The plot of John Cassavetes’s Husbands (1970) is deceptively simple. Three suburban men, close friends (maybe too close, maybe codependent), in their early 40s experience a midlife crisis brought on by the death of the fourth member of their clique, Stuart. Stuart died unexpectedly and suddenly from a heart attack and this sends the other three into a tailspin. All three are upper-middle class, successful, married with children and homes and cars and property and responsibility. They also have a deep, aching need to cast all that responsibility to the winds, to shrug it off, to embrace their whims and their pleasures—perhaps at the expense of others and certainly at the expense of their families, because who cares?
They attend the funeral and are displeased with the services. The officiant described Stuart as someone who provided a space for all in attendance within his life—and little more. Listen carefully to the sermon or dedication or whatever you want to call it. Stuart appears as someone who liked to laugh without listening, to experience without attending, to engage without sharing. Apparently, Stuart’s wife was concerned with Stuart’s insurance policy at the funeral and the friends find this gauche. They are concerned with more pressing matters, like how you really only die from “tensions” (and apparently not cancer or heart attacks—those are secondary, I suppose), how you should never “believe the truth” (what precisely is meant is never clarified but I will return to this adage), and how, if the officiant didn’t know what he was talking about ,he should have kept his mouth shut.
The friends then go carousing and stay up all night. Gus (John Cassavetes) laments never having made it as a professional athlete; he was fantastic at basketball but too short. And at a certain point in your 30s you realize all those ideas have long passed you by and you watch as other people your age, people who did make it, start to fade.
Gus is the unofficial leader of the group. He doesn’t so much dictate what they are going to do as he manages through a kind of malevolent charm to sit at the center of things while the other two revolve around him and vie for his attention—sometimes openly, sometimes covertly. Gus is one of those guys who never initiates a conversation but nevertheless dominates it by reacting with a goading enthusiasm.
It’s the legs that give out first, Harry (Ben Gazzara) insists. Harry is at turns the most withdrawn and the most openly wounded. Indeed, he has a guileful habit of employing those wounds in order to manipulate, in order to get his way. Even his strengths are employed as infirmities in an effort to exert power over others. As his two friends empty their guts during their second night of blind drunken revelry, Harry seeks sympathy for the fact that he is constitutionally unable to vomit. Harry is self-involved; they’re all three self-involved, Harry just does the better job of turning that solipsism into a means of garnering attention.
Archie (Peter Falk) is the most diffident of the three; he is the hapless oaf who always feels as though he is being emasculated—if not by his friends then by the two women he attempts to seduce. The first attempt comes in a celebrated scene when Archie approaches an older woman as she gambles in a casino. Archie makes his intentions clear and the woman turns her face toward him, her eyes bulging, her mouth, loosed with wrinkled age, churning from the movements of her tongue, which moves so freely that we might assume she has false teeth.
She is meant to be grotesque but she proves triumphant over her would-be seducer. We see only her face throughout the encounter as she turns the tables on Archie. Apparently, she has grasped his hand and refuses to relinquish it. She offers him girls or boys, whatever he prefers. As happens repeatedly in the film, Archie has slouched his way into a predicament that makes escape difficult.
Of course, that simply concretizes the difficulty they are all three facing. Escape is impossible. But they try all the same. They carouse for two straight days and nights after the funeral, flirt with the idea of returning to work and decide against it. Harry fights with his wife and his marriage implodes, he grabs a passport and the three of them go to London to continue staring into the abyss. They gamble, they drink, they pick up three women and treat them poorly, even abusively. They spend precious little time talking about Stuart or much of anything real. And yet they spend a lot of time insisting on “the real” or “the authentic”.
Gus, Harry, and Archie present themselves as experts on the authentic. They are the ultimate arbiters on who is being real and who is resorting to fakery. Gus, in an odd seduction of a local London woman (Jenny Runacre), pushes her awkwardly off the bed, pins her arms down, forces the removal of a shoe (but only one shoe, having both off would be vulgar), and generally manhandles her into submission. All the while, he insists that she “loves” it, that her protestations to the contrary are merely part of the game they are playing. But, of course, the game only properly functions when Gus is the one in charge.
The next morning, the woman, now rather openly in love with Gus, takes him to a favorite café and introduces him as her friend. She flirts with a now reticent Gus, who, when asked if he cares for her, harshly confronts her with “What do you want me to do? Ask you to marry me?”
Archie traces a similar trajectory with his date for the evening, a young Chinese woman played by Noelle Kao. The woman is taciturn throughout the evening, asking only for a Coke as refreshment. When the others retire to their individual rooms and Archie is left alone with her, he chatters incessantly, sings to her, moves in close. When she finally responds by kissing him deeply and emphatically, he recoils and insults her. Indeed, his reaction borders on rage.
