Despite only appearing in 5 films and dying 8 years before I was born, John Cazale is one of my favorite actors. You might not recognize his name but, if you love the films of the 70s, you know who John Cazale is because he appeared in some of the most iconic films of the decade. Though he’s probably best known for playing poor Fredo in first two Godfather films, Cazale also appeared in The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. All five of his films were Oscar-nominated for best picture and three of them won. All five are, in their own individual ways, classics of modern cinema and, though he was never more than a supporting player, Cazale gave performances of such unexpected emotional depth that he elevated each of these films just by his very presence. Tragically, Cazale died at the age of 42 of lung cancer. At the time, he had just finished filming The Deer Hunter and he was engaged to marry an up-and-coming actress named Meryl Streep.
I Knew It Was You is a documentary that both attempts to tell the story of Cazale’s life as well as pay tribute to him an actor. While it fails somewhat to do the former, it succeeds flawlessly as a tribute. The film is filled with footage of Cazale’s legendary performances and watching these clips, you’re struck by not only Cazale’s talent but his courage as well. As more than one person comments during the documentary, it takes a lot of guts to so completely inhabit a role like The Godfather’s Fredo Corleone. While other actors might be tempted to overplay a character like Fredo (essentially winking at the audience as if to say, “I’m not a weakling like this guy,”) Cazale was willing to completely inhabit his characters, brining to life both the good and the bad of their personalities. Watching the clips, you realize that Cazale, as an actor, really was becoming stronger and stronger with each performance. On a sadder note, this documentary make it painfully obvious just how sick Cazale was in The Deer Hunter. The contrast between the nervous, lumbering Cazale of Dog Day Hunter and his gaunt, unbearably sad appearance in The Deer Hunter is simply heart breaking.
The documentary is full of interviews with actors and directors who either worked with or were inspired by John Cazale and you’re immediately struck by the affection that they all still obviously feel for him even 30 years after his death. Among those interviewed are Steve Buscemi, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Sam Rockwell, and Richard Dreyfuss. (I thought I knew every bit of Godfather trivia but I learned something new from this film when I found out that Richard Dreyfuss came close to being Fredo before Coppola saw Cazale in a play.) Perhaps most interesting are the interviews where actors like Pacino, De Niro, and Gene Hackman talk about how acting opposite John Cazale caused them to give better performances than they might have otherwise. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that a classic film is, more often than not, a collaborative effort.
Where this documentary drops the ball is in detailing who Cazale was as a person. Though everyone’s affection for him is obvious, we learn little about what drove the man who was so sad and tragic as Fredo Corleone. Cazale’s upbringing is covered in about 2 minutes of flashy graphics and his untimely death (and his struggle to complete his Deer Hunter role) is also covered a bit too quickly. There’s a fascinating and inspiring story there but this documentary only hints at it. For reasons I still can’t figure out, this thing only lasts 40 minutes. Even just an extra 15 minutes would have been helpful.
Hollywood director Brett Ratner is also interviewed and I imagine this probably has something to do with the fact that Ratner co-produced this documentary. So, I guess Ratner is a Cazale fan and good for him but it’s still kinda jarring to see him there with directors like Lumet and actors like Pacino and De Niro. Ratner, to be honest, is the only one of the people interviewed who actually comes across as having nothing of value to say. Which isn’t all that surprising when you consider that Ratner is pretty much the golden child of bland, mainstream filmmaking right now.
Still, even if it never reaches the heights of Werner’s Herzog’s My Best Fiend, I still have to recommend I Knew It Was You as a touching tribute to a truly great actor. As a bonus, the DVD contains two short films featuring a very young and intense John Cazale. Watching him, you can’t help but mourn that he wasn’t in more movies but you’re so thankful for the legendary performances that he was able to give us.