Gazzara in 1957's The Strange One
"Ben Gazzara is just an absolute legend, and such a great actor, and such a good man."
Natalie Portman said those words to me in Los Angeles in the winter of 2010, talking about the actor whom she'd directed opposite Lauren Bacall in her short film Eve. We didn't spend too much time on Gazzara - we were mostly focusing on Portman's performance in Black Swan - but that single sentence sums up Gazzara's life and career so well I thought I'd open with it.
Gazzara, who died of pancreatic cancer in New York City on Friday, was one of the consummate character actors. By all reports, he was also the nicest guy in the world, though the performances that made him a legend would rarely lead a viewer to make that assumption. In his youth he was an intense, blunt presence, his delicate features and precise physicality providing a contrast to the fury in his soul. He'd attended the Actors Studio alongside James Dean, but came away with a different strategy; Dean exploded in a mess of emotions, but Gazzara was able to control and direct his energy.
In his first screen role, as a sociopathic military cadet in the 1957 potboiler The Strange One, Gazzara's graceful confidence prefigures Anthony Hopkins's Oscar-winning turn as Hannibal Lecter by thirty-odd years. But it wasn't until John Cassavetes cast him as one of three dissolute buddies in his 1970 male-menopause study Husbands that Gazzara's range and fearlessness was revealed. (He'd spent the 60s mostly working in television.)
The three films Gazzara made with Cassavetes - Husbands, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie and Opening Night - show the actor's generosity of spirit and commitment to performance. Bookie turns the serene confidence of Gazzara's performance in The Strange One on its head, casting him as a club owner disintegrating under the strain of his gambling debts. It's a performance of pure frantic desperation, and Gazzara nails every note.
Plenty of roles followed after Husbands, and it seems Gazzara took them all. He played Al Capone in the forgettable Capone; he played a Charles Bukowski surrogate in Marco Ferreri's flailing adaptation of Tales Of Ordinary Madness; he menaced Patrick Swayze in Road House. And he played the father of a young man dying of AIDS in the acclaimed TV-movie An Early Frost opposite his Opening Night co-star Gena Rowlands.
Eventually, the film buffs who'd grown up watching him started making their own movies and casting him themselves. Vincent Gallo mined Gazzara's intensity for Buffalo '66; Joel and Ethan Coen gave him the part of the genial pornographer Jackie Treehorn The Big Lebowski. Lars Von Trier cast him in his experimental drama Dogville. Portman cast him in Eve. He never phoned in a performance; he always took the roles seriously, even in dinky productions that would never see the inside of a movie theatre. And he always, always responded to directors interested in exploring emotions and moods.
If you want to see Gazzara at his very best, take a look at the anthology film Paris, Je T'Aime. Gazzara and Gena Rowlands (who wrote the segment) play a divorcing couple meeting for one last drink in a café, and the two of them make it a master class in screen acting - how to sit, how to move, what to reveal, what to hold back. There's not much fury to it; these people are already over the worst of their emotions. It's just a genial, rueful conversation between two people who thought they were going to spend the rest of their lives together, and now know they won't.
Gazzara plays it cool, mostly, but eventually you realize he brightens up a little every time Rowlands smiles. It's a subtle, enigmatic detail: does he still love her, or is he glad to be done with this relationship? Is he regretting that he won't ever see that smile again? By the end of the piece, we have our answer - and it's enough to break our hearts.