Amanda Habel 8:46 p.m., Sept. 2
He built a career playing con-artists, criminals, pimps, cheats, and drunks, yet somehow you couldn’t help but believe every word that came out of Ben Gazzara’s mouth.
Biagio Anthony Gazzarra was born August 28, 1930 on New York's Lower East Side. In 1954, Gazzara dropped one of the “r’s” from his surname and set his sites on the Broadway stage. He was one of those them thar highfalutin method actors who looked down his nose at the very thought of lending his art to film let alone, I dare say, television. In a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose, Gazzara confessed that he began as a haughty “thee-a-tuh” actor who eschewed work anywhere but on the stage, and eventually succumbed to the lure (and big bucks) of movies and TV. There was a period in the late-‘70’s, early-’80’s when it was impossible to find a project Gazzara said no to. (Natural disasters like Voyage of the Damned, Bloodline, and Inchon come to mind.)
Thespians gotta’ eat, too, and Gazzara burst onto the movie scene in the late ‘50’s playing two charming, but thoroughly detestable military types. He made his debut in The Strange One (1957), a fascinating hit with the critics that failed to catch fire with the paying public. Gazzara stars as Jocko De Paris, a calculating, homophobic sadist riding herd over a group of cadets in a Southern military academy. I was shocked to learn that his second role didn’t earn him at least a best supporting actor nomination. Gazzara brings a seldom rivaled intensity to Frederick Manion, the suave sociopathic army lieutenant (who can’t seem to smoke a cigarette unless it’s in a holder) on trial in Otto Preminger’s spellbinding Anatomy of a Murder. (Peter Ustinov won that year for Spartacus.)
Gazzara will be remembered by many for his on and off screen pairings with boozing-buddies John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, but the three peak performances in my personal Gazzara Pantheon are Jack Flowers, John Russo, and Charles Serking.
The first two roles were for Peter Bogdanovich. They met on the set of Cassavetes’ Opening Night and Bogdanovich fell instantly in love with Gazzara. Saint Jack was already in the works and Bogdanovich knew he’d be perfect for the role of Jack Flowers, an American pimp operating out of Singapore during the Vietnam war. “He wasn't afraid to talk loudly and cause a scene in a restaurant,” Bogdanovich told IndieWire, “and that's the way the Jack character was.”
Johnny and Angela.
They All Laughed was Bogdanovich’s valentine to “Ben and Audrey,” and arguably the last grand “door-slamming” romantic comedy made with Hollywood’s Golden Age in mind. The film continued an off-screen romance between Gazzara and Miss Hepburn that sparked on Bloodline. Their love affair could have conceivably started on the set of King Vidor’s War and Peace had Gazzara not declined the offer to appear in the picture.
Gazzara was a risk-taker and no role characterized his resolute abandon better than Charles Serking in Marco Ferrari’s adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness. Whether he’s getting rolled by a midget posing as a 13-year-old hooker or throwing an obese, and more than slightly addled, neighbor broad a few bucks so that he may reenter her womb head first, I doubt you’ll find another major actor with the daring and conviction to read Bukowski’s text let alone star in the movie version.
Parting glances were bittersweet at best. The last time I saw Gazzara in 35mm was at the Hillcrest. He played “Ben” opposite Gena Rowlands’ “Gena” in Frédéric Auburtin’s Quartier Latin segment of the romantic anthology, Paris, je t'aime (2006). He looked chipper just three years earlier in Dogville (2003), but time was rapidly catching up with him. I gasped when he first appears, a grey, shrunken-hull where once walked a giant. A copy of The Strange One appeared at Big!Lots and the supplementary interview with Gazzara, recorded in 2009, revealed an man barely able to choke out a word.
Ben Gazzara died on Friday in Manhattan after a long-suffering bout with pancreatic cancer. He was 81. Bukowski’s poem that opens Tales of Ordinary Madness is as fitting a remembrance as any:
“Style is the answer to everything. A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing. To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it.To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art.”
Thanks for having the balls to live and share your life as an artist, Mr. Gazzarra. Goddamn, I going to miss you.
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