John Holland Cazale (August 12, 1935 – March 12, 1978) was an American actor. During his six-year film career, he appeared in five films, each of which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter. He is the only actor to have this multi-film distinction. From his start as an acclaimed theater actor, he became one of Hollywood’s premiere character actors, starting with his role as Fredo Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Godfather.
Cazale was born in Revere, Massachusetts, the son of Cecilia and John Cazale. He studied drama at Oberlin College and Boston University, from which he graduated.
Cazale moved to New York City and worked as a messenger at Standard Oil, where he met Al Pacino, another aspiring actor. “When I first saw John, I instantly thought he was so interesting,” recalled Pacino. “Everybody was always around him because he had a very congenial way of expressing himself.” While living together in a communal house in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Cazale and Pacino were cast in a play by Israel Horovitz, The Indian Wants the Bronx, for which they both won Obie Awards in 1967-1968. He later won another Obie for the leading role in Horovitz’s Line, where he was noticed by Godfather casting director Fred Roos, who then suggested him to director Francis Ford Coppola.
Cazale made his feature film debut, alongside old friend Al Pacino, playing the role of Fredo Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather. The film broke box office records and made Pacino, Cazale and several previously unknown co-stars famous, and earned Cazale a Golden Globe nomination.
Cazale reprised his role as Fredo Corleone in 1974 in The Godfather Part II. Bruce Fretts, in Entertainment Weekly, wrote, “Cazale’s devastatingly raw turn intensifies the impact of the drama’s emotional climax, in which Michael (Pacino) orders Fredo’s murder.” Also in 1974, he co-starred with Gene Hackman in Coppola’s classic, The Conversation.
Twelve years after his death, Cazale appeared in a sixth feature film, The Godfather Part III (1990), in archive footage. The Godfather Part III was also nominated for Best Picture. This marks the unique achievement of John Cazale having every feature film in which he appeared be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Cazale again starred alongside Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. The film’s screenwriter, Frank Pierson, said “the film had been cast with many of the actors that Al Pacino had worked with in New York, including John Cazale, who was a close friend and collaborator in The Godfather.” For his role as Sal, he was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor.
“Cazale broke hearts on screen with portrayals of volatile, vulnerable, vacillating men, including Pacino’s tragic bank-robbing partner in Dog Day Afternoon,” wrote David Germain of the Associated Press. Cazale is described as an actor “whose intense face is known to just about any serious cinema fan but whose name often escapes them”.
Despite being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Cazale continued work with his lover, Meryl Streep, in The Deer Hunter. “I’ve hardly ever seen a person so devoted to someone who is falling away like John was,” said Pacino. “To see her in that act of love for this man was overwhelming.”
Director Michael Cimino “rearranged the shooting schedule,” wrote author Andy Dougan, “with Cazale and Streep’s consent, so that he could film all his scenes first.” He completed all his scenes, but died soon after, on March 12, 1978, before the film was finished. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden, Massachusetts. He was 42 years old.
Cazale was characterized as “an amazing intellect, an extraordinary person and a fine, dedicated artist” by Joseph Papp. A film documentary and tribute about Cazale, titled I Knew It Was You, was an entry at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and featured interviews with Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Francis Ford Coppola, and Sidney Lumet; a heavyweight support crew.
Rodrigo Cortés made a name for himself with a film that premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival: Buried, based on Chris Sparling’s black list script about a man buried alive who has to figure a way out of his coffin before his air supply is used up. The film starred Ryan Reynolds, and was critically praised for it’s direction, a tough task considering the 95-minute film takes place completely inside a casket.
Cortés returned to Sundance two years later with the $15 million thriller Red Lights, which he also wrote. The story follows Psychologist Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) as they study and disprove paranormal activity, parascience and psychics. But can they take down world-renowned psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), who has come out of retirement after three decades?
According to /Film: “Red Lights has great fun building your expectations with sound science and skeptic-based theories, and later playing with these ideas, making you question if extrasensory perception might be possible (if only in this movie). The film also sets up a few great scares and jumps, which had the Eccles theatre screaming.”
