John Cassavetes is quite a divisive director. Many praise his distinctive and influential style and approach, and rightfully so. However, some feel the freedom he gives to his actors and the emphasis he puts on performance over all else mean his films can be indulgent and rambling, lacking narrative focus. Personally, I tend to lie in the pro-Cassavetes camp, but I totally appreciate the general criticisms aimed at him. I wouldn’t say I ever enjoy his films, and I particularly struggled with Faces, but his raw, unflinching approach is highly effective in classics like Shadows (one of the founding films of modern American independent cinema) and A Woman Under the Influence.
His films are certainly difficult and it seems Cassavetes was quite determined not to make easy-going entertainment. Reportedly, during the post-production of Husbands, which is getting released on Blu-ray by Criterion and is the focus of my review, Cassavetes ended up with a cut that was 3 hours long. This was tested in 1969 and supposedly went down very well, with people laughing out loud and expressing how much they enjoyed this warm, funny film. However, Cassavetes was not happy with this. He told his producer he didn’t want to make films that “pleased the audiences’ palates”, so spent another year re-editing it. One of the stars, Ben Gazzara, was originally angry with changes made (possibly because the original cut had him as the central focus). He thought Cassavetes was ruining a great film. The writer-director wanted to bring out the sadness of the story though. He didn’t want to make an out-and-out comedy.
The eventually finished and released version of Husbands is a drama that opens with a trio of close middle-aged friends, Harry (Ben Gazzara), Archie (Peter Falk) and Gus (Cassavetes himself) attending the funeral of the fourth member of their clique, Stuart. They don’t want to go home afterwards and go on an all-night bender. The next morning though, Harry ignites a violent domestic dispute and storms out on his wife and kids. He tells his friends he’s off to London to leave everything behind and they decide to go with him to help him get settled. Once there, the trio indulges in another messy evening of drinking, gambling and sex.
Despite Cassavetes re-editing the film to make it less enjoyable, the film is still marketed as a comedy and I’ve seen it described as such on iMDB and other sites. I can’t see why personally, as I found the film quite gruelling and unpleasant, but I guess some of the goofing around and banter between the central trio was mildly amusing. My take on the film was completely different to those given on the features too. At first, I thought perhaps I was misinterpreting it, but actually I think attitudes have changed over the years and a new angle has appeared.
I saw the film as a damnation of toxic masculinity. The men all play up their stereotypically male attributes, throwing their weight around, bullying others and forcing themselves on women verbally and, in one case, physically. Interestingly, and this is partly where I believed time has altered the ‘message’ of this film, Jenny Runacre comments in her interview included on this disc that she didn’t realise until decades later that her character was raped in the film. She mentions that men used to be more aggressive towards women in that way and it was often quietly accepted that men would doggedly talk women into sex and maybe use a little force to get what they wanted. I’m not old enough to have chased women in the 70s to confirm, but I wouldn’t be surprised if attitudes have changed in this way.
I think aspects like this are what led me to see the film as a comment on toxic masculinity. I despised the central trio. I found them rude, bullish and selfish. This kept me at a distance from the characters and led me to believe this was the whole point of the film, to show how damaging being a stereotypical man could be. However, from footage of the actors on a talk show included here, as well as further comments made by Runacre, it looks and sounds like Gazzara, Falk and Cassavetes often acted like that in real life. They were known to be tough on people and bully them. Cassavetes was known to be a heavy drinker too, which wouldn’t have helped. So, my view of the film was likely warped by my opinion of its maker and cast (though I must say Falk comes off slightly better than the others).
The film was reportedly meant to be about midlife crises and men’s difficulty in processing grief. These are clear themes and I certainly picked up on the former, though the latter is a little more subtle. Obviously, with events surrounding the fourth friend’s funeral, grief must play a part, but it isn’t directly referenced as such. This was an interesting point Cassavetes was making though, that men don’t talk about their feelings enough and midlife crises largely surround the fact that this period is when people (stereotypically men) begin to become more aware of their mortality, peering over the crest of the hill into the second half of their lives.
