If you want a divisive film, look no further than Husbands, released on Criterion Blu-ray from June 9th. On it’s release in 1970, John Cassavetes drama polarised critics and audiences alike. Jay Cocks of Time magazine described it as “one of the best movies anyone will ever see. It is certainly the best movie anyone will ever live through”, adding that it was “Cassavetes’ finest work”. Over at the Chicago Sun-Times however, Roger Ebert was deeply critical of the film, citing the improvised nature of the piece as especially problematic; “There are long passages of dialogue in which the actors seem to be trying to think of something to say”. Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune placed it in his top 10 of 1970, but the Cleveland Press‘ Tony Mastroianni lambasted it as a “big-budget home movie” featuring “three actors trying to upstage each other”. Even today, Husbands garners as many brickbats as it does bouquets, but my own favourite retrospective review comes from Philip French’s 2012 piece for The Observer in which the much-missed critic finds that Cassavetes film is “highly uneven, painfully drawn-out, deeply sincere, wildly misogynistic and at times agonisingly tedious” before adding that “It is also intermittently brilliant, with moments of piercing honesty”.
In fact, French pretty much nails what I want to say about Husbands, a sprawling and boorish, freewheeling exploration of the masculinity and midlife crises of its three central protagonists – the husbands of the title, though the wives are notably conspicuous by their absence – following the premature death of a close friend. But stick with me, as I’m going to try and compare Cassavetes as a filmmaker with the stand up of my favourite comedian, Stewart Lee. I know, it’s the kind of hot take you guys come here for all the time, right?
No one can deny that Husbands is a long movie. It’s actually a slog if we’re being honest. Even one of its stars, Ben Gazzara, said that it may sometimes feel longer than it actually is during an infamous appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, in which he, Cassavetes and fellow co-star Peter Falk were unmistakably inebriated and determined to avoid all lines of questioning from the beleaguered talk show host (this epic moment of car crash TV is included as an extra on the disc). In Husbands, Cassavetes takes scenes to breaking point and just keeps going, seemingly immune, oblivious or just downright contemptuous towards his audience. In reality, however, he’s treating his audience with respect. He knew that most cinemagoers are treated as if they have the attention span of your average goldfish, and here he’s trying – in his own way – to alter that and nourish the audience’s minds as a result. It’s a challenge he not only sets for the audience but for himself too. He knew that some would walk away from it, but he also knew that some would go on the journey with him. One sequence relatively early on in the film comes to mind when considering this gamble. Our three leads find themselves in a bar, whereupon they encourage their fellow patrons to give them a song. At one point, they each hone in on one particular singer, a woman, and it is here that the obnoxious and misogynistic traits of each man truly comes to the fore, as they repeatedly instruct her to go back to the start of the song and perform it with real heart. The woman is perpetually bemused by their instruction, wilting vulnerably under their criticism and demands, but she persists nonetheless.
This is a sequence that is certainly very hard to watch. For a start, it’s still relatively early enough in the film to occur before we have a true handle on the protagonists, and it does not paint the three men we’re going to be spending the next two+hours in a particularly good light. Not only that, but it repeatedly edges upon the insufferable. It is not enjoyable to see Cassavetes, Falk and Gazzara play with this woman like a trio of cats with a cornered, timid mouse and you just want the scene to move on. You get that these can be men who are deeply unsympathetic within just a few minutes, but the sequence continues. And continues. It continues until it becomes tedious and insufferable and until you are screaming for the respite. But Cassavetes isn’t prepared to give it to you, primarily because this sequence says a lot about each man’s character; their boorish, booze-fuelled camaraderie which effectively blots out the self-loathing regression at their core. And it is only when you push past a certain point, that the sequence becomes curiously fascinating again. But Cassavetes has made you work for that.
As a stand up comic, Stewart Lee has a similar tactic. Having seen Lee several times live now, he’s a master at controlling an audience. He has enough faith in both his material and the punters to push the barriers of the medium he is working in, willingly stretching a joke to beyond breaking point, losing portions of the room and then somehow, almost miraculously, bringing back on side. It’s a trademark evinced many times in Lee’s career, most recently in a sequence from his gargantuan tour Content Provider (later televised) in which he mimics a joyously inane hipster’s constant use of his iPhone by slapping his hands together with the most remarkably fixed rictus grin plastered across his features for several minutes, not even pausing to stop when his trousers fall down. Indeed, the key is in those keks. Prior to that point, you wonder if the joke had passed its zenith, becoming as exhausting to watch as it no doubt must be to perform. Then, the jeans slip down to reveal lime green Y-fronts and the gag becomes hilarious again. It’s hilarious, but Lee has made you work for it. Both he and Cassavetes are artists who work in their chosen medium yet refuse to comply with the limited barriers and constraints they believe it presents them.
