John Cassavetes: Who Was The Godfather of American Independent Cinema?

John Cassavetes was an actor and director who pioneered independent cinema in America and made several masterpieces.

Feb 22, 2024By Akram Herrak, MA Cultural Management and Policy, BA English Literature
john cassavetes american independent cinema


Most people will recognize John Cassavetes from his performance as Guy in the 1968 horror classic Rosemary’s Baby or as Victor in the 1967 The Dirty Dozen, but his triumphs as a film director are the reason why he will forever be remembered in the history of cinema as one of the most influential and unique filmmakers of all time. From a young age, Cassavetes’ views on acting and filmmaking contradicted everything that came to represent Hollywood.


The Style of John Cassavetes

john cassavetes photo
Cassavetes on Set. Source: Sense of Cinema


John Cassavetes is one of the greatest geniuses of film. His movies paved the way for others in the realm of independent cinema and he defined a new cycle in the history of Hollywood. Starting with his first film, Shadows, audiences were challenged in a way they had never experienced before. For someone raised on and accustomed to the Hollywood style of filmmaking, a Cassavetes film is not only a foreign object but a menacing one at that.


Your average American film contains all the elements of classical storytelling: build-up, conflict, climax, and resolution. Hollywood has been using this formula for over a century to produce its films, many of which are great classics. Yet Cassavetes took one look at this model and threw it away. To him, this was too easy. He saw showing life as simple in movies as a lie. Truth is never simple, it is a complex thing that cannot be understood immediately. It challenges you and requires your utmost attention.


If the plot lines in Cassavetes’ films are complex, his characters are infinitely more so. During one interview, Cassavetes said, I want to make films about characters that have everything they want in life but are still not satisfied. Therefore, the conflict for these characters is not external but it comes from within.


Unhappy Characters

husband john cassavetes poster
Poster for Husbands. Source: IMDb

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Take the example of Robert in Cassavetes’ last film Love Streams. He is a successful writer, he is wealthy, he is surrounded by young beautiful women, and he seems to be able to get anything he wants, yet he suffers. This suffering is not displayed in the traditional cinematic methods of monologue, moody cinematography, or through a sad score, rather it is portrayed through his confusion and instability. In one scene he is as happy as one can be, in another one he is charming, in the next he loses his temper.


Another great example would be his 1970 film Husbands which was wrecked by critics upon release for its incoherence. The dialogue also seemed improvised, yet it was not. Cassavetes spent a long time working on each of his scripts, rewriting scenes again and again to make them even more complicated. If something made sense in the beginning, he generally tried to change that.


Throughout his career, John Cassavetes made eight films independently, and the amusing thing is that they just kept getting more challenging. As audiences grew frustrated with each new confusing picture Cassavetes produced, he continued refusing to compromise. If they wanted to see his films, they had to take on the challenge.


john cassavetes love streams film
John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands in Love Streams, 1984. Source: TheMovieDb


Much like other iconic independent filmmakers, Cassavetes had his clique. He had a dedicated group of actors who happened to be family and friends that he always worked with. This includes his wife Gena Rowlands. The couple got married young when Cassavetes was still a virtually unknown actor in the 1950s.


Gena took center stage in a few of Cassavetes’ films, and the performances she delivered can make one believe she was the only one who could play the role. In Woman Under the Influence, she manages to convey all the complex emotions and conflicts of her character, showing a disturbed woman with a dedication that’s rarely matched on the silver screen.


Cassavetes’ films, as mentioned before, are not about struggles one has with the outside world, but with internal fears and insecurities. However, in a period when good art became almost synonymous with topical and relevant commentary when directors were praised for tackling timely subjects like Vietnam, race, or social change, Cassavetes refused to do so. To him, the characters hold enough interesting elements to not need anything from the outside world. Their emotions, their actions, and their decisions—they are a world of their own. Here are some of his most important films.


1. Husbands (1970)

john cassavetes husbands
Cassavetes, Falk, and Gazzara in Husbands, 1970. Source: TheMovieDb


Right from its opening sequence, funky music plays over a collection of stills including the three main characters Archie, Harry, and Gus (played by Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and John Cassavetes, respectively). The photographs feel homely and show friends having fun next to a pool, being intimate and goofy. John Cassavetes abruptly cuts to the next scene, and our three guys are heading to the funeral of their best friend. There’s a complete change in tone.


Husbands was a critical failure after its release, with critics like Roger Ebert bashing it. For critics, the script felt off and its desire to seem improvised was unsuccessful due to the actors’ performance. What Cassavetes’ critics and audiences failed to see is that is exactly what makes Husbands what it is. It is a film that comes extremely close to perfectly portraying reality with all its inconsistencies. It manages to erase the medium’s fictional nature, even if its events and characters are over-the-top, exaggerated, and somewhat unnatural.


2. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

woman under influence
Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, 1974. Source: TheMovieDb


Perhaps the highest-rated film in Cassavetes’ filmography, A Woman Under the Influence earned Gena Rowlands an Oscar nomination in what was the performance of a lifetime. She stars as Mabel, a mentally unstable wife and mother whose husband, played by frequent Cassavetes collaborator Peter Falk, decides to commit her to a mental institution. In her absence, and suddenly alone with his three kids, new situations arise for both parents.


There is a scene in the film where Mabel’s family brings her to a doctor for the first time and she is surprised by this. We see her suddenly feeling betrayed by everyone around her. Her illness is visible but we also see her being hurt and in some strange way, it feels justified. All the other characters behave differently while co-existing in the same space.


Cassavetes’ films like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977), and Faces (1968) are essential oeuvres to the great director’s body of work, but Love Streams is a masterpiece, a film like no other. If you have to pick only one Cassavetes film to see, this is it.


3. Love Streams (1984) by John Cassavetes

love streams john cassavetes
Gena Rowlands in Love Streams, 1984. Source: TheMovieDb


The story is simple. There are two broken siblings, a boozing writer who goes by the name of Robert Harmon and an overly-loving divorced mother who goes by the name of Sarah Lawson. They are played by John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. The two find comfort in each other’s company after their lives take a bad turn.


The movie is an intense character study of both protagonists. It aims to answer a million questions but answers very few. For example, Love Streams questions identity, relationships, independence, and of course, love. What does it mean to love? Does it ever stop? When is it too much? Is it necessary? In a documentary called I’m Almost Not Crazy Now – John Cassavetes, The Man and His Work the director mentions that he has a need for the characters to really analyze love, discuss it, kill it, destroy it, hurt each other, do all the stuff in that war, in that word-polemic and film-polemic of what life is. For him, love is the most important topic.


The film could be seen as a three-part story. One is dedicated to Robert, who believes that love is a fantasy little girls have. He, therefore, numbs himself and goes through life using alcohol and sex workers. The second one is dedicated to Sarah, who believes that love is a continuous stream. She has so much to offer to two people who don’t want the thing she’s offering. The third story focuses on the two siblings reuniting and compromising. The first hour of the film intercuts their separate stories continuously, Robert’s nights of binge drinking are alternated with Sarah’s painful divorce. We see complete remoteness versus excruciating change.

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By Akram HerrakMA Cultural Management and Policy, BA English LiteratureAkram Herrak is a writer, musician, and photographer from Casablanca, Morocco. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and a Master’s Degree in Cultural Management and Policy. He has been writing about film and literature for the past five years. His work has appeared in High on Films, A Fistful of Film, Independent Book Review, and Reader’s Digest. In his spare time, he plays chess and competes in tournaments.