Husbands: Comedy With Quotation Marks
by Erix Antoine
The title card of Husbands refers to it as “a comedy about life, death and freedom.” What is particularly interesting is what that reveals about John Cassavetes and his approach to comedy. He might have a keener understanding of human comedy than many filmmakers, and all the humor present in Husbands arises from character motivation and reaction, as opposed to situation or plotting. That’s why most people will forget it’s supposed to be a comedy and very few people are likely to find it funny. It’s fascinating how Cassavetes refuses to allow his film to fall into any traditional parameters, even at the expense of the film itself.
The fact is, Husbands did begin life as a comedy in the traditional sense. The screenplay Cassavetes wrote was reportedly a very funny piece. He secured financing for it and gained the interest of a Hollywood studio – Columbia Pictures – on the strength of pitching the film as a comedy.
I can certainly imagine this same premise being the basis for a goofy comedy from Adam Sandler’s production company. After their best friend dies of a heart attack, three middle-aged married men – Gus, Harry and Archie (Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk respectively) – decide to impulsively go to London for a weekend of soul searching and debauchery. In Cassavetes’ hands, however, it sets the stage for a very personal catharsis about mortality and the emasculation felt by Depression era babies at the dawn of the Women’s Lib movement.
Furthermore, the premise I outlined is not how the film begins. It takes approximately one hour, of its 142-minute running time, to get the three men to London. The first hour of the film is a rather meandering series of events starting with the funeral, moving on to a drunken evening at a bar and climaxing with a violent domestic dispute between Harry and his wife.
I would like to focus now on that first hour. It is a very singular piece of filmmaking, which finds Cassavetes at his most personal and self-indulgent. It is also the key to understanding exactly what his goal with the film always was, versus what the studio expected, and why that flies in the face of most conventions, leading to the film being widely misunderstood and unappreciated.
The film begins with a series of grainy snapshots focusing on four men (three of them the aforementioned stars of the film) having good times with their families at several outdoor summer parties, surrounded by wives and children. The four men are always together and the main focus of the pictures is always those four men. Then, the film begins proper as three of those men are at a funeral for the fourth man.
I don’t know if I can stress how wonderful the economy of that storytelling is. There is no need for lengthy introductions or setups. Within the space of 2 minutes we know all we need to know. There hasn’t been one clear line of dialog spoken and none of the characters have even been properly introduced. But we know there once were four inseparable friends and now there are only three. Soon we find those three in the back of a taxi, complaining that they didn’t enjoy the funeral service…
Jump cut to the three of them exiting a bar in the middle of the night, clearly having had one drink too many.
This is very economic storytelling. That whole sequence, from the snapshots to the leaving of the bar, takes less than ten minutes. And it would be all the setup needed and expected in a mainstream film. After what I’ve described, the proverbial Adam Sandler comedy version of this piece would maybe show the three men packing their bags and heading to London. Much slapstick and scatological humor would follow.
That doesn’t happen here, of course. But I’m pointing out the economy in these early scenes to illustrate that John Cassavetes is perfectly capable of being succinct and economic. He’s able to “cut to the chase” as in any other film. My point being, clearly, that he doesn’t want to. What Cassavetes spends the next hour doing is showing us just how profoundly that loss has affected these three men. That’s his main area of interest and what the film’s true purpose is. He sold his Italian financiers and Columbia Pictures a comedy about three guys out on the town. But what he really wanted to make was an exploration of middle-aged anxiety and emasculation when faced with the reality of your own mortality.
It’s possible, however, that some viewers may miss that. Because at no point does anyone ever specifically talk about any of these things. We are asked to read between the lines. Viewers accustomed to tidy, mainstream filmmaking hate to do that, which is why this first hour tends to irritate most people. The centerpiece of the hour is a lengthy sequence that takes place at a bar. This scene was largely improvised and involves a singing contest featuring the three title characters and some patrons (all the patrons were extras and day players). People take turns singing snippets of show tunes and depression-era ditties such as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”; and a lot of attention is paid to one patron in particular – a middle-aged woman trying to sing a corny, old-fashioned love song. She is continuously interrupted by Gus, Harry and Archie as they go to great lengths to criticize her singing ability and lack of passion. At one point, Archie threatens to disrobe (and almost succeeds in doing so) if she doesn’t improve her performance.
It’s an uncomfortable scene because it blurs the line between the reality of the film and the reality of its production. Most of the film was scripted, but this scene was not. It was improvised after Cassavetes was dissatisfied with the original scripted version of the bar scene. So, he re-shot it as this improvisation. With extras impulsively being asked to “act” and join in this singing contest. So, when Gus is screaming in the lady’s face: “No! That’s too cute! Where’s the passion? More passion!”, she was most likely confused as to whether that was Gus or John Cassavetes himself giving her direction.
But that quality, once again, allows for the film to feel like reality rather than a movie. These are the things that happen in bars. In real life, you don’t have specifically witty banter that reveals character detail or provides important exposition to advance the plot. People have pointless conversations that don’t lead anywhere, they break into song, they have arguments… And, after having too much to drink, head into the men’s room to throw up – an event Cassavates also chooses to dramatize in this film.
