Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 11 June 2009
Source HBO Documentary Films Print
Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston
Explaining to people that my favorite of the films I saw at IFFB this year might well have been a documentary short has tended to raise eyebrows on its own (hey, it’s their bias, not mine), but explaining that the documentary is about John Cazale has complicated things further. Mention the name of John Cazale, the remarkable actor best known for playing Fredo in the first two Godfather films, and too often you will be greeted with a deflating, “Who?” Early on in I Knew it Was You, passersby are stopped, “Jay Walking”-style, and asked to identify Cazale from a photograph. Most of them come up with the name “Fredo.”One gentleman, when pressed to come up with the name of the actor rather than his most famous character, simply insists, “His name is Fredo.”
The need for a documentary like this one, which was directed by Richard Shepard and features interviews with Cazale’s family as well as those who worked with him and those he inspired, is quickly apparent. Cazale did much of his work on the stage and only appeared in five features before his untimely death in 1978, but as cinematic CVs go, his is impeccable: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter were all Best Picture nominees in their respective years and continue to command the highest regard today. (A thumb-through of the latest edition of 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die indeed reveals that the book’s readers are being implored to watch Cazale’s entire filmography before they expire.) But the point of the film is not simply that Cazale was a part of a slew great films: it emphasizes that Cazale’s presence was an integral component of what made those films great.
Interviews with Cazale’s contemporaries - Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep among them - reveal that Cazale pushed them to be better, while modern day character actors including Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Sam Rockwell are able to discuss the minutiae of Cazale’s performances, their recollections peppered with relevant clips that left me wanting to do nothing so much as curl up with my DVD player and a copy of Dog Day Afternoon. Cazale had a rare gift for laying bare his characters’ vulnerabilities with little more than the right facial expression, and the honesty that he brought to characters like poor, beleaguered Fredo made them heartbreaking and strangely endearing. It’s Rockwell who argues that, “Every young actor is going to want to play Sonny or Michael”when presented with The Godfather, but Cazale’s scared, flawed Fredo is indispensable to the film: he’s just so recognizably human.
Yet while I Knew it Was You works as a wonderful career retrospective for fans or a great primer for newcomers, the real power of the piece lies in the juxtaposition of the highlights of Cazale’s career with the warm remembrances of his friends and the biographical facts of his life. Cazale died of lung cancer, and had already been diagnosed when he was cast in The Deer Hunter. When the studio wouldn’t insure Cazale, De Niro, chose to pay out of his own pocket; such was the dedication that the actor inspired. Streep, who was in a relationship with Cazale and stayed with him until his death, and Cazale’s brother, Steve, provide some of the most moving recollections of the actor. (Steve Cazale was in attendance at the IFFB screening and took some questions after the film. He compared the experience of seeing The Deer Hunter after his brother’s passing to the emotional equivalent of being “put through a mix master.”) Yet while I Knew it Was You is inevitably sad, it is also celebratory and strangely uplifting. One ultimately leaves feeling grateful that Cazale was able to make so much of his talent in such a short time—not mention ready to dig into Cazale’s films all over again.
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