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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

It’s very possible that John Cazale has the greatest batting average of any actor in history.  He only appeared in five films, but they were, in order: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. It’s an amazing streak of five phenomenal performances in five phenomenal films, although that only emphasizes the tragedy of Mr. Cazale’s death at the incredibly young age of 42.

Anyone in the cult of The Godfather, like me, already knows the name John Cazale.  He, of course, plays the sweet but hapless Fredo, brother of Michael (Al Pacino) and Sonny (James Caan).  Although not one of the big-star names in the film (like the afore-mentioned Mr. Pacino and Mr. Caan, along, of course, with Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall), Mr. Cazale’s work as Fredo is absolutely amazing.  He creates, in Fredo, a role of enormous depth and sophistication.  Fredo is a character who is, on the one hand, all surface — he’s unable to hide his thoughts and feelings the way his brother Michael can — though Mr. Cazale brings enormous soul to the character and shows us deep layers of emotion and feelings behind his amazingly expressive eyes.

Those eyes are often commented upon by those who loved and admired Mr. Cazale in the documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, directed by Richard Shephard.  The film is aimed at introducing movie fans to this incredibly talented, yet sadly somewhat forgotten, actor.

Even at the time, Mr. Cazale’s talents were often overlooked.  The film points out that, while the five films he starred in were nominated for a total of 44 Academy Awards (quite a haul!), Mr. Cazale himself was never nominated.  And in a sad scene early in the documentary, we see pedestrians in New York City asked to identify Mr. Cazale from a picture of him as Fredo from The Godfather. While many are able to recall the name of his character, not one knew Mr. Cazale’s name.  (I always wonder if scenes like these in films aren’t the result of judicious editing to make the point that the filmmakers want, but in this case I have no doubt that most people have never heard John Cazale’s name.)

The film spends a few minutes giving us some insight into Mr. Cazale’s background and childhood, but for the most part it focuses on his work in his five films.  A plethora of actors and directors — including Francis Ford Coppola (who directed Mr. Cazale in the first three films in which he appeared), Sidney Lumet (who directed him in his fourth film, Dog Day Afternoon), Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Robert De Niro, Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, and Philip Seymour Hoffman — regale us with high levels of praise for Mr. Cazale’s skills and talents.  These discussions about his work are highlighted by generous clips from all five of his films.  Mr. Shephard does a great job of finding just the right clip to highlight what each of his interview subjects is discussing, so that, for instance, when one praises his silent facial expressions in the scene in The Godfather Part II when Michael orders a halt to the party Fredo had prepared to welcome him, we cut immediately to that moment to see it for ourselves.

I didn’t need to be convinced of Mr. Cazale’s talents, but I still found it great fun to revisit his films, and fascinating to see the awe that these other actors still have for his work.  In particular, it was especially poignant to hear Mery Streep’s recollections.  I had no idea that she was in a relationship with Mr. Cazale when he died.  That adds yet another level of tragedy to his loss — that their love affair was cut so tragically short.  Ms. Streep conducts herself with extraordinary dignity in her interview segments.  It’s quite devastating to hear her talk of her short time with John.

My only complaint about this film is that it’s incredibly short!  Running less than forty-five minutes, it’s barely a film at all.  At the end, I still felt that there was more to Mr. Cazale’s story that could have been told.  I would have been interested in learning more about his background, and while the array of actors and directors interviewed for the film contain all of the big names who worked with Mr. Cazale, it still seems like only around ten people were interviewed for the film.  I wonder if Mr. Shephard couldn’t have broadened the range of his interviews, to include more people who worked with Mr. Cazale on his films, or perhaps more actors like Sam Rockwell and Philip Seymour Hoffman who look up to his work.

Despite my wishing for more, what we have here is undeniably good.  I wholeheartedly recommend I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale.  Now I need to go back and re-watch those five films…

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