Film

Ben Gazzara and The End Of An Aura

Ben Gazzara: 1930 - 2012. What can you say about Gazzara? He was relevant in every decade going back to the '50s.

Still reeling from the sad news about Don Cornelius, it's painful to acknowledge the loss of another irreplaceable master, Ben Gazarra. Some good tributes out there.

What can you say about Gazzara? He was relevant in every decade going back to the '50s. And it wasn't just his longevity or his unique, idiosyncratic style(s); he was old school in the sense that he radiated that aura: above all, he was a man.That might not sound like much, or it may even sound silly (What does aura have to do with anything? These are actors playing roles and they can be transformed into heroes or villains depending on the script and the director), but back in the days when special effects did not do as much to determine what an actor could --and could not-- do, it mattered when a man could bring that certain gravitas to a role. As such, he was never typecast (because he was too talented) but he did inexorably bring that aura to each role. These were days when directors counted on that aura, because it conveyed legitimacy that was understood before a single line was spoken.

My impression of Gazzara is not unlike my impression of Gene Hackman: I have not seen all his films, and some of them are very bad indeed, but there is no doubt that each man makes the particular movie, no matter how messy, a lot better than it would otherwise have been. Even in movies where the results are difficult to adequately describe or defend (in many regards, the essence of a good film, no?), you always have to account for the Gazzara factor.

To take just one example, consider The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Nobody but Gazzara could have played that role. More, no one but Gazzara should have played that role. As much a period piece as a work of art, it epitomizes the extreme edge of the '70s DIY ethos (which was the calling card of John Cassavetes). Equal parts improvisation and the channeling of an older world that was quickly changing (in less than a decade it would be gone for good), Bookieis, in a not so ironic twist, too convincing to be a first rate thriller. It's too quirky to be a definitive character sketch. It is, ultimately, a window into that disappearing world that was leaving men like Cosmo Vitelli (they don't have names like that anymore; they don't have people like that anymore) abruptly in the rear view. More, it is a window of sorts into the darker angels of Gazzara's nature: a man who struggled with drink and depression, some of that frustration, confusion and despair is uncomfortably palpable on the screen. Indeed, a portion of it was present in every role he played.


And, despite the sketchiness and grim reality of some of the characters he portrayed, it must be said that Gazzara was always enjoyable. There is a tri-fecta of roles that the younger generation will be familiar with, and all of them showcase not only why Gazzara was one of a kind, but also how oddly addicting he is -- as an actor, as a person. The voice, the face, the mannerisms. There was nobody else remotely like him.

He obviously enjoyed himself slumming in the totally over the top, almost painfully perfect junk food matinee Road House. (One thing about this movie that saved it from being a total debacle: the casting was pitch perfect across the board).


In 1998 he had a year that, if he weren't already a legend, could practically constitute a career. The one-two punch as Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski and as the inscrutable father in Buffalo 66 are roles that will correctly be watched, quoted and celebrated as long as people are watching, quoting and celebrating movies. His slightly surreal, borderline whimsical, vaguely unsettling, thoroughly genius "performance" of "Fools Rush In" is as perfect as a movie scene can be. Treat yourself to it.

In an interview from 2006, Gazzara had this to say when asked about his legacy:

"Nobody ever knew what to do with me because I wasn't easily pigeonholed." But he was never bitter when a coveted role went to someone else, he once told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I don't know why," he said. "Maybe my ego, my Sicilian pride. And I was never jealous of another actor, 'cause … I knew I had the goods."

Damn right he had the goods. It is to our considerable fortune that he found a way to share them with the world.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Music

Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.

Music

IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.

Music

Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Film

NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.

Music

The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.