Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Husbands

I probably won’t be watching the much heralded new television series Men of a Certain Age, because I’ve just seen John Cassavetes’ Husbands. Made in 1970, Husbands was written and directed by Cassavetes and it stars the usual suspects, Ben Gazzara, as Harry, Peter Falk as Archie, and Cassavetes as Gus. The sunniest moment of the film is the opening, a slide show of slightly faded color snapshots of four couples laughing, drinking, smoking cigarettes in their bathing suits around a pool. It's a summer’s weekend, and you immediately know who they are: middle-class New Yorkers out on Long Island on a Saturday afternoon. If you look at the snapshots carefully you see Gene Rowland’s beautiful face flash by, its her only appearance in the movie. The women hug and play with the children. The four husbands mug for the camera, line up, flex their biceps and hold in their 40-something stomachs. They are happy in that moment. And then BAM! You’re at a funeral, one of the four husbands has died -- the priest drones, the wives weep, Ben Gazzara holds the hand of the prematurely departed’s tiny ancient mother with an angelic face that only a ninety-year old Italian Catholic woman could possess, she’s seen all of life and now, she’s burying her middle-aged son. The sky is pitch gray, the trees in the cemetery are bare and clutching, and it's that dead time somewhere in early March, just when spring should be coming, but the devil of winter holds the door shut.

Our three heroes, Gus, Archie, and Harry leave the funeral disgusted with the priest’s characterization of their friend and intent on one thing: to get drunk. As the night gets murkier with alcohol, cigars, and fear of mortality, the three friends descend into the first level of Dante’s Inferno, there is absolutely no turning back. They are of one mind, one that refuses the fact that they are Over the Hill and barreling down the far slope at a speed they can’t control. So there’s only one way to stop it, they are going to wrestle life to a stand still. Morning comes, and the story could end here, with a bad hangover and a return to suburban boredom. But nope, Harry leads the charge ino a new level by taking Archie and Gus with him into his home, where he declares he hates his wife and proceeds to beat the stuffing out of her and her mother. Archie and Gus stop Harry before he kills the women and next thing you know, Harry’s dug up his passport and announces he’s going to London.

Archie and Gus aren’t ready to go that far -- to declare a complete anarchy. They are ambiguous, so they find a way to leave without leaving, they tell Harry they’ll go to London with him, to “tuck him into bed and then come home.” Gus calls his wife, says he needs his passport, and could she call Archie’s wife and get his passport too? “I love you honey, you’re the best. Naw, we’re just going to tuck him in bed and then come home.” You imagine Gena Rowlands on the other end of the phone, and she’s got two thoughts in her head: Will he come home? and I hope he never comes home.

The unraveling continues, they are throwing down the whiskeys with lots of ice, the cigarettes keep burning. The airplane is filled with smoke, Falk awakens from the dream of their Great Escape somewhere in the middle of the flight, “Harry, I don’t know about this.” And Harry lights another cigarette and says, “Archie, we’re over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, what are you worrying about? You can’t worry over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.” Falk closes his eyes, throws back another drink.

The stewardess welcomes them to another level of the Inferno, “Bub-bye. Thank you. Bub-eye.” They walk out of the airplane into the pouring rain (no sealed ramps into the airports back then) they run across the tarmac, still wearing their black overcoats and suits from the funeral. They have no idea where they are going or what they are going to do, except find a pub and keep drinking. They are free, completely free now, nobody can find them, or stop them, not even death.

They enter an exotic world of English Women and Archie even toys with an old transvestite, he’s dancing on the edge of something deep within himself, but just at the moment the old Girl is ready to trip the light fantastic with him, he draws back violently, she keeps him in her weird grip for just a moment and then she recognizes his fear of himself, of what he might really be, and she releases him, no damage done to her fake eyelashes, its his problem, his foible. Down down down they go, never leaving each others' sides, like teenage boys, and you know they were boys together in school, they need each other to fend off the forces of evil, the forces of getting Old and Dying. They’re all in one hotel room with an odd collection of women, ordering bottles of whiskey, lots of ice, endive salads, bowls of olives, cartons of cigarettes . . . the rain isn’t stopping cause its London.

But it has to stop somewhere doesn’t it? And amazingly, but not surprisingly, Gus and Archie keep their promise. They tuck Harry in and go home. They pause in JFK airport to buy presents for the kids. And when Cassavetes arrives on foot at the end of his driveway his little girl meets him with tears, and his son, all of twelve or so, shouts at his father, “Boy are YOU in trouble! Ma get out here! Ma!”

Here’s why Men of a Certain Age will never measure up to Husbands. Because Cassavetes' depiction of the midlife crisis was never afraid of offending anyone or showing people what they are really thinking and feeling. Cassevetes and his ensemble of actors were so close to one another, they had collaborated so many times, that they were always emotionally naked with one another. Cassavetes could make them do anything in front of the camera, because he would do anything -- the give and take is explicitly apparent. So many people know Peter Falk only as Columbo, but if they would venture to see Falk in just one of Cassavetes’ films, they would see a different man, a different kind of artist, and then go back and watch an episode or two of Columbo, and they’ll see that Columbo is working on all these levels they never noticed before. Cassavetes takes method acting and tears it to shreds -- its raw and uncomfortable, its real. Hollywood was afraid of the man, because he made them look like the pastry puff they were, which is a tragedy really, not for Cassavetes, but for Hollywood.

1 comment:

stephen said...

Couldn't agree more. Recommend, if you haven't seen them, Faces and A Woman Under the Influence