An actor first, never really a movie star (though he made dozens of them over a 50-year career), Ben Gazzara will be remembered first and foremost for three key films with John Cassavetes in the 1970s – Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night – and for a late resurgence when he cropped up as a talisman (and often a gnomic and acerbic presence) in indie-minded movies by the likes of the Coen brothers, Todd Solondz, Vincent Gallo, David Mamet, John Turturro and Spike Lee.
New Yorkers with long memories will think back further, to his reputedly electrifying Broadway debut as the insidious marine Jocko DeParis in End as a Man (belatedly filmed by Jack Garfein as The Strange One), which had critics comparing his impact to Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. The notices were as good for Kazan’s original production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Hatful of Rain – but the Mediterranean Gazzara was passed over by movie producers until Otto Preminger put him in Anatomy of a Murder – picking up on the surly threat beneath his apparent charm.
His film work in the 60s was perfunctory, but he continued to thrive on stage. Only Cassavetes – and, later, Peter Bogdanovich in Saint Jack and They All Laughed – seemed to appreciate the inherent instability of the voluble, gregarious front that Gazzara put up. He’s the most desperate, the funniest and most touching of the middle-aged Husbands running from (and for) their lives in the film of that name, and note-perfect as the stage director trying to rein in his chaotic lead actress (Gena Rowlands) in Opening Night.
But if you had to pick one film and one indelible performance it would have to be Chinese Bookie and Cosmo Vitelli, a portrait of the artist as a strip-joint hustler bleeding all over the sidewalk.
Also in the March 2013 issue of Sight & Sound
Bob Mastrangelo’s survey of the film greats and lesser-knowns who left us during 2012, with new obituaries of Herbert Lom, Sylvia Kristel, Yamada Isuzu, Seyfi Teoman and child actors of the silent era.