Even as a kid I was fascinated by John Cazale -- even if I didn't know his name. I was first introduced to the performer when I watched The Godfather, and even as a 12-year-old I could tell the difference between Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his sad-sack older brother Fredo (Cazale). I remember wondering how Fredo could be the brother of such cool guys like Michael and Sonny (James Caan) ... and I definitely remember feeling sympathy for poor Fredo.
Then my father introduced me to Dog Day Afternoon (pictured above), which features an electric performance by Mr. Cazale, and one that couldn't possibly be more different than the role of Fredo. As Sal, the odd, sketchy, and intense bank robber, Cazale blew me away in Dog Day (and to this day it remains one of my very favorite films). Unfortunately it wasn't until I got a little older that I "rediscovered" Mr. Cazale in The Conversation, The Godfather Part 2, and The Deer Hunter. But that was enough to make me a lifelong fan. John Cazale died of bone cancer in 1978, at the way-too-young age of 42 -- but he does hold one very interesting piece of movie trivia: of the five features that John Cazale appeared in ... all five were nominated for Best Picture. So not only was Mr. Cazale one of the most unique and gifted performers of his generation; he was also a lucky charm where awards were concerned -- and his work has proved irresistible to movie freaks of many generations.
Produced by Brett Ratner and directed by Richard Shepard, I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale is a 40-minute HBO documentary on John Cazale that every one of those fans should see.
Featuring extensive movie clips of Cazale's best moments, and packed with fantastic interview segments, I Knew It Was You (the title is a line from The Godfather Part 2, of course) is a long overdue retrospective on one of the best actors of the 1970s -- and while the short film will undoubtedly appeal to those who already know and love Mr. Cazale, it also works as an excellent introduction to a performer that every film fan should get to know. Those interviewed include directors Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet, and co-workers of Cazale like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, John Savage, Olympia Dukakis, Carol Kane, and his former fiancee, the wonderful Meryl Streep. (I guess Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino was not interested in participating, which is sort of a shame.)
Also on board is film historian Mark Harris, who offers some great insights, as well as "current" actors like Sam Rockwell, Steve Buscemi, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, all of whom have some very specific praise for John Cazale's acting chops. Throw in a few touching thoughts from John's brother and some personal friends, combined with a fast-paced but informative look at Cazale's early life and his theater work, and the result is a superlative little documentary that wouldn't be more effective at twice the running time. It's a sweet, sincere, and entirely fascinating look at an actor we should all miss from time to time.
And if you have some holes in your John Cazale list, get that rectified ASAP. Those films again are The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part 2, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. (And some archival footage in The Godfather Part 3.)
I had a huge movie buff grin on my face for the whole of I Knew It Was You. Big praise to Ratner, Shepard, and HBO for giving this wonderful actor one more moment in the spotlight.