Accidental Genius

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

The career of actor/director John Cassavetes began in the last days of the Hollywood studio systemwhen television was just beginningand continued right up to the end of the 1980’s, when American “indie” films and film festivalsmost inspired at least in part by Cassavetes’ workcaptured the wide public imagination. Marshall Fine’s absorbing biography Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film traces this career chronologically, focusing on the aspects of Cassavetes’ personality that fed his eccentric yet astoundingly productive work habits.

Fine explores Cassavetes’ obsessive, intuitive, aggressive, and highly collaborative creative method and how it generated the raw creative energy that audiences and critics often perceive in his films. The Cassavetes that emerges from Fine’s pages was willfully individual, impatient and impulsive, and aggressive both physically and psychologically. Cassavetes was first and always an actor, utterly biased in favor of acting as the heart of theater and film, and he believed that film should showcase human emotion with as little interference as possible. He felt the job of a director was to give the actors something meaningful to do and then either motivate them to do it or get out of their way.

Most important for Fine, Cassavetes encouraged creativity in everyone he knew, asserting an artistic credo in which individual expression mattered most and no obstaclewhether cultural or financialwas insurmountable. Cassavetes’ enthusiasm for others’ art endeared him tremendously to his colleagues and to young filmmakers. Martin Scorsese credits Cassavetes’ enthusiasm after screening Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1968)Cassavetes told him it was “better than Citizen Kane!”for giving him a needed boost of confidence as a young director when his technical skills were not quite sufficient to express everything he wanted to say. Legendary African American actress Ruby Dee worked with Cassavetes on Edge of the City (1957) and Virgin Island (1958) in the late 1950’s when the Hollywood system still excluded black actors and relegated them to servant roles. Dee remembers Cassavetes giving her her first movie camera and encouraging her to make her own movies: “He saw a capacity in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

This inspirational Cassavetes, who valued spontaneity and genuine emotion over technique and was the original DIY (do it yourself) filmmaker, dominates the book. Concerned that this motivating example might fade with time, Fine states that his purpose is to ensure that mainstream audiences and future generations of filmmakers understand Cassavetes’ contribution to American film.

Accidental Genius is not an intimate biography, if intimacy is defined as the minute or emotional details of the subject’s personal, family, and psychological life. Except for the first few brief chapters, which describe the immigrant origins of Cassavetes’ parents, Katherine and Nicholas Cassavetes, his failure at school, and his marriage, Fine barely discusses Cassavetes’ personal life at all. Cassavetes did not want a biography, and his wife and children do not discuss him with biographers.

The book is nonetheless strikingly intimate in that its perspective is entirely shaped by people who knew Cassavetes for many years, as a friend as well as a colleague. Although Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands, did not discuss her husband with Fine, she gave her friends permission to talk to him, and this access to the Cassavetes inner circle gives this biography the feel of an “official” record of the memories of Cassavetes’ friends and colleaguesabout their friend and about what it was like to work with him.

Yet Fine’s purpose was not merely to document these memories, and a strong sense of Cassavetes the person emerges from the professional descriptions, as he was clearly a man whose work dominated his personal life. Fine depicts him as having very little interest in and few emotions about anything...

(The entire section is 1674 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 7 (December 1, 2005): 12.

Entertainment Weekly, no. 869 (March 24, 2006): 74.

Film Comment 42, no. 2 (March/April, 2006): 77.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (January 29, 2006): 7.

The Wall Street Journal 247, no. 51 (March 3, 2006): W6.