When I was a little girl my dad had a point to make. He did it his way. You know, the kind of way that eventually lands you in group. He took us to see The Godfather, starring Al Pacino. Well, he didn't exactly take us, he gave my sister and me money to go to the movies to see something else, knowing full well we would sneak in to see it.
He hoped the lesson we would take away was that Al Pacino's character, who I happened to be in crazy love with, was not to be admired. The thought of my loving a man who did things so vile, made my Dad bananas and made me have to hide my make-him-an-offer-he-can't-refuse poster under my bed. Hard to kiss Al 'night that way - but better than watching my Dad tear it down from my well-organized bulletin board that hung above my bed. No Mafia personae were to be held in esteem. There were other people who contributed to world society who could be admired and celebrated as a link to a big part of our heritage.
That wasn't the lesson I got. And you so knew that was coming.
After seeing The Godfather I fell out of love with Al Pacino (though the scenes with him in braces were like catnip to me, with the overbite). I fell headgear over heels in love with John Cazale. I know. Kooky.
Whenever he was on screen I was mesmerized by him, by Fredo. Fredo made my heart race. I watched every single thing he did in every scene he was in, from the way he held his hands to the way he stood, to the way he leveled his gaze just off center enough to be supplicant to whoever else was in the scene. I watched his eyes mostly, yes, his sad and soulful eyes. My heart was torn by the way he stared when he was afraid of or abased by those he loved, with that mixture of searing loss, yesterdays and a glimmer of hope. When we left the movie theater I could quote all of Fredo's lines. John Cazale won and then broke my heart. Not even the receding hairline got to me. I loved it because then I could really see those eyes.
I came home, slammed the front door, loudly announced I wanted a dog and was going to name it Fredo, blowing our cover story about what movie we watched. Dad, not looking up front the paper asked me if I had a job yet and if not go get one right after I took a hike. I wanted to dance and shout out that I wanted to marry Fredo Corleone - but like wanting to marry Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees, it's not what you wanted your younger sister to throw in your face in the middle of a knock-down-drag-out. If you were sane you wanted to marry James Caan or Al Pacino or Davy Jones from The Monkees. The cute ones. So I kept it to myself. But because of John Cazale, I wanted to be an actor.
Years later I went to go see Dog Day Afternoon. I remember Al Pacino asking John what country he wanted to go to - and his character Sal answered, after a long pause, Wyoming. Everyone in the movie theater laughed. Not me. In that one-word answer I knew everything there was to know about Sal and his world. When Sal said Wyoming I immediately looked to Al Pacino who looked stunned and then softened as it dawned on him that he too, knew everything about Sal right then.
In 1978 came The Deer Hunter where Cazale played "Stosh." The scene of him I remember best is when he is with DeNiro hunting deer with a pistol, waving it around clumsily. Beware of one who has nothing to lose, goes the Italian proverb. That was what I saw in John's eyes - nothing to lose. How in the HELL does he do that?!?!? There he was, holding his own weirdness despite a cast of strong male leads.
And then he was gone, from bone cancer. (I JUST WATCHED THE SHORT DOCUMENTARY AND I'M SUCH A SCHLUB - JOHN CAZALE DIED FROM LUNG CANCER AND NOT BONE CANCER. SORRY EVERYONE.) John Cazale had slipped my conscious mind. I knew that could happen, does happen every day in Hollywood. I was so fortunate to have studied acting and directing with the late Daniel Mann. Through him I was introduced to the same power in actors Anna Magniani, Burt Lancaster, Shirley Booth, Ernest Borgnine, Dina Merrill, Susan Oliver, Paul Muni, Machiko Kyo, Susan Hayward, and Eddie Albert. And our class was admonished to commit their gifts to memory.
Through Daniel Mann I learned the essence of fearless listening, the actor's relationship to all things, people and time, the condensing and current of movement, intent and pre-breath. I learned to act with my pelvis not my head; Lead with what has the most power!!!!, Daniel would shout, throwing something at somebody. Right. At me. Through studying John Cazale I learned to take everything that came my way and use it to illuminate the human condition.
It's how I live my life. When people ask me how I have survived in show business so long, and raised a child fairly alone, I say I'm an actor/director, I've been trained to. And I learned from the best, beginning with John Cazale and Fredo. And ending with Daniel Mann.
There is a Sundance documentary called I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale that HBO will be airing. I watched bits from the making of...and was glued to that face, those eyes, that vulnerable soul. It's many years later and still I see in John Cazale's performances what few actors, men or women, have been able to deliver, powerful innocence fused with brutal truth.
The clips from his movies - and I realized I was still holding my dinner plate, standing before the TV - don't reveal any acting seams. You don't catch his arcs. You don't see his transitions. You see character and it is him. John is the vessel, the reactor, the mirror of another actor's projected, present intent. The PERFECT scene partner.
Sometimes (yup...every day) I miss the opportunity to act. I have a wonderful craft. I do voices. Even then I always try to do the work. Sometimes I am rewarded because I bring something unexpected to a character, but often times I am cast because I fit the Johnny Bravo jacket (Brady Bunch reference...sorry) - and sound like the voice the animator had in his head when he drew the character.
No tears. No regrets.
It's the nature of the craft of my beast. If you're lucky as you get older, you respect the craft and it becomes a skill. After twenty years the truth is I can only be as present as being in a room alone allows. Acting alone is a monologue, no matter what anybody tells you. Even at a full cast session there is only delivery. Cartoons are animated sit-coms and sitcoms are about paced timing. Your intent is straight Neil Simon; Boy meets girl, gets stuck up a tree, girl gets boy down, boy gets girl. Fast and in hilarious voices. (Once the rhythm and voice is set, we cross our fingers that a Rosie Perez or Cameron Diaz has no interest in taking over our gig. After years of heartbreak it's hard to commit yourself to discovery and process.) There are no scene partners - especially if you are playing both parts in the scene. Haha - but true.
There are certainly no John Cazales.
But I still have his lessons. My Dad also taught me a lesson all those years ago, through The Godfather. It just turned out to be an acting lesson.
I too, knew it was you way back in 1972, John Cazale.