The problem for Archie is clear. He wants to run the game. When he is the aggressor and she is the bashful foreign woman, all is right with the world. That is the authentic mode of behavior. But similar to Archie’s experience with the elderly woman at the casino, this young woman has turned the tables on him. She has taken charge and he can’t seem to help but see this as a form of emasculation. And if there is one thing these three men can’t stand, it is the whiff of the possibility of emasculation.
One only defends one’s masculinity in such terms, one only becomes this jealous of its preservation, when one feels it is somehow under threat. That is the fear that haunts the trio. They feel they have been unmanned by death (in the loss of Stuart), they have been unmanned by time (in the loss of their vitality and youth), they have been unmanned by middle-class responsibility (the castration of workaday lives, and mortgages, and child-rearing—although no one would imagine they are all that involved as fathers). They are worried that perhaps they love nothing and, worse, are unworthy of love. They are concerned that this worry itself unmans them. And so, to prove themselves men (to each other, to themselves, and to those poor women who tolerate them on any level) they berate and badger others by policing the boundaries of the authentic.
The most heavily criticized extended scene of the film exemplifies this point. The three men are in a bar and have initiated an impromptu singing competition. They go around the table and insist that the various barflies who have gathered around them (presumably because they were buying) perform for the group to be judged by Gus, Harry, and Archie. Once again, they demand control of the situation and then push it to the limits of disorder, all the while feeling assured that they preside over the resulting chaos.
The patrons of the bar sing a variety of songs: some from the era of World War 2, Stephen Foster’s “I Dream of Jeanie” (a favorite of Cassavetes insofar as it was also featured in his preceding film, his breakout Faces), and eventually the Depression-era “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Several performances falter in both pitch and text. They often drop off without conclusion insofar as the performers are deeper in their cups than they are in musical inspiration. Still, the trio of men show appreciation for their efforts. They applaud, they sing along, they offer more booze. Sometimes the appreciation clearly manifests in a kind of patronizing sarcasm. Hostility seems on the ready to erupt at any moment and yet it is held in check. The men glory in their petty power, they put their arms around each other, kiss some of the female barflies at random, dole out praise as though their new acquaintances must be eager to receive it.
They eventually get to the woman sitting to the left of Harry. She sings a song about lost love. She never gets very far with it. The three men scream and pound the table. They crowd in upon her. They brutishly kiss at her in mock reassurance. They berate her for her lack of authenticity. It is too cute, this performance, they say. They attempt to outdo one another in their efforts to excoriate her. They want something real, they claim, and she is not giving it.
She is understandably confused, pushed to the brink of tears. Archie begins to undress. He yells that he will take his clothes off if only she will do it better. She wants nothing of the sort. She is appalled; they are in hysterics, howling with laughter. What could be more fun? And what does it matter if not everyone is having the kind of fun they are?
When asking how she might do it better, all she gets in response is that she is not being real, not being authentic. They act as though it were the most natural thing in the world to demand realness and authenticity. It almost seems like it would be, doesn’t it? How often have we found ourselves advising someone else to “just be themselves”? But think of it from the other side. Think of the times someone has given you this frustratingly unhelpful advice. You probably didn’t feel you weren’t being yourself. But now you aren’t so sure. If I wasn’t being myself, whom was I being? More to the point, is it possible that I have forgotten just how to be myself? How do I authentically perform myself?
It’s an impossible demand and it’s meant to be. As soon as you’re told you’re not behaving as you ought to be in order to be authentic, you’re put in the mode of performance. Better yet, you’re put in a position to be utterly aware that all we ever do is perform. But that isn’t the point, really. The point that Gus and his pals make when they tell this woman she’s not being real is not just to reveal that all is performance. Rather, they suggest that she’s performing but they’re not—even though they’re the ones pounding on tables and stripping off clothes and making all the outsized gestures clowns and comic actors make. In her astonishment at their outlandish behavior, she is made to feel as though she were in the wrong, that just by trying to please them by singing a song (which, by definition, is trafficking in artifice) she has become inauthentic.
These kinds of games are designed to make you feel as though you are always in the wrong. The best you can do is grin and bear it and hope it will soon be over. Because, after all, what else is left for you to try? Heaven forfend you try to defend yourself, that you object. Then you’re a poor sport and what can be more inauthentic than that? So, you get bullied and you have to smile and take it. You have no criteria by which to demonstrate that you are being authentic because no such criteria exist. And Gus and Harry and Archie know that. They know you have no defense and no easy manner of escape. That’s what makes the game function as it does. What fun, right?
But this is where film critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert may have misjudged this scene. They felt it was too long and didn’t contribute to the plot. But this is the plot. This is it. All of it. These men are wounded and they have no one to blame but themselves. That’s intolerable for them. So, they find victims. They play games they can’t possibly lose because there are no rules aside from those they make up as they go. There is just a method involved, a method for making someone feel extraordinarily bad about themselves without having any remedy for that feeling.
