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Ownership of The Arts Voyager & Dance Insider, as well as our sister publication Art Investment News, is available FREE to a new owner who will keep the present editor on staff part-time and help him get a carte de sejour to return to France, plus provide health insurance in France. For details please contact editor & publisher Paul Ben-Itzak.

The Arts Voyager, 12-13: Lovable Losers
Woody who?; Anthology fetes Ben Gazzara, the real NY Everyman

Love on the run: Ben Gazzara, Audrey Hepburn, and a whole lotta real New Yorkers star in Peter Bogdanovich's 1981 "They All Laughed." Courtesy Home Box Office.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

When is a tribute to Ben Gazzara, the quintessential tragedian of the New York film school who died in February at 81, more than just a tribute to Ben Gazzara, who after all never obtained super-star status? When the retrospective is presented by Anthology Film Archives (December 13-23), where it's transformed into a festival of the type of cinema d'auteur promoted (and practiced) by Jonas Mekas, who founded the fabled New York cinematheque more than four decades ago and is still going strong at 90.

Because Gazzara, a student of Lee Strassberg, himself always added the tragic dimension to characters in whom it might not be obvious -- from his first starring role as the haze-crazed cadet of Jack Garfein's 1957 "The Strange One," to a private detective who falls in love with the wife (Audrey Hepburn, in Peter Bogdanovich's 1981 "They All Laughed") a suspicious husband has hired him to tail, to the owner of a second-rate nightclub who's manipulated into murder to pay off a gambling debt in John Cassavetes's 1976 "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" -- he was naturally the perfect vessel to play these (anti-) heroes for directors like Cassavetes and Bogdanovich who, like the French auteur Jean-Luc Godard, used the B-movie genre like Monet used his water-lilies, as raw matter to develop the palette of their medium.

Ben Gazzara in John Cassavetes's 1976 "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie." Courtesy Jumer Productions.

"I'm only happy when I'm angry, when I'm sad, when I can play the fool," Gazzara's Cosmo Vitelli announces to the entertainers in his Crazy Horse West (it even offers a spirited "Paris" review, complete with poodle) shortly before slowly making his way out to the sidewalk in front of the club, marveling at the blood on his hands after he touches the bullet wound in his side, presumably to bleed to death after being shot when he killed the Chinese bookie of the title. Here the fool is Lear's, always with the tragic underpinning, in Gazzara's case lurking in his brilliantly sad eyes, a twinkling window to a soul accustomed to suffering and determined to bear it with a resigned smile that says "don't worry about me."

Whether portraying the villain or the sap, an actor's task is to make his character sympathetic, and I don't know whether any American film actor has been able to achieve this like Gazzara. Forget Woody Allen; Gazzara was the more complete everyman of his era, making you feel this could be you in this situation (although it's not sure you'd handle it with like aplomb). If De Niro horrifies you with his graphically drawn violence, Gazzara actually makes you feel sorry for "Capone" -- in Steve Carver's 1975 flick, a poor knock-off of "The Godfather" made richer only by Gazzara in the title role -- whether tearfully cradling in his arms his dying moll (Susan Blakely, herself second only to Karen Black as the quintessential carnal '70s blonde) after she's been gunned down by a rival gang (to whom Gazzara's Capone was betrayed by a right-hand man played by a pre-'Rocky' Sylvester Stallone, who then sets him up for the tax rap), or babbling pool-side towards the end of his life, a senility whose verisimilitude Gazzara has set up by playing him from the get as mentally challenged. (Another quintessential '70s NY hardballer, Harry Guardino, plays Johnny Torrio, Capone's mentor, with his own frantic brand of aplomb.) In "The Strange One," he makes you care about the devious cadet apparently about to be thrown blind-folded in front of a speeding train by his rebelling victims (led by George Peppard, in his debut; watch also for Pat Hingle's cadet and southern gentleman). And in "Bookie," he somehow makes you feel like his descent from nightclub owner with delusions of impresario grandeur into killer is inevitable: Get into gambling debt, and you could arrive here too.

As "Rocky" lays in wait: Ben Gazzara as "Capone" in Steve Carver's 1975 flick, defending himself on tax charges after being set up by his right-hand man Frank Nitti, played by (left, sitting) Sylvester Stallone. Courtesy 20th Century/Fox.

For if Anthology's Ben Gazzara retrospective is also a great way to use an homage to an actor as a way to discover auteur directors who might not have created enough work to stock their own festival, like Garfein, it's also an opportunity to revisit the oeuvres of the American master auteurs, such as Cassavetes and Bogdanovich.

For the latter's 1981 "They all Laughed," Gazzara -- along with Hepburn -- elevates it from just another '70s tale of Love, American Style (John Ritter is there for that, in a parallel love story with Dorothy Stratten, which adds its own layer of tragedy, as Stratten's husband killed her before the film's release) to a poignant eloge d'amour. (Anthology's programming here is brilliant, with Gazzara playing opposite a pre-"Breakfast at Tiffany's" Peppard and, 20-some-odd years later, a post-'Tiffany' Hepburn.) And it's not just the film to which he lends more weight. For those of us who have trouble separating 'Tiffany''s Holly from Hepburn, Gazzara helps transform Golightly into Goheavily with their more subtle 40-something chemistry and helps book-end her own career, in this Hepburn's last leading film role, their farewell scene at the downtown New York heliport recalling not so much that between Bogart and Bergman at the "Casablanca" airport as that between Hepburn and Peck at her majesty's press conference in Wyler's "Roman Holiday" 28 years earlier. In both cases, the call of duty trumps the power of love for Audrey, and in both the public setting of the lovers' adieu dictates that they are restricted to bidding it with their eyes, Hepburn prolonging it until the final second, gazing at him from the helicopter window as it departs NY and she his and our lives forever. Meanwhile, Gazzara's eyes tell us not to worry about him, as he returns to that gritty NY landscape. If Hepburn made that landscape richer in its heights, Gazzara fathomed its lower reaches and made them palpable. (Aided in "They all Laughed" by the real New Yorkers who make up the background in the many streets traversed as the detectives pursue their prey; "those are all real people," Bogdanovich explains in a DVD bonus in which he comments on the film. No streets were blocked off here and, incredible, even Audrey Hepburn was able to move through the crowds unrecognized, so much had she become part of the New York cultural landscape which still, thankfully, still has Anthology as its major cinematic archivist.)

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