Green-gold eyes sparkling with seen-it-all bemusement, a smile that could express everything except unguarded mirth, and a baritone like creaking timber, Ben Gazzara’s brusque persona has often been described as “masculine”—but his masculinity frequently demonstrated what a wearying thing manhood is, with its aggrieved dignity, its itch to dominate, its jealousies and rages.
When Gazzara appeared in the obituaries this February, at age 81, he was largely remembered by boomers for the ’60s TV show Run for Your Life, in which he played a man diagnosed with a terminal illness who decides to live the hell out of what time he has left. Gen Xers might have tagged him as the heavy in Road House. Anthology Film Archives’ nine-film retrospective showcases the work he should be remembered for.
Born to Sicilian immigrants, Biagio “Ben” Gazzara grew up on East 29th Street—he claimed he could hear the howls from Bellevue from home. Benny tread the boards at the Madison Square Boys Club, was dazzled as a teenager by Laurette Taylor’s Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and, after working his way into the Actors Studio (James Dean was a classmate), originated the role of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Producer Sam Spiegel lifted the cast and crew from an Actors Studio production for his 1957 film The Strange One, Gazzara’s first screen role, a part he’d originated in Greenwich Village—the sadistic, strutting cadet Jocko de Paris (opening lines: “Whatta creep! Whatta fantastic creep!”) covering up a hazing incident gone awry at a military college. Much of the sardonic, sartorial character of de Paris—right down to the pompously wielded cigarette holder—was carried over to Gazzara’s part in Otto Preminger’s 1959 Anatomy of a Murder: Frederick “Manny” Manion, the ice-cold Army lieutenant accused of murder, whom James Stewart has the unenviable job of warming a jury to.
As Gazzara wrapped the third and final year of Run for Your Life, John Cassavetes pitched him on the film that would become Husbands (1970). The premise is not so far from Run for Your Life, really: Both involve a mania to live spurred by the sudden proximity of death. In the film, three married, middle-aged men come together for the funeral of a fourth friend, then light out on a mad bender. But the execution is radical, submerging the viewer in undiluted boorishness and abusive horseplay. Gazzara, his hair now tinged with iron, joins Cassavetes and Peter Falk; glommed together with booze sweat, they make a three-headed monster that wreaks havoc on whatever it encounters. Himself a carouser, Gazzara was drawn to such “road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” material, lending his bonded Scotch voice to Marco Ferreri’s 1981 Tales of Ordinary Madness—the first attempt to film the work of Charles Bukowski—as his career bounced between America and Italy. (While featuring some striking sets by Dante Ferretti and the lovingly shot bottom of Ornella Muti, Tales fails entirely to put across the laconic humor in Bukowski, leaving us with a lethargic and pompous film.)
Cassavetes has a paycheck walk-on in Capone, a pedestrian Roger Corman–produced gangster pic of 1975 starring a Gazzara too old to convince in the rise-to-power scenes. In 1976’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cassavetes and Gazzara achieved a far more satisfying, middle-aged, lower-echelon take on the gangster film, with Gazzara as Cosmo Vitelli, a strip-bar owner with the pride of a Renaissance prince. The film’s swervy, bleary Los Angeles is unforgettable, and Gazzara is profound in its climax, an uncontemplative man-turned-philosopher as his life leaks away.
Gazzara’s other vital collaborator was Peter Bogdanovich, the hotshot New Hollywood talent whose box office downturn coincided with Gazzara’s perfection of stubbornly alone, debonair lowlifes—fantastic creeps, if you will. He plays a private dick specializing in divorce cases in 1981’s They All Laughed, a film whose charms are marred by Bogdanovich’s attempted star-making of untutored actresses, and its philanderer’s fantasy of one’s girlfriends getting along swimmingly. Still, Laughed makes fine use of New York locations, including a sequence on Fifth Avenue that plays on the affinity between window-shopping and girl-watching and a relentless slapstick performance by John Ritter.
Bogdanovich serves Gazzara better in 1979 Saint Jack. As Jack Flowers, an expatriate Buffalonian running a Singapore cathouse, Flowers is a Cosmo Vitelli who’d give you the shirt off his back, a fount of back-slapping, glad-handing street-corner patter who works every room with the timing of a nightclub comic. Where Laughed is stultified by its stiff imitation of screwball comedy, Saint Jack rejuvenates the brokenhearted expat from a Casablanca cliché. Shot on location—like Laughed—by the incomparable DP Robby Müller, it’s a voluptuous twilight movie, suffused with a nagging sense of what might have been. Gazzara’s noble stoicism elevates Flowers’s failure to a triumph—for, as Anthology’s series gives ample evidence, no one could lose with more panache than Ben Gazzara.