At long last, Criterion has released its version of Husbands (1970), continuing its tradition of putting out the finest films directed and written by John Cassavetes, the ground-breaking independent artist. It will be a chance to see a truly unforgettable film, properly restored.
Previously, if you’d seen Husbands, you couldn’t be absolutely sure if you were watching a version that had only been partially restored, or, worse, had scenes surreptitiously edited or cut to make the film more audience-friendly. Even with proper research, you’d have had to settle for what version was available at the time.
Although I had, at best, a fairly limited knowledge of all of the controversy surrounding Husbands, my first viewing was a crucial moment that would lead, a ways down the road, to my publishing articles on film.
I rented Husbands from Liberty Hall in Lawrence, KS for my nightly reprieve from working on an English doctorate at the University of Kansas. After keeping up, somewhat, with the wild adventures of three middle-aged men, Gus (John Cassavetes), Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Archie (Peter Falk), who are grieving the death of their best friend, I was shocked when the film just stopped. I saw Gus return home, walk to the door of his suburban home, and then—a black screen.
The next day I returned the film to Liberty Hall, and said it was defective. I recall being told, at some point, that the film, upon review, passed inspection.
That was the first of the mysteries that compelled me to watch Husbands over and over again. The second mystery was that I couldn’t seem to ever arrive at a definitive conclusion about how I felt about these men. One minute they looked like heroes, the next, like fools.
Well, the first mystery was easy enough to solve. Cassavetes simply had reached the contractually-stated running time. The second mystery was much harder to solve, and it has become a quest that I’ve been on ever since. If I were asked, I’d say Husbands was my all-time favorite film, because it’s the most intriguing film I’ve ever seen.
Now, I don’t mean in a strictly logical sense. Any number of films have far more complicated plots. What’s intriguing about Husbands is the refusal to provide any answers for why the men act the way they do. And Cassavetes knew that was what made the film worth making and watching. It was, he’d argue, as close as you could get to what life looks like.
His directing Husbands fully supported this argument. He told Noelle Kao, who plays the young woman whom Archie picks up in London, “This is not love or a relationship that men and women have in a movie—but in real life.” Cassavetes also would not answer any questions Falk had about how to play a scene. Then he conspired with Falk to make Gazzara feel like the odd man out in their real-life friendship, which mirrored the way that Gus and Archie treat Harry.
Still it felt, in many ways, that Cassavetes was going with the flow in Hollywood. In the late 60s, Cassavetes was a hot property. He’d made Faces (1968), a brutally-forceful portrait of a marriage in free fall, which got rave reviews. Husbands was inspired by Cassavetes’s working through the sudden and inexplicable death of his older brother at the age of 30. The version of the film shown in the first test screening focused on Harry’s taking his best friend’s death as a sign to run off to London to find himself, accompanied by Gus and Archie.
The test screening was a huge success. There was immediate buzz that Gazzara’s acting that complimented the film’s lightly comedic tone was Oscar-worthy. Afterwards, however, Cassavetes turned to Falk, and said, “Remember that version, because you’re never going to see it again.” Making what would be a very controversial decision, Cassavetes would completely recut the film. He thought the film came across as too entertaining of a depiction of three desperate men.
In hindsight, it can be argued that it was one of Cassavetes’s typically insightful artistic moves. Looking at the lighter side of male mid-life crises would become a cliché. Cassavetes avoided this trap before most had even the slightest premonition of the danger. But it was also one of his typically questionable financial decisions. What, for the suits at Columbia, had looked like a sure thing that they were eager to support, turned into an act of betrayal by a reckless director.
Cassavetes set off to find what he was looking for in the editing room. The release date kept getting pushed back. He experimented with different versions that focused on Gus or Archie, rather than Harry (which pissed off Gazzara). To make the film hit harder, he wanted to make sure that the awful things the men did couldn’t be passed off as comic relief.
Now the film had no emotional handrails. Just as Cassavetes made Falk decide how to be Archie, he forced the audience to decide if a scene was, or was meant to be, funny. The focus was not on Gus, Archie, or Harry; it was on their complex relationship, which emerged in their bullying a woman to perform a song better during a singing contest at a bar and, in the aftermath–that would really provoke the audience, their vomiting in the bathroom.
The buzz built about the test screening of the re-cut version. Predictably, the audience, including the Columbia suits, was confused, if not exasperated, by what they saw. One guy in the Q and A session tried to turn it back on Cassavetes by asking him if the three men were Cassavetes, Gazzara, and Falk’s way of showing their blatant contempt for American middle-class values. Cassavetes bluntly replied that they were the three men; the film was anything but a put-on.
That screening sealed—for a rather long time—the fate of Husbands. Against Cassavetes’s wishes, Columbia would put out its own re-cut versions of the film.
You could rightfully guess that a film that got this response would not be treated kindly by most critics, who also couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Cassavetes had dared to dive into the emotional insecurity of the three men in all of its messiness, at precisely the moment when it came across as an unsettling celebration of impulsive male behavior.
One person who did seem to get what Cassavetes was trying to show in the corrosive effects of social role playing (inherent in the men being “husbands”) was the outspoken feminist leader, Betty Friedan. She wrote, “Husbands, a movie made by men about men’s love for other men, is the strongest statement of the case for women’s liberation I have yet seen on stage or screen.”
Marshall Fine, Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film (New York: Hyperion, 2005)
Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes (New York: Faber and Faber, 2001)