If people are irritated by the overlong singing contest sequence, it is the vomiting sequence that finally pushes them over the line into turning the movie off. Not because it is explicitly detailed. In fact, the scene as originally scripted and shot, was not about vomiting. It was shot as a series of conversations that took place in the men’s room. Cassavetes dubbed in the sounds of vomiting and farting afterwards. So, while one conversation is taking place, someone else is vomiting and passing gas in the background. It’s easy to dismiss the scene as pointlessly scatological or in poor taste. Cassavetes eventually revealed that the vomiting was the point of the scene. These men went to the bar to get drunk, so they could vomit as a reaction to their friend’s death.
Once you take that into consideration, the vomiting scene – and the whole first hour of the film in general – begins to make a lot more sense. We never see these men actually show grief in the traditional way. At no point do we see them cry over the death of their friend, they barely even mention him during the course of the entire film. Their grief process is illustrated by their actions, and by the fact that it spirals into other actions and attitudes, which reveal their deepest insecurities.
The film is called Husbands, not Husbands and Wives. An alternate title could also have been simply Men. With the exception of one key scene, we never meet any of their wives. And the film’s treatment and portrayal of women is in relation to how they are perceived by the central characters. Although some might interpret that as misogynist, they’re missing the point. The movie is about these men, so everything must be told from their point of view. They were born and raised in an era when the woman was a wife or mother and nothing else. They have no understanding of women’s liberation or sexual freedom; or any of the social revolution that was taking place at the end of the 1960s.
Consider the abuse thrown at the woman singing in the bar during the first hour of the film. Consider also that the only scene in which we meet any of their wives involves Harry and a domestic dispute that erupts into physical violence inflicted on his wife and mother-in-law. That scene in particular confuses many people because of its political incorrectness. Many people wonder if it’s supposed to be a funny scene. It certainly plays like black comedy. On the other hand, it is so raw and crude, few can laugh at it without feeling uncomfortable. None of that matters. If the scene were about the wife, it would be horrifying. But the scene is entirely about Harry. It illustrates his deep insecurity and sense of emasculation. It is there only to provide context and understanding as to why he chooses to go to London and take his friends with him.
Once in London, the men continue to psychologically and physically abuse women. But, again, this is not a story about those women. It is the story of these men and how they deal with their insecurities by venting their frustrations on people they have come to perceive as a threat.
Each man succeeds in finding a woman to take back to the hotel room.
Archie gets an Asian college student who apparently can’t speak English; and his insecurity is revealed when she becomes the aggressor during their lovemaking. He doesn’t know how to respond to this, so he becomes enraged and verbally abusive. Gus finds a statuesque blonde, much taller than himself, and can do nothing more than engage in physically trying to overpower her, while taunting her in a childish manner.
Harry, meanwhile, surrounds himself with women and reveals he has no intention of returning home. We come to understand that all he is seeking is a form, any form, of affection.
The film ends with Gus and Archie returning home to their wives, wondering what will become of their friend now that he is apparently on his own. Neither of them has experienced any sort of profound change. And the last shot of the film, in fact, is Gus walking into his house and bracing himself for the tirade he is sure to receive.
The men have dealt with their frustrations and life goes on.
If you can see the film in this way, it reveals itself as a profound statement on masculinity in that specific era. But you need to constantly be reading between the lines. And you have to find sympathy for these men to understand the message. That’s the hardest part. Because they are not portrayed in the typical Hollywood way. They are boorish, unlikable and completely real. Since the film is not engineered to make them appealing, you have to consciously decide not to judge them, but to understand them.
This brings me back to the beginning and the film’s status as a “comedy”. It is clear that Cassavetes really needed to make this film and get it out of his system. So he took advantage of the relative heat he had as the star of two blockbuster Hollywood films (Rosemary’s Baby and The Dirty Dozen) and the director of a recently released, critically acclaimed and relatively successful film (Faces). He wanted to make a movie about three men and their response to the changing mores of the time. But he couldn’t sell it that way. Better to sell it as a comedy, going as far as writing it as a comedy and actually building sets and shooting comedic scenes he knew would never appear in the film.
He allowed the film to be edited as scripted. This version was screened for Columbia Pictures. It ran just under three hours and was a stunning success with the audience that saw it. They described it as a warm, funny film that had them roaring with laughter. They gladly gave Cassavetes more money, and committed to a strong promotional budget, because they had faith it would be a solid commercial hit once released.
And maybe it would have been. But then John Cassavetes spent close to a year in the editing room, reshaping the film, removing all the “laughs,” adding farting and vomiting, etc…
Until he had the movie he wanted to make in the first place.
Many would call that foolish and reckless. What kind of person takes a film, that is almost certain to be a commercial success, and deliberately sabotages it to such an extreme? Watching Husbands in that context reveals Cassavetes as an uncompromising artist, committed to expressing his voice in a very specific way. I consider that courageous and, even though I’ll admit the comedic version of Husbands might have been a more enjoyable film, I don’t think it would be as admirable.
I find bravery to be a more admirable quality than conformity.