These men want this woman to feel like a phony because that is how they feel. But they can’t say that. They can’t even think it properly because that would be the end of it. And the game is so pitiably easy, really. The formulae are all there. Anger is always more authentic than placidity, rage more authentic than sadness, cruelty more authentic than kindness.
Their ultimate opponents in these games are they themselves. Sure, there’s collateral damage all along the way: the woman in the bar, the women they seduce, their wives. There’s plenty of female suffering to go around but that doesn’t matter much to them. They barely see it. All of that is a mere function of their suffering, that suffering that they both hide and put on flagrant display, that suffering that they perform in so many variations. But, see, their suffering is authentic.
They know not to speak of insurance at funerals (of course, why should they? their livelihood isn’t under threat through Stuart’s death); they know that flings oughtn’t to inspire actual feeling (I mean, after all, they have wives and houses and cars back home). And yet, knowing what to say when (following whatever rules one deems proper) is the height of inauthenticity. Knowing how to cow someone into submission, playing these games of domination is emblematic of authenticity. These women suffer inauthentically. They are simply too concerned with feelings of attachment, and worries about how they look in public. Gus, Archie, and Harry suffer alone; they are individuals who care not a jot for how the world sees them.
All of that is baloney and we see over and again that it is baloney. Whenever two members of the trio draw closer to each other, the third gets jealous. Archie sheepishly looks on while Gus and Harry embrace during the singing competition. Harry laments not being able to vomit and pouts when he senses that Archie and Gus are having their own conversation in their sickness. These men are not individuals alone. They can’t stand to be alone.
If authenticity is standing up to yourself, seeing yourself in all of your contradictions, and accepting those contradictions for what they are (that is, the irremediable strangeness of the self, the fact that you can never be consonant with yourself, that you will forever be estranged from yourself), then these men have absolutely no access to authenticity. They aren’t real. They perform endlessly. And because they perform endlessly, everyone else becomes their props. Their problem is not with the inauthenticity of others; their problem lies in the fact that all of these other people witness their lack of authenticity, their lack of familiarity with what they are.
And this brings us back to that strange line Gus delivers at the funeral when Archie rambles on about how we only die from “tensions”. “Don’t believe truth, just don’t believe truth,” Gus says, shaking his head as though even he is unsure of his meaning: “Archie, I’m telling you, don’t believe truth.” Truth is what they claim they are seeking in the song competition. Truth is what they chase in flying to London, in finding women for the night. Truth is what they seek when they return to the United States. Truth is what they petulantly demand from everyone else. They want a truth that is manifested without being performed. They want a truth they can verify. They want to be the arbiters of truth and its appearances.
And yet, at the very opening of the film, in a moment that very well may have been improvised, a moment that strikes one as an almost throw-away line, Gus gives the game away, the game they will play and force others to play throughout the remainder of the film. This truth that they demand: they not only don’t believe in it, they are fearful of it. It is not to be believed, it is not the kind of thing that should gain our assent.
Gus, Harry, and Archie know they are fakes and they despise themselves for it. They want to make everyone else feel the blunt force of fakery that suffuses everything. Other people don’t feel bad enough in their eyes, and they hate them for it. So, tell them they’re fake. Tell them they’re not being real. Make them believe their life is a lie. Demand the truth and make it entirely inaccessible for those upon whom you’ve placed the demand. Get them to perform truth and watch as it entirely falls apart because how can it not? Get them to believe that you are the judge of what is true and what is not, that you are the connoisseur of truth, and they will contort themselves in an attempt to live up to an ideal of the authentic self that doesn’t exist because you have no ideals and don’t recognize the ideals of others.
Believe everyone is a fake because that will mitigate the pain of your falseness, the ridiculousness of your pretense. Just don’t believe truth.
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Criterion Collection has released a new edition of John Cassavetes’s difficult and beguiling film, Husbands. The edition comes with several extras: audio commentary by critic Marshall Fine, interviews with producer Al Rubin and actor Jenny Runacre, a piece examining Cassavetes on acting, a half-hour documentary on the making of Husbands, and the episode of The Dick Cavett Show featuring John Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, and Peter Falk as guests.
That last special feature is particularly revealing. The three actors show up to set phenomenally drunk and determined to bully Cavett remorselessly. Apparently, they had initially decided to simply not answer any questions but that soon breaks down into acts of clownery and boorishness that rival anything in the film itself. Cavett is reasonably flustered and the actors come off rather poorly. It seems like a stunt that went embarrassingly wrong and it demonstrates the dangers of inhabiting characters who come increasingly to resemble the more worrisome parts of the self.