1991 brought Cape Fear, a remake of a cult 1962 movie of the same name, and the director’s seventh collaboration with De Niro. Another foray into the mainstream, the film was a stylized thriller taking its cues heavily from Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Laughton’s ‘The Night of the Hunter’ (1955). Cape Fear received a mixed critical reception and was lambasted in many quarters for its scenes depicting misogynistic violence. However, the lurid subject matter did give Scorsese a chance to experiment with a dazzling array of visual tricks and effects. The film garnered two Oscar nominations. Earning eighty million dollars domestically, it would stand as Scorsese’s most commercially successful release until The Aviator (2004), and then The Departed (2006).
The opulent and handsomely mounted The Age of Innocence (1993) was on the surface a huge departure for Scorsese, a period adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel about the constrictive high society of late-19th Century New York. It was highly lauded by critics upon original release, but was a box office bomb. As noted in Scorsese on Scorsese by editor/interviewer Ian Christie, the news that Scorsese wanted to make a film about a 19th Century failed romance raised many eyebrows among the film fraternity all the more when Scorsese made it clear that it was a personal project and not a studio for-hire job.
Recently, it has started to come back into the public eye, especially in countries such as the UK and France, but still is largely neglected in North America. The film earned five Academy Award nominations (including for Scorsese for Best Adapted Screenplay), winning the Costume Design Oscar.
1995’s expansive Casino, like The Age of Innocence before it, focused on a tightly wound male whose well-ordered life is disrupted by the arrival of unpredictable forces. The fact that it was a violent gangster film made it more palatable to fans of the director who perhaps were baffled by the apparent departure of the earlier film. Critically, however, Casino received mixed notices. In large part this was due to its huge stylistic similarities to his earlier Goodfellas, and its excessive violence that garnered it a reputation as possibly the most violent American gangster film ever made.
Scorsese still found time for a four hour documentary in 1995 offering a thorough trek through American cinema. It covered the silent era to 1969, a year after which Scorsese began his feature career, stating “I wouldn’t feel right commenting on myself or my contemporaries.”
If The Age of Innocence alienated and confused some fans, then Kundun (1997) went several steps further, offering an account of the early life of the Dalai Lama, the People’s Liberation Army’s entering of Tibet, and the Dalai Lama’s subsequent exile to India. Not least a departure in subject matter, Kundun also saw Scorsese employing a fresh narrative and visual approach. Traditional dramatic devices were substituted for a trance-like meditation achieved through an elaborate tableau of colourful visual images.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999) was a return to familiar territory, with the director and writer Paul Schrader constructing a pitch-black comic take on their own earlier Taxi Driver. Like previous Scorsese-Schrader collaborations, its final scenes of spiritual redemption explicitly recalled the films of Robert Bresson.
(It’s also worth noting that the film’s incident-filled nocturnal setting is reminiscent of After Hours.) It received generally positive reviews, although not the universal critical acclaim of some of his other films.
With a production budget said to be in excess of $100 million, Gangs of New York was Scorsese’s biggest and arguably most mainstream venture to date. Like The Age of Innocence, it was set in 19th-century New York, although focusing on the other end of the social scale (and like that film, also starring Daniel Day Lewis). The film also marked the first collaboration between Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who since then has become a fixture in later Scorsese films.
The production was highly troubled with many rumors referring to the director’s conflict with Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein. Despite denials of artistic compromise, Gangs of New York revealed itself to be the director’s most conventional film: standard film tropes which the director had traditionally avoided, such as characters existing purely for exposition purposes and explanatory flashbacks, here surfaced in abundance. The film still received generally positive reviews with the review tallying website Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 75% of the reviews they tallied for the film were positive and summarizing the critics by saying “Though flawed, the sprawling, messy Gangs of New York is redeemed by impressive production design and Day-Lewis’s electrifying performance.”
Gangs of New York earned Scorsese his first Golden Globe for Best Director. In February 2003, Gangs of New York received ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis, however it did not win in any category.
