Many films have been made about men experiencing a midlife crisis, from the good (About a Boy) to the painfully awful (Wild Hogs). With Husbands (1970), John Cassavetes made what is arguably the greatest film, not just about men going through a midlife crisis, but what it means to be a man – something that seems to be missing from a lot of contemporary male-centric movies. Husbands was a labor of love for Cassavetes and his two co-stars – Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk – both of whom enjoyed working with the filmmaker so much that they appeared in more of his films. At times, Husbands is a mess of a film with scenes that go on too long and acting that sometimes comes off as indulgent, but it is also brilliant and fearless as it transcends the men behaving badly cliché (see The Hangover movies) to show how men really behave around each other and how they communicate (or don’t) with each other. It’s a film that can test your patience, but also features some of the best acting ever put on celluloid.
When their best friend dies from a heart attack, three middle-aged married men – Gus (John Cassavetes), Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Archie (Peter Falk) – go on a wild bender in an attempt to sort out their feelings about him and towards each other. Cassavetes employs a cinema verite style so that you feel like you’re right there with these guys, which creates a powerful sense of intimacy that is also uncomfortable at times. So, they get drunk and we see them singing and yelling their heads off on the streets of New York City at night. We also see them horse around city streets during the day and Cassavetes films it in a way that feels spontaneous, like they just showed up on a street and filmed a given scene with bystanders in the background.
Husbands consists of scenes where Gus, Harry and Archie engage in pointless conversations (at one point, Archie rattles off his favorite sports) and poignant ones, but they are all important in the sense that they inform the characters and provide insight. For example, a conversation about sports mutates into a discussion about aging and not performing well because of inevitable physical decline. This segues into the nature of competition as the guys play basketball and then go for a swim.
The first substantial scene in terms of length is a wake that the three men attend where they proceed to drink and smoke cigars. People take turns singing songs and if they don’t like it or how one is being sung, they act out obnoxiously, like when this poor woman who starts a song only for Harry to cut her off right away because he feels that she lacks passion and soul. There is something phony about her that bothers them and they proceed to give her a really hard time. They yell drunken insults at her and are belligerent in a scene that goes on too long and gets painfully uncomfortable, but that is kind of the point because real life is like that. People act horrible to each other.
Cassavetes captures this in an unflinchingly honest way that really tests one’s patience because he goes past when a scene would normally end and keeps pushing things to see what happens. In doing so, he takes us on an emotional ride of sorts that starts off funny, then gets awkward, then mean, and back to funny again. It feels like we’re eavesdropping on a private party where we can’t escape.
Sometimes Cassavetes gets too real, like the following scene where Gus pukes his brains out in the bathroom accompanied with graphic sounds of retching. And then Archie follows suit. It’s not that we see the act, but the sounds are so graphic that they almost make one feel ill. Fortunately, this segues into Harry going after his friends, jealous of the bond between Gus and Archie and this escalates until Harry tries to start a fight with Archie that is dispelled as quickly as it started.
Midway through Husbands, Gus, Harry and Archie decide to travel to London, England where they gamble and meet some women, one of whom tells Gus what’s wrong with American men. He roughs her up in a noisy, uncomfortable scene that goes on for too long. It’s indicative of how clueless these guys are when it comes to women. We see each one of them try and fail to pick up a woman and then when they finally convince three ladies to come to their respective hotel rooms they either fail to communicate (Archie) or are too aggressive (Gus). Harry, of all people, comes off the best, talking quietly with his date, but he soon moves on to three other women.
Ben Gazzara plays Harry as an arrogant loudmouth with a quick temper. For Peter Falk’s Archie, it’s all about being free and an individual. Cassavetes and these guys aren’t afraid to show their characters at their worst with Harry coming off particularly badly in the way he physically and verbally abuses his wife and daughter in a raw and ugly scene where Gus and Archie burst in and break things up. Cassavetes shows how guys who have known each other for a long time are able to push each other’s buttons and also how they can make each other laugh – all done through a kind of short hand that only comes from guys that are as close as they are.
The origins for Husbands can be traced back to Faces (1968), an independent film that Cassavetes needed to pay lab fees for in 1966. He realized that creating another project could generate possible revenue and pitched the idea for Husbands to a producer at Paramount Studios who offered him $25,000 for it. Soon after, Cassavetes approached two close friends, Lee Marvin and Anthony Quinn, and told them of his idea for all three of them to travel around the United States where they would stop in bars along the way. Cassavetes would write a story based on their encounters and then they would film it. However, when Marvin and Quinn met at Cassavetes’ house to talk about the project they soon realized that they didn’t get along with each other and both of them turned it down.
In mid-1967, Cassavetes met Peter Falk at a Los Angeles Lakers game and asked him if he wanted to do a film together. They eventually agreed to appear in the Elaine May film Mikey and Nicky (1976) together, and this gave Cassavetes a chance to pitch Falk the outline for Husbands. Two days later, he spotted Ben Gazzara across the parking lot at Universal Studios and asked him if he wanted to do a film with him and Falk. Gazzara didn’t take it seriously, but Cassavetes ended up inviting them both to preview screenings of Faces in the spring of 1968.
The next thing Cassavetes needed to do was find the money to make Husbands. While filming Bandits in Rome (1968) in Italy, he pitched Husbands to Count Ascanio Bino Cicogna, an aspiring movie mogul. They agreed on a two-picture deal. Cicogna asked to see the script for Husbands, but Cassavetes hadn’t written anything and so he went back to his Rome villa and dictated the screenplay over the next two weekends. He showed the script to Cicogna and based on it and the assurance of Falk and Gazzara’s participation, agreed to finance it.
