Ben Gazzara was a long way from being a household name. When he died on February 3rd this year it barely warranted a headline. The first I heard of his passing was during the Oscars when he featured in the annual memorial montage, a distinctive face amongst an unusually high amount of industry unknowns.
Gazzara made his name on Broadway in the mid-1950s and his reputation remained highest in the theatre. He turned down a number of potentially star making film possibilities early in his career and then settled for some stock television work in the 1960s when he needed the money. Consequently, his cinematic leading roles were few and far between. However, Gazzara was always an edgy, disturbing presence no matter how big the part. His film work contained many highlights and he kept very good company.
He was fortunate on debut. 1959’s “Anatomy of a Murder” is as complex a court room drama as Hollywood has ever produced. Gazzara plays the accused, a thoroughly unlikable military officer defended by Jimmy Stewart’s small town, down-on-his-luck lawyer. Ambiguity in crime melodramas is rare but “Anatomy of a Murder” manages it, never clearly stating if Gazzara’s character is guilty or not. Holding his own with acting heavyweights like Stewart and Arthur O’Connell as well as emerging stars Lee Remick and George C Scott, Gazzara manages to register in a film stocked full of memorable, Oscar-worthy performances.
His next notable part came over a decade later, courtesy of friend John Cassavetes. If “Anatomy of a Murder” is studio Hollywood’s idea of an ensemble film, “Husbands” is the American independent cinema’s equivalent, a long, rambling, some would say undisciplined examination of masculinity and male bonding that pairs Gazzara with Peter Falk and Cassavetes himself. Like all of the director’s work an acquired taste, yet brave, probing and stunningly performed, “Husbands” was followed in 1976 by Cassavetes’ “The Killing of Chinese Bookie”.
Easily Gazzara’s best leading role, “Bookie” sees him as an Italian gangster bent on revenge at all costs. Those looking for a warmed-over “Godfather” would be well disappointed. Cassavetes offers instead a nuanced, atmospheric study of character and environment. For those with the patience to accept the film’s slow rhythm it’s a richly rewarding if melancholy experience. Gazzara is simply stunning.
The big parts that followed saw him more in the news for his private life. “Bloodline” and “They All Laughed” were at best minor achievements but they did afford the actor a chance to co-star with an ageing-if-still-beautiful Audrey Hepburn. Their romance had little likelihood of surviving the long term – he was New York centric, she married to her United Nations charity work – but he certainly never regretted their time together. Who would?
In the late 1990s Gazzara’s career enjoyed a fruitful revival. 1998 was banner year, with memorable roles in three cult classics: Todd Solondz’s acerbic black comedy “Happiness”, the Coen brothers’ ode to druggie slackerdom “The Big Lebowski” and Vincent Gallo’s wonderfully bizarre directorial debut “Buffalo ‘66″. It’s the last in which Gazzara makes the biggest impression. Playing Gallo’s nasty father he barks out lines, shamelessly gropes the bounteous bosoms of Christina Ricci and even has a touching musical moment, lip sinking to an old 1940s Frank Sinatra number in a scene clearly influenced by David Lynch.
Only one Gazzara part after “Buffalo ‘66″ in anyway compares. In Lars von Trier’s minimally staged, experimental work “Dogville” he again enjoys playing a villain, a blind man that first moves Nicole Kidman’s girl-on-the-lam to pity before joining in with all other males in the town and sexually abusing her. “Dogville” is another great ensemble piece, bringing together a diverse cast that includes Bergman veteran Harriet Anderson, golden era legend Lauren Bacall, current international Scandanvian star Stellan Skarsgard as well as contemporary talent like Chloe Sveginy. Brilliant in and of himself, Gazzara also functions iconically, representing the Cassavetes tradition in a film that deliberately references the previous work of all its performers.
Three years later Gazzara co-starred with Cassavetes’ widow Gena Rowlands in a segment of the portmaneau “Paris, je t’aime” that was also written by her. It is a slight if heartfelt ode to the glory days, lacking the Cassavetes edge. Only rarely could you say that of Gazzara himself.