Still reeling from the sad news about Don Cornelius, it’s painful to acknowledge the loss of another irreplaceable master, Ben Gazarra. Some good tributes out there. (Here’s one.)
What can you say about Gazzara? He was relevant in every decade going back to the ’50s. And it wasn’t just his longevity or his unique, idiosyncratic style(s); he was old school in the sense that he radiated that aura: above all, he was a man. That might not sound like much, or it may even sound silly (who cares? these are actors playing roles and they can be transformed into heroes or villains depending on the script and the director), but back in the days when special effects did not do as much to determine what an actor could –and could not– do, it mattered when a man could bring that certain gravitas to a role. As such, he was never typecast (because he was too talented) but he did inexorably bring that aura to each role. These were days when directors counted on that aura, because it conveyed legitimacy that was understood before a single line was spoken.
My impression of Gazzara is not unlike my impression of Gene Hackman: I have not seen all his films, and some of them are very bad indeed, but there is no doubt that each man makes the particular movie, no matter how messy, a lot better than it would otherwise have been. Even in movies where the results are difficult to adequately describe or defend (in many regards, the essence of a good film, no?), you always have to account for the Gazzara factor.
To take just one example, consider The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Nobody but Gazzara could have played that role. More, no one but Gazzara should have played that role. As much a period piece as a work of art, it epitomizes the extreme edge of the ’70s DIY ethos (which was the calling card of John Cassavetes). Equal parts improvisation and the channeling of an older world that was quickly changing (in less than a decade it would be gone for good), Bookie is, in an unironic twist, too convincing to be a first rate thriller. It’s too quirky to be a definitive character sketch. It is, ultimately, a window into that disappearing world that was leaving men like Cosmo Vitelli (they don’t have names like that anymore; they don’t have people like that anymore) abruptly in the rear view. More, it is a window of sorts into the darker angels of Gazzara’s nature: a man who struggled with drink and depression, some of that frustration, confusion and despair is uncomfortably palpable on the screen. Indeed, a portion of it was present in every role he played.
And, despite the sketchiness and grim reality of some of the characters he portrayed, it must be said that Gazzara was always enjoyable. There is a tri-fecta of roles that the younger generation will be familiar with, and all of them showcase not only why Gazzara was one of a kind, but also how oddly addicting he is –as an actor, as a person. The voice, the face, the mannerisms. There was nobody else remotely like him.
He obviously enjoyed himself slumming in the totally over the top, almost painfully perfect junk food matinee Road House. (One thing about this movie that saved it from being a total debacle: the casting was pitch perfect across the board).
In 1998 he had a year that, if he weren’t already a legend, could practically constitute a career. The one-two punch as Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski (dig it here) and the inscrutable father in Buffalo 66 are roles that will correctly be watched, quoted and celebrated as long as people are watching, quoting and celebrating movies. His slightly surreal, borderline whimsical, vaguely unsettling, thoroughly genius “performance” of “Fools Rush In” is as perfect as a movie scene can be. Treat yourself to it, here.
In an interview from 2006, Gazzara had this to say when asked about his legacy:
“Nobody ever knew what to do with me because I wasn’t easily pigeonholed.” But he was never bitter when a coveted role went to someone else, he once told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I don’t know why,” he said. “Maybe my ego, my Sicilian pride. And I was never jealous of another actor, ’cause … I knew I had the goods.”
Damn right he had the goods. It is to our considerable fortune that he found a way to share them with the world.