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Cassavetes & Newman: Hollywood Stars, Art Cinema Auteurs

March 11, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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As actors, John Cassavetes and Paul Newman worked within the Hollywood studio system. Cassavetes starred mostly in miliary movies, while Newman was one of the biggest stars in the world with hits such as Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. While both of them were prevalent on the multiplex screens, they were much different behind the camera. As directors, they veered into unfamiliar territory, creating films more in line with the auteur theory that wasn't present in the movies they starred in. Through the films Faces and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, both Cassavetes and Newman created films one would consider part of the arthouse crowd.

In his essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice," David Bordwell writes that arthouse films are “a distinct mode of film practice, possessing a definite historical existence, a set of formal conventions, and implicit viewing procedures.” Hearing the word “convention” when describing arthouse cinema sounds like an oxymoron as everything within this specific industry is meant to be in contrast to the usual conventions within Hollywood. But every movement and genre has to have rules, whether written or unwritten. These rules can be seen in both Cassavettes’ and Newman’s films. Bordwell writes that the narratives within art cinema pride themselves on two things: realism and authorial expressivity. Life is to be shown as realistically as possible, with real locations and problems.

In Faces, shot in grainy 16mm, Cassavetes makes it seem as if the viewer is a fly-on-the-wall as we watch a marriage decay. There is no gloss and the music doesn’t swell our emotions, instead, we are bombarded with closeups and technical inconsistencies. It’s the cinéma vérité style commonly found within Europe at the time. Cassavetes’ camera doesn’t glamorize American life, it shines a light on the reality of middle-class suburban life. Richard and Maria fight about their sexual desires and their discontent for one another. Instead of finding solace in each other, they find it in the bottle and strangers. It’s highly unconventional for the time and way ahead of anything that was coming shortly.

Like Faces, Marigolds is filled with imperfect characters stuck in a realistically depressing situation. Beatrice has aspirations, but she doesn’t have the means to accomplish them. She’s also an embarrassment to her daughters and is an alcoholic. But the story isn’t about her, it’s actually about Matilda coming to terms with her downtrodden life. She and her mother are determined to push past their social convention offenses.

Newman doesn’t treat the situation as misery porn, he simply follows the story. He’s connecting his audience, who most likely share the same circumstances, with the characters. Like Cassavetes, Newman’s visual style is pulled back, never reveling in the situation and the performances are also more reflective of the characters you would see on your street block.

With both Faces and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, John Cassavetes and Paul Newman pushed back against the Hollywood system they had inhabited for many years. Through technical and thematic intrusiveness, they were able to tell real stories for real people, something the big machine out in California simply didn’t want to do.

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