Cassavetes' Films Get Fresh Notice

A traveling exhibit of his movies demonstrates his skill as a director, not simply as an actor

JOHN CASSAVETES was best known as an actor. But he was nominated for three Academy Awards during his lifetime, in three different categories - writing and directing in addition to acting - and while his performances were frequently offbeat and inventive, his filmmaking was positively unique. Now a traveling retrospective of Cassavetes pictures is calling welcome new attention to his major contributions in all three categories.

Until his death a couple of years ago, Cassavetes carried on a career that he had molded to suit his own unusual talent. He spent a portion of his time appearing in Hollywood hits like ``Rosemary's Baby'' and ``The Dirty Dozen,'' and used the earnings to finance movies that he cared more deeply about - namely, movies he wrote and directed himself.

In these personal projects, he worried less about conventional storytelling than about burrowing into his characters' minds and figuring out what made them think and behave the way they did. Not all the pictures are masterpieces, and even the best have moments that don't quite come together. But they have a sense of passion, conviction, and sheer ornery brilliance that few Hollywood films can match.

Cassavetes distributed most of his films himself, and since he put his best energy into making new movies instead of peddling the old ones, his pictures haven't been seen as widely as they deserve.

Aiming to correct this situation, the current retrospective begins with ``A Woman Under the Influence,'' one of his most popular efforts. It features what might be the most astonishing performance ever given by Cassavetes's wife and longtime partner, Gena Rowlands, playing a working-class mother who's called crazy by the people around her but is really too creative and full of rambunctious life to fit any of society's ``normal'' categories.

Ms. Rowlands gives another strong performance in ``Faces,'' a hard-edged portrait of marriage, American style. Also in the retrospective is ``Shadows,'' a completely improvised drama about love and racial tension made early in Cassavetes's career, and ``The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,'' an underrated masterpiece featuring Ben Gazzara as a small-time hoodlum with an assignment that's much too big for him.

The program's closing attraction is ``Opening Night,'' made in 1978 but only now finding its way into movie theaters. It's built around an astonishing performance by Rowlands as an actress who goes through a deep emotional crisis while rehearsing a play about an aging woman. Gazzara and Cassavetes himself round out the cast of the picture, which veers from stark tragedy to high comedy without missing a nuance of emotion along the way. The long-awaited opening of ``Opening Night,'' and the retrospective leading up to it, should touch off a new wave of interest in the work of one of the greatest - and most underappreciated - American filmmakers. And that will be a boon to audiences everywhere.

Assembled by Castle Hill Productions, the program is playing in New York and Los Angeles this month.

Next month will bring the retrospective to several more American cities, with a tour of smaller venues due this autumn.

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