Scorsese’s next project was his fifth collaboration with Robert De Niro, ‘The King of Comedy’ (1983). A satire on the world of media and celebrity, it was an obvious departure from the more emotionally committed films he had become associated with. Visually, it was far less kinetic than the style Scorsese had developed up until this point, often using a static camera and long takes.
The expressionism of his recent work here gave way to moments of almost total surrealism. It still bore many of Scorsese’s trademarks, however, such as its focus on a troubled loner who ironically becomes famous through a criminal act (murder and kidnapping, respectively). The King of Comedy failed at the box office, but has become increasingly well regarded by critics in the years since its release. Also, Scorsese apparently believes that this is the best performance De Niro ever gave for him.
In 1983 Scorsese began work on a long-cherished personal project, ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, based on the 1951 (English translation 1960) novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis. The project collapsed under pressure from outraged Christian groups.
After the difficulties he experienced with Last Temptation, Scorsese again saw his career at a critical point, as he described in the documentary Filming for Your Life: Making ‘After Hours’ (2004). He saw that in the increasingly commercial world of 1980s Hollywood, the highly stylized and personal 1970s films he and others had built their careers on would not continue to enjoy the same status.
With After Hours (1985) he made an aesthetic shift back to a pared-down, almost “underground” film-making style – his way of staying viable. Filmed on an extremely low budget, on location, and at night in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, the film is a black comedy about one increasingly misfortunate night for a mild New York word processor (Griffin Dunne) and featured cameos by Teri Garr and Cheech & Chong. A bit of a stylistic anomaly for Scorsese, After Hours fits in well with popular low-budget “cult” films of the 1980s, e.g. Jonathan Demme’s ‘Something Wild’ and Alex Cox’s ‘Repo Man’.
As well as the 1987 Michael Jackson music video “Bad”, in 1986 Scorsese made The Color of Money, a sequel to the much admired Robert Rossen film ‘The Hustler’ (1961) with Paul Newman reprising his role of Fast Eddie Felson and Tom Cruise. Although typically visually assured, The Color of Money was the director’s first foray into mainstream commercial film-making. It won actor Paul Newman a belated Oscar and gave Scorsese the clout to finally secure backing for a project that had been a long time goal for him: The Last Temptation of Christ.
Like the novel, the Paul Schrader scripted film depicts the life of Jesus Christ and his struggle with various forms of temptation including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust. Even prior to its release the film caused a massive furore, worldwide protests against its perceived blasphemy effectively turning a low budget independent movie into a media sensation. The main source of the controversy centered on the final passages of the film which depicted Christ marrying and raising a family with Mary Magdalene in a Satan-induced hallucination while on the cross.
Looking past the controversy, The Last Temptation of Christ gained critical acclaim and remains an important work in Scorsese’s canon: an explicit attempt to wrestle with the spirituality which had under-pinned his filmsup until that point. Scorsese received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, and Hershey’s performance as Mary Magdalene earned her a Golden Globe nomination.
Along with directors Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola, in 1989 Scorsese provided one of three segments in the portmanteau film ‘New York Stories’, called “Life Lessons”. That was a stepping stone to one of his greatest achievements.
Gangster epic Goodfellas (1990) was a return to form for Scorsese and his most confident and fully realized film since Raging Bull. De Niro and Joe Pesci in Goodfellas offered a virtuoso display of the director’s bravura cinematic technique and re-established, enhanced, and consolidated his reputation. After the film was released, critic Roger Ebert, a friend and supporter of Scorsese, named Goodfellas “the best mob movie ever” and is ranked #1 on Roger’s movie list for 1990, the film is widely considered one of the director’s greatest achievements.
However, Goodfellas also signified an important shift in tone in the director’s work, inaugurating an era in his career which was technically accomplished but some have argued emotionally detached. Despite this, many view Goodfellas as a Scorsese archetype – the apogee of his cinematic technique. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, Scorsese earned his third nomination for Goodfellas but again lost to a first-time director, Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves). Joe Pesci earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Goodfellas. Scorsese and the film won over a numerous of different awards, including five BAFTA Awards, a Silver Lion from Venice.