In John Cassavetes’s Husbands, the director, Ben Gazzara, and Peter Falk play Gus, Harry, and Archie, three middle-aged, middle-class suburbanites who come together at the funeral of their close mutual friend Stuart, and, united in grief, commence drinking together. And then . . . they keep drinking. When the sun has risen, they careen around New York avoiding their families and careers, and when responsibilities threaten to catch up to them, they hop a flight to London so that their full focus can remain on the only thing that matters: one another. The longer the movie goes on—and it seems to be composed of small eternities—the more it hurts. And like all the best of Cassavetes’s work, it feels as if every frame hums with astonishing life. No image or sound is ever employed just to convey information. Always, overwhelmingly, feeling.
Posthumously canonized as the patron saint of American independent cinema, Cassavetes did not generally fare so well with the critics in his own time. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called Husbands, shortly after its wide release in December 1970, “a kind of private exercise that has limited interest outside the home-movie circuit.” But then, the following month, the Times wrote the movie up again, this time with a rave: “Husbands zeroes in on the real state of love and sex in our time.” The author was Betty Friedan, one of America’s most prominent feminist intellectuals. “Cassavetes, Gazzara, et al., I salute you as fellow liberationists.”
“It is a film that takes unmooring as its subject, and so Cassavetes seems determined to unmoor the film.”
Through the fog of fifty years of history, it is bracing to read this praise from Friedan for a movie packed with scene after skin-crawling scene of men hectoring, bullying, threatening, and humiliating women. Husbands is not now, and was not then, an easy movie to watch. Cassavetes was temperamentally incapable of and generally uninterested in making “easy” movies. (When he attempted to relax, just entertain the audience, and make himself some money, the result was 1980’s Gloria, probably the strangest entry in his canon for its misfit between the slick genre conventions he half-heartedly engaged and the offbeat rhythms he couldn’t resist.) But the difficulty of Husbands is extreme even by Cassavetes’s standards. It is a ship sailing toward the North Star of his usual preoccupations—love, loyalty, self-destruction—and then riding on through as the star collapses into a black hole. It is a film that takes unmooring as its subject, and so Cassavetes seems determined to unmoor the film.
Everything in Husbands is defined by absence, sculpted from negative space. The most immediate absence is that of Stuart (David Rowlands), seen in the opening still-photo montage alongside Gus, Harry, and Archie. We never learn anything about him but must presume there was some semblance of stability in these men’s suburban lives so long as he walked among them. The entire crazed odyssey of Husbands, throughout which these bereaved men cannot even travel down a sidewalk without caroming off one another like pinballs, is set in motion by the space collapsing around the vacuum Stuart has left. And when it’s all over, Harry, their next natural leader, has spun off into the ether as well, taking their “lost weekend” one step further by choosing to remain lost with it. A movie that consumes its own characters in an existential void: for a guy who dropped out of college and eschewed cerebral remove in his writing, Cassavetes is working nearly at a Samuel Beckett—or is it Jean-Paul Sartre?—level of abstraction.
After working consistently through most of his twenties as a television actor, Cassavetes launched his directing career with the independently made Shadows in 1959—indeed, Shadows likely launched the careers of hundreds of indie filmmakers who followed in his loose, performance-focused, intensely personal mode. From there, like many after him, he turned to TV and feature filmmaking for studios, and, like so many after him, felt stultified and infuriated by its restrictions. He returned to scrappy indie work with 1968’s Faces—the first of his major collaborations with his wife, the actor Gena Rowlands—which begat both financial success and consensus approval from the critics in a manner that, with the exception of 1974’s A Woman Under the Influence, eluded him ever after. By the end of the sixties, the old studio system was in crisis, eager to revitalize itself, and the time was right for a firebrand like John, playing as strong a professional hand as he’d ever have, to storm the gates again, this time on his own terms, taking all of their money and none of their interference. So Husbands, this most excruciating of films, was, remarkably, a Columbia Pictures production.
