I am well known for not being an enormous fan of Classic ’70s Film. It is, and I’m being brutally honest here, a Guy Film Era. Still, even I will acknowledge that there are some amazing films that were released that decade. If you were going to list, you’d probably go with The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, of course. Dog Day Afternoon. The Conversation. The Deer Hunter. Maybe a few others, but any list would include those. And what all five have in common is a performance by John Cazale. He did some stage work, and he has a single TV credit on a show called N.Y.P.D., and that is all we have of John Cazale. But it’s better than we have from a lot of other people!
Al Pacino has said that he could’ve worked with Cazale the rest of his career, that Cazale was his acting partner. They first met while working as messengers at Standard Oil and were soon being cast together. They made three of Cazale’s movies together, and I strongly suspect that, if you were to ask Al Pacino today, he’d still say he misses working with him. How not? Not only are they three of Pacino’s most critically acclaimed movies, by all accounts Cazale was a genuinely nice guy, the kind you would still miss after decades.
It is also, my own prejudices aside, a place where I can really feel sorry for Meryl Streep. She and Cazale were in a relationship together. She was one of the people who worked to ensure that he would be cast in The Deer Hunter despite his illness, giving him one final performance for the ages. She said about five years ago that she’d never gotten over his death, despite having married shortly afterward and remained married since. I mean, I don’t expect her to remain true to his memory forever, but I do acknowledge that for her to say she’d never gotten over it doesn’t entirely surprise me. How do you get over losing someone like that?
He was never the lead, but he was never not remarkable, either. It was a series of powerful performances in service of other great performances. This is perhaps why he never got an Oscar nomination, though frankly he should’ve been nominated over a few of the others who got Supporting Actor nominations for the first two Godfather movies. (Each movie had three nominees in the category; Joel Grey in Cabaret beat James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Pacino for the first one; Robert De Niro beat Michael V. Gazzo and Lee Strasberg for the second one.) It’s hard to argue with a Chris Sarandon nomination for Dog Day Afternoon or Christopher Walken win for The Deer Hunter, and The Conversation mostly got shut out by being the same year as The Godfather Part II, but it’s enough to wish he’d had one more movie to be nominated for.
I mean, technically, there was. Footage of Fredo Corleone appears in The Godfather Part III. I don’t remember the context, but it’s considered that every movie in which Cazale appeared was nominated for or won Best Picture. It’s an amazing career. I’d like to believe that he could have kept going with it, had he not gotten lung cancer that then metastasized to his bones. He was extremely ill during the making of The Deer Hunter, and they initially didn’t want to cast him. His castmates fought for his casting, and it is to all of our credits that they did.