Fortunately, both men were in Europe making movies at the time and Cassavetes got them together on weekends to work on the project. Over the next six months, they produced 400 pages of notes, by Cassavetes’ estimation. Falk and Gazzara helped shape the shooting script greatly with their input. According to Cassavetes, “the off-the-set relationship between Gazzara, Falk and myself determined a lot of the scenes we created as we went along. It was a process of discovering the story and the theme.”
The three actors were initially wary of each other during the screenwriting process: “We were all terrified that the three of us would get into a boring conversation and cease to like each other, which would make it impossible as actors to assume the friendship we needed as a background for our characters.” After the film was cast, Cassavetes spent a month workshopping with the script and using it as an opportunity to incorporate the actors’ specific speaking rhythms and personalities into the numerous rewrites. Contrary to the popular belief that the entire film was improvised, very little occurred during filming except for a handful of moments. The bulk of improv happened during the workshop phase.
Filming was to begin in early December 1968 in New York City, but Cicogna changed his mind and pulled out of the deal the day before principal photography was to start. The Italian millionaire wanted a bigger share of the profits and more creative input, both of which Cassavetes was unwilling to concede. The filmmaker felt betrayed and was very angry, refusing to negotiate with Cicogna. This also halted the production and everyone but Cassavetes was convinced that the project was finished. Cassavetes secretly pitched the film to several studios, all of which turned him down. Cicogna finally gave in, but only sent Cassavetes a little more than a third of the budget.
Regardless, Cassavetes was determined to make his film. However, he spent all of the money on the New York sequences. He, Falk and Gazzara stepped up and worked for nothing, deferring their salaries for a percentage of the profits. Cassavetes managed to squeeze $500,000 more out of Cicogna, but it wouldn’t be enough for what he wanted to shoot in London. He proceeded anyway and ran out of money again, five weeks before the completion of principal photography and had to borrow money from a Canadian investor. Cassavetes’ method of shooting caused the schedule to run longer than previously anticipated and in total, filming lasted 23 weeks!
During filming, Cassavetes, Falk and Gazzara would watch a day’s rushes the next day, rewrite any scene that they felt wasn’t good enough that night and shoot it again, all to make said scene the best it could be. Initially, Falk was not crazy about Cassavetes’ working methods, resisting them and almost quitting at one point. He just wanted to be told what to do, but instead Cassavetes gave him creative problems to deal with on his own. This freaked Falk out and so he would have lengthy conversations with Cassavetes about his character. Gazzara, on the other hand, wanted to be left alone to figure out his character.
A rough cut was assembled by early October 1969 that was reportedly very funny. Cassavetes showed Husbands to executives at Columbia Pictures and they loved it, offering $3.5 million for it. Cassavetes agreed, but had no intention of releasing that version. He fired the editors and spent the next year re-editing, essentially rebuilding it from the ground up. As Cassavetes kept editing, he missed several release dates put forth by Columbia. The new edit was tougher and more challenging than the initial one, much to the chagrin of the film’s producers who argued with Cassavetes about the differences. He was contracted to deliver a film with a maximum running time of 140 minutes, which was painful for him to do because he loved his three hour and 25 minute version, but cut it down anyway.
Not surprisingly, Columbia hated Cassavetes’ cut of Husbands and felt that he had baited and switched them, so they proceeded to bury the film, refusing to name a release date. In response, Cassavetes fired off angry letters to the studio and launched his own publicity campaign, putting up posters all over Manhattan. He also did all kinds of press interviews with Falk and Gazzara, chief among them a hilarious and memorable appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. They came on and proceeded to ignore the host and then intimidate him. At several points, Cassavetes did a pratfall, Gazzara pretended to nod off only to get up and start dancing, and Falk refused to look at Cavett even while speaking to him. The three men joked among each other and good-naturedly tormented Cavett, carrying on almost as if they were still playing their characters from Husbands.
Towards the end of the show, Cassavetes got serious for a moment and offered this pearl of wisdom about his film: “It’s one statement of a man point-of-view. We all get so chicken that we’re afraid of our jobs, we’re afraid of our wives, we’re afraid of our children, we’re afraid to go out on the street. And the people that criticize that fear then quickly become contaminated with that.” Falk also chimed in with a great observation: “I made a picture that doesn’t have any sentimentality in it, but has a great deal of feeling in it. It has the kind of emotions that we all experience but you really don’t see on the screen. The kind of emotions that kinda get lost because they’re no longer contrived in our film – they’re genuine.”
Husbands works so well because it is an honest expression of where Cassavetes’ head was at when he made it. The film is an attempt, on his part, to articulate what it means to be a man and the bond between male friends. It’s not as simple as many of these recent bromance movies make it out to be as he delves into what is said and, maybe even more importantly, what isn’t said as the very last scene illustrates so beautifully. Harry has different priorities in life then Gus and Archie. Even though the two men don’t articulate it, we can see it on their faces, some things don’t have to be said because when you are so close to someone, you just know it and it is understood through a look or reading between the lines of an apparently trivial conversation. This is the genius of Husbands – Cassavetes gets it probably better than anyone else out there and managed to put it on film in an honest and real way.
Carney, Ray. Cassavetes on Cassavetes. Faber and Faber. 2001.