What were the suits expecting, a crowd-pleasing smash? Maybe! Al Ruban—Cassavetes’s most frequent, and frequently beleaguered, collaborator behind the camera—tells the story that after the film’s epic six-month, two-country shoot, during which hundreds of hours of film were shot (about ten times an average production’s haul), Cassavetes walked away from the mountain of footage, leaving it with Ruban and British editor Peter Tanner. Tanner’s most celebrated credit was Kind Hearts and Coronets, the beloved British dark comedy, so perhaps he was an inspired choice to unearth the mordant gallows humor amid the madness of Cassavetes’s raw material? Following John’s screenplay quite faithfully, he cut together a version of Husbands that test-screening audiences reportedly found hilarious. The Columbia execs were pleased. Ruban recalled, “There was only one person who really disliked it. That was John.” So John retreated into the editing room per his contractual right, deconstructed the Ruban/Tanner cut entirely, and spent most of a year rebuilding Husbands from scratch.
This story has long fascinated me. I find it truly mind-boggling to try to imagine any box-office-friendly version of this most uncompromising of movies. Some hint, possibly, comes from the capsule description I see today when I view the movie’s Amazon profile: “Golden Globes nominee for best screenplay, follows three middle-aged husbands, with wives and houses in the New York suburbs, who go on a wild spree after a close friend dies of a heart attack.” Not inaccurate per se, but when you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so far off from, say, Todd Phillips’s Old School (or, for that matter, Phillips’s The Hangover, maybe his Due Date and Road Trip as well). Could that be what Cassavetes decided to leave on the cutting-room floor? Would we be remembering that version today as ground zero of the man-child comedy that not long thereafter became such a reliable cornerstone of American entertainment? Could it have beaten Animal House to the punch by nearly a decade, providing a font of quotations for generations of frat brothers, all the future dentists and advertising execs like Gus and Harry?
I’d like to think that this was all part of the process. That John had to make this “fun” movie, whatever it was, in order to remove it and reveal what lay beneath.
“The filmmaking itself seems to erupt with emotion doomed never to find its context.”
Intensity came all too naturally to Cassavetes. Even folks who can’t stand him or his apparent indulgences will tend to acknowledge that A Woman Under the Influence, rooted by Gena Rowlands’s incredibly visceral performance as Mabel Longhetti, is a gut-wrenching experience. Mabel and her husband, Nick (Falk), broadcast their pain clearly and directly, and when they settle down to make the foldout bed under the film’s closing credits, we’re ready to crawl right into it with them, exhausted from their sincere, tragic struggles to make sense of each other. Husbands, on the other hand, is soaked in sadness but provides no catharsis, no matter how desperately its characters seek it. The quintessential Cassavetean gesture—a sudden non-sequitur shout, flail, or outburst intended to provoke a response (think Seymour Cassel in 1971’s Minnie and Moskowitz seeming to take himself by surprise by cutting his mustache off)—recurs throughout the film, often from John himself as Gus, and never seems to provide much relief for either outburster or outburstee. Watch the husbands aggressively shout down the amateur singers in a New York bar, to an almost eerie vacuum of consequence—these anonymous fellow travelers in drunken gloom register the abuse but neither bark back nor slink away. Desperation absorbs desperation.
The filmmaking itself also seems to erupt with emotion doomed never to find its context. Why is Harry’s client Ed Weintraub—about whom we know, naturally, zero—cackling and pointing into the camera in his very brief appearance? Is there a single other shot remotely like it in the entirety of Cassavetes’s oeuvre? (And so hot on the heels of the equally expressionistic split-focus diopter shot of Harry dwarfed by family photos on his desk! What alternate movie is this?) Meanwhile, over at Gus’s workplace, what’s the story with his patient Mrs. Hines and her fit of hysterical laughter in his dentist’s chair? John as Gus, so given to a good raspy smoker’s cackle himself, for once seems reluctant to join in the giggles—her kooky upstaging just throws everybody off. Later, in a London casino, we encounter the most remarkable day player of all, Delores Delmar as “the Countess,” whom Archie clumsily attempts to seduce only to find the tables turned, the dowager sexually harrassing him. He pleads with her to let go of his offscreen hand, but until that moment it sure feels like she’s clutching his crotch. It must be the funniest scene in the movie, not for its goofy premise but for Delmar’s thrillingly wild energy, her eyebrows and lips undulating with some ungovernable current.