I wish I could say that I enjoyed Husbands as much as I enjoy Lee’s stand up, but I would be lying if I did. Cassavetes’ aim to depict male behaviour, warts and all, in the face of a sudden appreciation of mortality, is unmistakably personal (his own older brother died aged just thirty, and the film is arguably an example of Cassavetes exercising his demons regarding that bereavement) and unmistakably confrontational. These are three men at their lowest, searching elusively for their youth in bars, casinos and hotel rooms in both New York and London. Their behaviour is often ugly, inarticulate and self-indulgent, but you’d be wrong to mistake these qualities as the qualities of the film itself – a mistake I do think some critics made. There’s nothing self-indulgent about Cassavetes’ unique filmmaking style, nor is Husbands ugly or inarticulate. It’s a common misconception to believe Cassavetes allowed actors to improvise their dialogue for his films, but in reality (much like the technique of Mike Leigh, in fact), the film itself only arises from improvisational workshops. There is a script and the actors are always working from it, but how they choose to interpret the dialogue and their characters appear to be up to them. It’s uncomfortable to watch this grotesque machismo, this damaging and repulsive cloak of manhood, and of what it is to be (a certain type of) man, but then so it should be. Any film that attempts (and succeeds) to lay siege upon toxic masculinity, to hold up to the spotlight and with withering contempt, each character’s juvenile and selfish refusal to consider things with maturity, introspection and self-analysis is rightly bound to be provocative and unsightly.
Whether you like the film or not, it is clear from Husbands that Cassavetes was a unique voice. As an actor himself, he knew how to get the best from his fellow cast which means we are witness to some incredible performances, not just from the three leads but also, in the London segment, an eye-catchingly neurotic turn from Jenny Runacre. Husbands looks like no other film from 1970 either and I suspect that it’s not just the crisp, Blu-ray transfer that makes Husbands look fresh and contemporary in ways that other fifty-year-old films simply do not. There’s a refusal here on Cassavetes part to operate within the parameters of the day. This is a film that is imbued with a sense of accuracy and realism away from the larger than life cinematic depiction of the world. It’s telling for example that when Cassavetes, Falk and Gazzara’s characters touch down in London, we are not witness to some cliched depiction of ‘Swinging London’, as so many films of the day insisted on presenting, even in 1970 and long after the pendulum stopped swinging. It would be easy for these middle-aged and married, overgrown schoolboys to hit the King’s Road and Carnaby Street, trying to chase a hip and happening party that arguably never really existed, but instead, Cassavetes has them hit the timeless ‘underworld’ of a gambling den; a terrain that the cigar-chomping, back-slapping characters are much more familiar and comfortable in. And, whilst, they will later successfully manage to tempt three considerably younger ‘dolly birds’ (including Runacre) back to their hotel suite, it’s amusing to see Falk attempt to chat up both a plummy matron arguably more at home at a local Tory party whist drive than a casino (Gazzara later plays host to a similar twin-set and pearls specimen in his final scene), and an absolute grotesquely painted gargoyle of a woman whose provocative sexuality ultimately terrifies him, reverting him back to the little boy he arguably is.
So yes, Husbands remains hard going and divisive, but I do not believe for one second that Husbands was a failure – Cassavetes absolutely made the film that he wanted to make. This Blu-ray package presents some solid extras including interviews with Jenny Runacre and producer Al Ruban, a retrospective documentary looking back at the making of the film, featuring contributions from Ben Gazzara in 2008 and, as I mentioned earlier, that notorious edition of The Dick Cavett Show in full. I can’t help but wonder if some of the scorn Husbands got on its release was considered payback for the boys…well, being boys here. Watching it back, one suspects they hadn’t fully shed their characters at that point.
Also, take a tip from me and look out for the way Peter Falk pronounces badminton. He says it like “Bad mitten” as if it’s a particularly crappy glove and I genuinely had to pause the film until my laughter abated.