid to cause a scene in public and intent on pushing people into giving their all, into being authentic in whatever they were doing. Falk more methodical, hesitant and thoughtful, putting up with his friend’s wild and sometimes overbearing expressiveness with a long-suffering tolerance, with the occasional exasperated outburst.

Male aggression - Nick and Mabel
Falk worked again with Cassavetes the director on what many consider to be his masterpiece, A Woman Under the Influence. Whilst this is rightly seen as Gena Rowlands’ film, with her character Mabel its principal focus, Falk’s character Nick (Mabel’s husband) is also central. Nick is one of the ordinary Joes which Falk was so adept at playing. His loyalties are divided between the guys, the hostility of his strong-willed mother towards his wife, and Mabel herself, who he genuinely loves. There is an underlying element of class conflict here, too, with Mabel, a lover of opera and ballet, seeming to come from a rather different background than Nick’s Italian American working origins. Perhaps this reflected the divergent backgrounds of John and Gena, who grew up in relative poverty and affluence, and who had married some years previously in 1954 (family members of all generations and from both sides tend to turn up in small roles in Cassavetes’ pictures). Whilst the film is framed around Mabel’s ‘madness’, Nick also behaves erratically. Again, he plays a character which may draw on his own personality and disease with Cassavetes’ methods. Nick can’t cope with Mabel’s spontaneity and eccentric means of self-expression, her attempts to break through the stultifying expectations of housewifely behaviour and respectable propriety. When Mabel tries to get Nick’s work colleagues to express themselves in another Cassavetes communal singing session, Nick decides that she has taken things too far and shouts at her to ‘get your ass down’ (ie sit down). At other times he yells at her ‘you don’t move’, ‘shut up’ and, most hurtfully, ‘I don’t know who you are’. In the central breakdown scene, the mental disintegration is on Nick’s part as much as it is Mabel’s.

Gena Rowland’s performance in this scene (which Cassavetes characteristically allows to run its course, not allowing the audience the convenience and contrived release found through cutting at the point of emotional crescendo) is a bravura piece of acting, with absolutely nothing held back. For some viewers it might seem a little overdemonstrative. Not for me, though. It’s one of my favourite performances from one of my favourite actresses. Rowlands is so fearless and committed that the film is sometimes uncomfortable to watch but is at the same time an exhilarating and emotionally intense experience. Her portrayal of Mabel is magnetically compelling making it impossible for the audience, or for that matter Nick, to turn away. Falk matches Rowlands, however, with Nick exploding into sudden anger but also displaying real tenderness and bewildered hurt. It’s partly a reactive role, but no less impressive for all that. The comparison between Nick’s loss of control and Mabel’s is made by Peter and Gena’s duet. Nick’s explosive outbursts are considered an acceptable male expression of violent emotion, but Mabel’s struggle to express similarly intense feelings don’t have such an easy outlet, and her mental contortions in trying to deal with them are simply regarded as madness, with no attempts at understanding. Nick is another character who doesn’t invite easy sympathy. His efforts at a parental outing whilst Mabel is away in the hospital is abrupt and motivated by aggressively followed-through confusion. His feeding of his children with beer on the way back home in an effort to get them to sleep is certainly as bad as any of Mabel’s eccentric child-rearing methods.

Peter and Gena - A Woman Under the Influence
But Nick, for all the violence of his attempts to confine Mabel within his own narrowly constructed worldview, shows evident love for her. He just repeatedly does the wrong thing throughout, partly in his attempts to conform to some idea of social respectability and correct behaviour (perhaps even more important at this working class level of American society). Nick and Mabel have very little time together throughout the film. There is always someone else there (often invited by Nick) to intrude upon their intimacy. The sympathy which we do have for Nick is in no small part due to Falk’s nuanced performance, and suggests that A Woman Under the Influence isn’t quite the feminist picture which have some claimed it to be. We are invited to see things from his perspective as well as from Mabel’s, even though this is a man who strikes his wife and shouts her into submission on several occasions. Cassavetes couples are often combative, each tending to give as good as they get. The final scene finds Nick and Mabel alone together at last, working together to clear the mess of the party which Nick has just dismissed, their quiet comfort in each other’s presence as they prepare to go upstairs to bed a sign of hope for the future. Nick has realised his mistake, and pleaded for the old ‘mad’ Mabel to come back to him, for her to ‘just be herself’ again. The film, in the end, is as much about his development, his rejection of convention and conformity, and embrace of individuality. In the end, he realises, it is Nick and Mabel (and the children), and nothing else matters.

Cassavetes tailored films for his friends, giving them the starring roles which allowed them room to express themselves to their fullest. A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night were Gena’s films, Minnie and Moskowitz was partly Seymour Cassel’s, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was Ben Gazzara’s. Falk never got such a film, perhaps because he wouldn’t have been entirely happy with being at the centre of one of Cassavetes’ directorial efforts. But he did take centre stage in Knives, the last of Cassavetes’ Three Plays of Love and Hate, co-written with Ted Allan and staged in 1981. Knives was the only one scripted solely by Cassavetes, who obviously wanted to write something specifically for Falk. This was part intense psychodrama, part comedy and part absurdist ‘what’s it all about’ fable. Falk was on stage throughout, necessarily so since much of the action may be emanating from within his character’s head. It was an intense and rewarding role and was a huge success during its limited run. There was an offer of a transfer to New York, but neither Cassavetes nor Falk really had the time nor inclination to pursue it further. They had done it for love rather than money.

Peter and John - Mikey and Nicky
Falk worked with Cassavetes one more time on the 1986 film titled, with grimly appropriate irony, Big Trouble. The writer and director had walked off and abandoned the project, and Falk had suggested that Cassavetes could come in and complete it. He did so, partly as a favour to his friend, but certainly with no great enthusiasm for the strained comedy material. He fulfilled his duties and the film was finally taken off his hands at the editing stage. Some said that his initial cut was a lot funnier. It didn’t really matter; he effectively washed his hands of it, and it’s not generally considered as part of his oeuvre. As he said to his friend and long-term producer Al Ruban, ‘God, I don’t want this to be my last picture so I’ll be known for this piece of shit’. He was obviously aware of his mortality, his deteriorating health, and sadly, it was indeed to be his last picture. He died a couple of years after it made a desultory appearance in a few cinemas and was almost instantly forgotten. Falk, alongside Ben Gazzara, remained a staunch advocate of Cassavetes’ work throughout, never failing to talk about it with admiration tempered with the honesty of true friendship. They both brought out the best in each other.

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