Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Olympia Dukakis, Carol Kane, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, John Savage, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Israel Horovitz, Fred Roos, Steve Cazale, Robin Goodman, Mark Harris, Marvin Starkman, Brett Ratner
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Richard Shepard
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 39
Date: 01/16/2009
IMDB

I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (2010)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Banana Daiquiris

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Just take a look at the cast list for this documentary: Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Olympia Dukakis, Carol Kane, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, and Sam Rockwell, plus directors Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet. What got them all to turn out for this documentary? They all wanted to talk about John Cazale, who died in 1978 at the age of 42, and may have been one of the cinema's greatest actors.

Cazale only made five films, but despite the fact that those five films are The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Deer Hunter (1978), he's still not very well known today. He's mostly an actor's actor, appreciated by those who study him and worked alongside him. Pacino in particular says he learned more from Cazale than from anyone else. This documentary from the unsung American director Richard Shepard (Oxygen, The Matador, The Hunting Party) tries to bring a little attention back to this national treasure.

It begins with one of those TV talk show-type things: Shepard goes out into the street with a video camera. He flashes a famous still of the Corleones from The Godfather to people on the street and asks if anyone knows the name of the guy who is standing next to Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and James Caan. No one does. From there, Shepard mostly concentrates on clips from those five films -- as well as some TV footage and bits from some short films -- to illustrate Cazale's genius. We see the clips, and then Cazale's colleagues and fans describe what happened behind the scenes, or why Cazale's particular approach worked. They all talk about his eyes, how they could convey hurt, and how he was unafraid to portray weak characters, like his infamous Fredo Corleone, without fear of being seen as weak himself.

The heart of the film comes after Dog Day Afternoon; according to stories, Cazale began working on a Shakespeare in the park production and fell in love with his leading lady. He told Pacino that she was the greatest actress in the world, and he was right: she was Meryl Streep. I had no idea, but these two had a passionate and true love affair, up to the point that Streep stayed by his side on his deathbed. Shepard cannily lets others tell this story, and carefully intercuts with Streep as she downplays it. She's smiling and fondly remembering her friend, but it's easy to read the depths of her feelings.

This is an extraordinary work; it runs just under 40 minutes, but the devotion, adoration, love and joy expressed here is clear and true. And, of course, it makes you want to watch (or re-watch) all five of those films again. The documentary premiered last summer on HBO. Now Oscilloscope has released a DVD, complete with a commentary track by Shepard, extended interviews with Pacino and playwright Israel Horovitz (Author! Author!), and a pair of old short films starring Cazale.