John Cassavetes & Paul Newman: Hollywood Stars, Art Cinema Auteurs
As actors, John Cassavetes and Paul Newman worked within the Hollywood studio
system. Cassavetes starred mostly in military 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.