James Dean, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix; actors we most prominently associate with dying young. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve McQueen and James Gandolfini; others who died not particularly young, but certainly too soon. Yet, for me there is one actor who stands above them all, if not for his near-perfect body of work but purely for his onscreen charisma and chemistry with his fellow actors. John Cazale died just weeks after filming finished on The Deer Hunter. The film would go on to win the 1978 Academy Award for Best Picture; the fourth of the five films Cazale starred in to secure such recognition. All five of his films were nominated – an extraordinary feat and lasting legacy for an actor who played a huge part in shaping the New Wave of American cinema. In a three year relationship with Meryl Streep at the time, Cazale died of lung cancer in 1978, at the tragically early age of 42. The impression and impact left by Cazale is remarkable, considering he only appeared in his first film six years prior. A thespian by trade, Cazale was a veteran of theatre before turning his hand to film. Not many people make their feature debut in films as triumphantly respected as The Godfather and few do it with characters as complex and striking as Fredo Corleone, the son of Vito, played by one of Cazale’s heroes, Marlon Brando. Playing opposite Al Pacino, the duo would go on to make arguably my favourite of Cazale’s films, Dog Day Afternoon. Both actors heightened each others’ brilliance and their onscreen intensity would go on to become one of the main reasons The Godfather Part II remains most likely the greatest sequel in movie history. The 1970s were a tumultuous time in the shaping of the American landscape, with the ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ rights and civil rights raging on, whilst anger and protest continued over the Vietnam War. The work of Cazale reflects this, from the unexpected LGBTQ+ story at the heart of Dog Day Afternoon to the horrifying depictions of the Vietnam War in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter.
Wedged between the social struggles of the 1960s and the right-leaning materialism of the 1980s, America in the 1970s birthed New Hollywood, a brief era of movies that told stories of alternative American identities and the anti-heroes at their centre. These include Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin in The Graduate, Warren Beatty and Fay Dunaway’s Bonnie and Clyde and Dennis Hopper’s Billy in Easy Rider. New Hollywood introduced us to legends such as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton. Amongst them sat John Cazale – never the leading man but always the most supporting of supporting actors. They say that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. As far as Cazale and his company were concerned, it was evident that ingenious birds of a feather flocked together. The romantic coupling of Streep and Cazale made perfect sense with both demonstrating such intense dedication to their craft. Likewise, given the astonishing on-screen partnering of Pacino and Cazale, it’s not surprising to hear they developed a long standing friendship built on their mutual respect for one another. Pacino has since described Cazale as “the actor who became who he was playing” but who, outside of his craft, “was the go-to-person when you needed help”. Cazale’s name remains painfully obscure in comparison to his counterparts; certainly the least renowned of the actors that make up the Corleone family. John Cazale, always a bridesmaid and never the bride, remains one of the most underrated actors of his generation whose mammoth portfolio is the very definition of quality over quantity. His early departure leaves me mourning the roles that could have been but simultaneously relieved that his perfect portfolio remains protected and preserved, never tainted by bad decisions in the twilight years of one’s career. When I was born, Cazale had already been gone for 13 years. Despite our time on this earth never crossing, I feel a deep emotional attachment to him, an actor who shaped an era of American cinema which is largely responsible for my ongoing adoration and original obsession with cinema. For that, John – and so much more – I thank you.
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