I went many years between my first viewing of Husbands and revisiting it—it was a powerful experience but not one I was eager to repeat—and while I acutely recalled the terrible feeling of helplessness it evokes, I’d forgotten many of these particular oddities. I also had the structure all wrong in my head. I remembered three guys jetting off to London to lose their minds. I had lost track of the fact that New York is not just prologue but at least half of the movie, and that the halves feel quite distinct. Some of the early New York scenes are mannered and deliberate enough as to feel downright scripted—of course, Cassavetes had written them, but the obsessive focus on performance in his work more typically makes it seem that he’s trying to bury all traces of the screenwriter—and counterintuitively, despite this more writerly hand, in New York we feel less of a sense of differentiation among the three men. Maybe it’s a commentary on suburban conformity, or maybe it just illustrates Cassavetes’s deep seduction of Gazzara and Falk, two seasoned pro actors collaborating with this liberating/terrifying director for this time, but the men seem to express their support for one another by melding into a three-headed beast. (“Gus Could Be Harry, Harry Could Be Archie . . .” was Canby’s disapproving headline in the Times.)
Then in London, thousands of miles from home, personalities emerge and all of the players’ most celebrated strengths as performers become their characters’ downfalls. Gazzara, with his bullhorn voice and puffed-out chest, able to dominate any scene, at last pushes everyone away, Harry’s best friends and strangers alike. Falk, whose adorable hangdog affect would make him a beloved television presence for decades as Columbo, finds Archie’s diffidence curdling into a self-loathing so dark that his fling, Julie (Noelle Kao), is last seen apparently traumatized, the pent miseries of their night together released in a torrent (of unsubtitled Chinese, which floats eerily out of sync) like the rain that drenches her. As for John himself—the hustler, the charmer—this guy who was too short to succeed in basketball sets his sights on the highest mountain, as it were, Jenny Runacre’s Mary, and Gus proceeds to treat her as such: he does not so much make a conquest of as summit her. It’s an intensely, unnervingly physical scene but devoid of sex—wrestling, tugging, and shouting, Gus gets off not so much on her fear as her uncertainty. He needs to hold her attention and remain the seducer even as he is holding her down. And by the next morning, as their relationship ends in a café amid a flurry of his hollow improvisations, he has lost the energy to charm even himself.
In a movie made by subtraction, the most significant absence of all, I think, is reflected in the title. Not Men, or even Midlife Men, or for that matter Fellas, Buddies, Pals, Chums—or Drinkers. Nor is it Breadwinners, and certainly not (despite Xan and Nick Cassavetes’s sobering appearance in the final minutes) Fathers. Look at Gena Rowlands, hiding in plain sight in the opening montage. Just another character we never meet, she’s right in the center of that group shot, a rather conspicuous blonde beauty, and indeed, in 1970, as recognizable a performer as any of the men—not a distraction Cassavetes was obliged to include. As any married person does, John had made extraordinary vows to her, requiring a level of faith we otherwise reserve for religion. And as any married person does, he had surely found himself lacking in his ability to live up to these promises. And so Husbands, I think, is about commitments—how they define us even as we wriggle to loosen their confines. Ultimately, I suspect it is a long, rambling, soul-baring (and occasionally incoherent, as handwriting might struggle to keep up with an elevated heart rate) love letter to Gena. It says: “Look how lost I would be without you.”