‘Passages’ was a hugely popular book that explored midlife crises, but was released later in 1976. So the film was a little ahead of its time in tackling this issue. The idea of midlife crises and the phrase itself was coined earlier, so it’s not that groundbreaking, but it’s certainly one of the first films to tackle it so directly. Taking my view of the film’s theme, it’s ahead of its time too. I can’t think of many films before 1970 that dealt with the damaging effects of conforming to masculine stereotypes.
Away from the themes of the film, it boasts powerful central performances as you’d expect with Cassavetes behind and in front of the camera. This was the first time he would work with Gazzara and Falk, and the trio forged a strong friendship during the making of Husbands, working together on numerous projects in the future (though not always as a trio).
As usual, Cassavetes’ approach was to come up with a loose story structure, then workshop scenes with the actors, letting them improvise during these sessions. Then he would script the film from notes he made during these improvisations. So, in a way, the shoot itself wasn’t entirely improvised as it may look, but the script was devised by improvisations, so it still has that feel. Actors’ movements weren’t blocked out either. The camera operator just had to ‘keep up’. The DOP, Victor J. Kemper, does a fantastic job in this way. The camerawork has a rough style, but equally, it can look quite beautiful.
The film does suffer from common problems many have with Cassavetes’ films though. It is overlong and there’s very little semblance of a story. Many scenes feel drawn out to an excruciating degree, not helped by the bullying often being portrayed. One of the worst examples, away from the rape scene, is when the trio run a strange singing competition in a bar, harassing the strangers taking part. One woman gets particular abuse, with the men repeatedly getting her to sing the same song again and again, yelling direction at her to improve it. They’re supposed to be drunk and messing around, but the woman is clearly affected by this. The lengths they go to, I don’t think that’s just acting either. Pauline Kael once accused Cassavetes of mentally abusing his actors, pointing at this scene as a key example.
I believe Kael was right and once again it points towards me struggling to enjoy or appreciate the film due to me struggling to connect with those that made it, due to their abrasive personalities, which are laid bare on screen.
So, I certainly didn’t latch on to Husbands the way I did with many of Cassavetes’ other films. It’s a tough watch, with some ugly central characters and often unbearably uncomfortable situations. As an unflinching expose of toxic masculinity and midlife crises among men, it’s pretty potent then but I can’t say I enjoyed the experience. Perhaps a couple more glimmers of humanity would have helped, or a good trim. Or, from what has been said about the original 3-hour cut, perhaps the longer version would have worked better.
Husbands is out on 8th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality are immaculate, as usual from the label.
There are a handful of special features included in the package:
– New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– Audio commentary from 2009 featuring critic Marshall Fine
– New interviews with producer Al Ruban and actor Jenny Runacre
– New video essay by filmmaker Daniel Raim featuring audio recordings of actor-director John Cassavetes discussing his approach to working with actors
– The Story of “Husbands”—A Tribute to John Cassavetes (2009), a half-hour program featuring Ruban, actor Ben Gazzara, and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper
– Episode of The Dick Cavett Show from 1970 featuring Cassavetes, Gazzara, and actor Peter Falk
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by filmmaker Andrew Bujalski
Marshall Fine’s commentary is very good. It enlightened me as to numerous themes Cassavetes probably intended to explore in the film. There’s plenty of background information on its production too.
The Al Ruban and Jenny Runacre interviews are frank and illuminating too. The latter is particularly eye-opening, suggesting Cassavetes’ methods, whilst resulting in fine performances, could be pretty tough. ‘The Story of “Husbands”—A Tribute to John Cassavetes’ provides a good cover-all compilation of interviews too.
Daniel Raim’s video essay is beautifully put together, compiling numerous interviews with Cassavetes to produce an interesting and eloquent exploration of the director’s work and techniques.
Less eloquent, but particularly eye-opening, is the Dick Cavett Show episode, which suggests Gazzara, Falk and Cassavetes weren’t that dissimilar from their characters. They wind up the host and wildly goof around throughout the show. I’m guessing this was amped up to mimic the film they were promoting, but I got the feeling the trio was often like that.
I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to review, unfortunately.