Review: John Cazale celebrated in 'I Knew It Was You,' HBO June 1
By April MacIntyre May 31, 2010, 19:23 GMT
John Cazale as Fredo in The Godfather, courtesy of HBO Films
Richard Shepard’s touching documentary short, "I Knew It Was You," celebrates the impact of the too brief life of a most brilliant actor, John Cazale, on American film and some of the best thespians alive today.
Cazale was a fellow native of Revere, Massachusetts, where I lived in my first home on Alice Street until age four. Cazale was a townie born the same year as my dad (1935) and he knew the joy of standing in line for a Kelly's Roast Beef and the beauty of the Revere Beach sweep, especially on those cold, grey days where the outline of Nahant bore left off in the distance, and Winthrop on the right.
In this moving film, interviews and film clips are entwined as we hear from Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Olympia Dukakis, Francis Ford Coppola, Gene Hackman, Sidney Lumet, Israel Horovitz, Carol Kane, Richard Dreyfuss as well as fans Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi and Sam Rockwell.
This film is an intimate recollection by the actors, playwrights and filmmakers who knew him best and loved him very much. The only five films he was ever cast in, "The Godfather," "The Conversation," "The Godfather," "Part Two," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "The Deer Hunter" - were nominated for Best Picture by the Academy; all of them are considered classics. In total, those five films netted 40 nominations (14 were for acting awards), and Cazale received none.
This documentary was also a labor of love for filmmaker Brett Ratner, who bares his soul and shares that the genesis of this project was something he was compelled as a film lover to produce.
Cazale came up through Boston University's Theater School, then to New York where he and Al Pacino worked together as messengers for Standard Oil in their starving actor days.
Pacino, along with Meryl Streep, gives deeply emotional anecdotes about Cazale, especially towards the end of his life, revealing Cazale's then girlfriend (Streep) as a loyal and loving presence who never left his side as he succumbed to lung cancer, passing away in 1978 at age 42.
Meryl Streep was engaged to Cazale, who she describes as a "sensualist" who spent hours doing the things he enjoyed, until his death. Pacino reflects on Streep's loyalty in the end days for Cazale and shares his feelings in ways we have never heard him speak.
“It was interesting having a responsibility to a once-living person who was clearly loved by a lot of people,” said Richard Shepard, director of I Knew It Was You to HBO.
"It was glorious, " said Pacino, of acting with John. "He was inspiring and he made you better." Sidney Lumet summed up the magic in his performances, "Cazale broke your heart."
Carol Kane too reflects on a great improvisational comedic moment in "Dog Day Afternoon," where Sal (Cazale) is asked where he wants to go as a getaway by Pacino:
Pacino: Sal, is there any special country you want to go to?
"He was monomaniacal about 'the work'," shared Streep, who Cazale met in a theater production and fell madly in love with, telling Pacino about this "beautiful girl" he had crossed paths with.
The role of eldest brother Fredo Corleone in The Godfather is what most people remember John by, but his work in these noted five films are all stand out performances.
Cazale never shied away from roles other actors would have been afraid to attempt for fear of appearing weak, vulnerable.
In past interviews, Shepard reveals he was first impacted as a kid when he watched The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II at New York’s Bleecker Street Cinema. “I remember not only loving both movies, but being really taken by Fredo,” he tells HBO. “There was something about the sadness and loneliness and oddness of the guy that as a child I somehow related to.”
It was a lack of overall information on Cazale that frustrated Shepard, who was taken by Cazale's work on film. Working backwards from Revere, Massachusetts, Shepard interviews Cazale’s brother and their moment is deeply painful, profound and enough of a snapshot to his intentions that he wins the support of Brett Ratner, who signs on to the project.
Especially enjoyable was the rare treat of hearing 'Godfather' casting director Fred Roos talk about how Richard Dreyfus badgered him to come to a Theater showing in 1971 of "Line" and how Dreyfus inadvertently got John Cazale cast in his film. Francis Ford Coppola also shares how they knew immediately Cazale was their Fredo. " I Knew It Was You" is the famous line in the Godfather film that the documentary is named for. Israel Horovitz's recollections are warm, and also reveal the men's respect and relationship that saw the two work together in ten plays.
Poignant recollections too for Cazale's last film, Cimino's "Deer Hunter' as the cast and crew all knew Cazale was terminally ill with lung cancer. Robert DeNiro put up all the money in bond to insure an uninsurable Cazale so he could be signed on to work. Cazale's acting never suffered, and he died before the film opened.
This HBO film became a warm love letter of sorts to Cazale, an expression of gratitude and thanks by these luminaries of American film and theater who knew him best and miss him still.
If you enjoyed these films, you must see this outstanding snapshot of an actor who never got his due when he lived.