Pancreatic cancer took the life of Ben Gazzara on February 3, 2012. Over the course of the bulk of his 81 years, Gazzara proved himself one of the most dependable and versatile actors of his era. Although he never achieved great fame, he was recognizable to anyone who went to the movies or watched TV during the 1960s and 1970s. Gazzara regularly worked both before and after that peak of his career and along the way made appearances in a number of memorable films.
Anatomy of a Murder
Gazzara’s physical appearance matched with his personality perfectly to make him ideal for casting in tough roles. “Anatomy of a Murder” offered Gazzara his big chance to make an impact when he was cast in the role of Lt. Frederick Manion. This courtroom drama not only was a big break due to the all star cast surrounding him that included Jimmy Stewart and Eve Arden, but it attracted great attention due to some its controversially open sexuality.
Ben Gazzara starred in a number of low-budget films directed by John Cassavetes that inspired most of the American New Wave of directors who took over the world of Hollywood cinema in the 1970s. “Husbands” teamed Gazzara with fellow Cassavetes ensemble regular Peter Falk to make a highly improvisational, loosely structured and bitterly authentic film about the soul sucking purposelessness of suburban existence.
A lot of movies have been made about Al Capone and this one may be the least authentic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its virtues. Chief among those positive aspects is the performance of Ben Gazzara. To be absolutely truthful, Gazzara doesn’t seem to be very much like the Chicago mobster regularly portrayed in biographical material. That lapse doesn’t really matter, however, because taken on its own terms, this is a really fun performance. Gazzara carried with him a natural sort of tough guy quality that Capone probably shared. Try not to take “Capone” as even an attempt at a biopic and just enjoy it as a great fictional gangster flick.
Some consider “Saint Jack” to be the film in which Ben Gazzara delivered his finest performance. As is usually the case in movies in which Gazzara excelled, this Peter Bogdanovich offering is less concerned with plot than character. “Saint Jack” is most often referred to as a character study, in fact. Gazzara slides into the somewhat atypical role of a war hero working as a hustler in Singapore. What is most interesting about the film is how it starts out by showing how Jack went from hero in the Korean War to very successful pimp. The movie turns on the chance for Jack to make a big haul by getting involved in a political scandal, but confounds expectations through sly revelations that Jack is maybe not as immoral and discharged from his heroic qualities as his post-war existence might lead you to believe. While this is meat of the story, it is really through Gazzara’s carefully nuanced performance that Jack’s quasi-saintly core is revealed.