Minnie and Moskowitz: The Screwball Confession

by Erix Antoine

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The late 60s/early 70s saw the resurgence of the “youth film” in Hollywood. Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider had opened the floodgates, with its counter-culture ideology and anti-establishment chest beating. It had been a landmark film and a tremendous success with audiences. Naturally, the studios took notice and everyone was saying: “Get me one of those.”

Given his already evident distaste for the Hollywood establishment, it would seem this was the perfect moment for John Cassavetes to rise. Universal Pictures might have thought so too, because they offered him 600,000 dollars to make his “youth picture” for them. He had a script for a screwball comedy in the tradition of It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby, he claimed. A romantic picture about young people in love. It would seem to be just what the doctor ordered. He took the money and vowed to bring the film in ahead of schedule, under budget and playing by their rules.

He kept two of those promises.

Before we continue, let’s look first at the tenets of a traditional screwball comedy.

The central character tends to be an isolated male, who seeks out a female to overcome that isolation. The film’s story deals with the (sexually-charged) struggle in their relationship, wherein the female becomes the dominant character. Humor is character-driven and arises out of the aggression inherent in this struggle; and things invariably end on a happy note.

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That description can certainly be applied to Minnie and Moskowitz, as it is very much about the relationship between a lonely man-child and a dominant woman looking for love. But the sneak attack John Cassavetes executes is fascinating because, although the film is structured like a screwball comedy, it is in fact a “home movie” very much in the tradition of Faces and Husbands. It may have a lighter touch, but it is every bit as personal, perhaps more so, than those films.

Consider that the woman is Cassavetes’ own wife, Gena Rowlands; while in the male role, he cast Seymour Cassel – his cinematic alter ego. It becomes clear that Minnie and Moskowitz is an autobiographical look at the courtship of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. Whatever its flaws, it is that aspect of the film that makes it fascinating to watch.

The story itself is simple. Minnie Moore, a down on her luck Museum administrator, meets Seymour Moskowitz, a parking valet from New York who has just moved to Los Angeles in search of greener pastures. The sparks don’t fly at first. But then they do. Even though they are completely mismatched, it turns out they need each other.

It’s a simple story that Cassavetes allows to play out in relatively traditional fashion, at least as far as structure and narrative flow are concerned. But it’s what’s going on between the lines, as well as subtle details in its tone, that makes the film stand apart from the pack. This begins with the casting. Universal Pictures wanted Cassavetes to cast Jack Nicholson as his leading man. Nicholson, fresh off his star-making performances in the aforementioned Easy Rider and the very popular Five Easy Pieces, would have been a commercially viable lead; and he certainly had the charisma to be a likeable and entertaining screen presence. But casting a star, even a rising star like Nicholson, would have defeated Cassavetes’ true goal, which was to fashion his own life experience into a romantic comedy. Not to mention that he wanted the viewer to see Seymour Moskowitz not as a movie star, but as a real person.

The film opens with Moskowitz. We watch him park an affluent couple’s expensive car. Then, he goes to a movie, partakes in dinner of a hot dog and a beer at a local cab stand. He has an engaging conversation with a fellow patron about movies and life. The conversation erupts into an argument, which he is unable to win. Finally, he waltzes into a bar where he promptly annoys the clientele, before getting himself thrown out – and not quietly.

Had that been Jack Nicholson, we would have immediately liked him. And it might not have been believable to see the charismatic, handsome star of Five Easy Pieces getting thrown out of a bar for being too unpleasant and belligerent. The idea is that maybe we’re not supposed to like Moskowitz. Why not put a real person up there and let us decide whether we like him or not?

Seymour Cassel as Moskowitz

Seymour Cassel as Moskowitz

Casting Seymour Cassel as Moskowitz accomplished two things. It allowed Cassavetes to remain firm in his tendency of unconventional leading men (see also: John Marley in Faces and Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie), while also letting him put a definitive personal touch on the film. There were many important realities regarding Cassel. First of all, he was Cassavetes’ best and closest friend; having been “discovered,” as it were, by Cassavetes when he was given the central role of Chet, the beatnik hustler in Faces. Many would say that particular role – of the freewheeling partygoer who goes against the conventions of society – was also a Cassavetes alter ego. Well, in Minnie and Moskowitz he graduates from beatnik to full-blown hippie; with his long, unkempt hair and bulldog mustache. The studio wanted Jack Nicholson. But, watching the finished film, it is impossible to imagine that actor – good as he may be – in the role, without it being a completely different experience. Because the personal touch is so important, Cassel proves to be indispensable and the film is unthinkable without him.

Also, because Cassel and Cassavetes were such close, personal friends; another very important element of reality was allowed to seep in: Cassel’s relationship with Gena Rowlands, which is the lynchpin for the entire film.

Cassel and Rowlands.

Cassel and Rowlands.

Seymour Cassel looked up to John Cassavetes and was, in fact, just a little bit infatuated with his best friend’s “beautiful blonde wife.” Meanwhile, Rowlands tended to find Cassel irritating – as wives often feel about their husbands’ troublemaker friends. This dynamic allowed real tension to exist between them, and it is palpable in the film. As the drama unfolds, Minnie grows to love Moskowitz and – almost inexplicably – so do we as an audience. Cassavetes would not have been able to accomplish that with a movie star. Audiences would have had very specific expectations, shattering the illusion that Cassavetes wanted to create – the illusion of a screwball comedy, while presenting something true to life.

NOTE: I’m well aware of the constant use of the term “true to life” in these essays. I don’t mean to sound redundant, nor give the impression that – in an extremely limited vocabulary – can find no other way to express that concept. Simply put, I think it is ultimately my thesis regarding the work of John Cassavetes. I consider him the quintessential humanist filmmaker because of his dedication to making each of his films (there are maybe two exceptions) feel completely lifelike.

The previous films achieved a lifelike feeling through the appearance of improvisation. There is some of that in Minnie and Moskowitz, but Cassavetes uses another interesting device here; specifically, the way scenes are structured. From beginning to end, if you pay close attention, you’ll notice we always enter a scene already in progress and the scene comes to an abrupt end before it’s actually finished. This creates the impression we are eavesdropping on everyday events. You could argue there is a voyeuristic component to any film. We are always observers. This is true. But we are usually given a clear narrative line to follow and guided through the story to a logical conclusion. In Minnie and Moskowitz all Cassavetes does is present the events in a sequential order. But, by pacing the scenes in such an odd way, he expects the audience to do the actual work of finding the emotions and, ultimately, the story itself within those events. In all his previous films, there is a kind of interaction with the audience, in the sense that he’s never obvious and up front about the intentions of a particular scene or moment. But to do that within the confines of a more “traditional” genre narrative, asking the viewer to create their own “romantic comedy” out of the cinema verité happening on screen, it’s a particularly brilliant display of audience manipulation.

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I suppose the key word there is manipulation, because it was constant on the actual set as well. Since these were such close relations (and he involved actual family members in other key scenes, more on that presently), Cassavetes really knew how to push their buttons to get what he wanted. A lot of tension arose between him and his wife. But he used that to the film’s advantage as well.

When we first meet Minnie, she is coming home from a movie night with her friend Florence. In typical Cassavetes tradition, the entirety of who these people are is only gradually revealed and there are no signposts. Based on the fact that these are two women going alone to an evening movie, followed by drinks at an apartment, also by themselves, where talk of “meeting Mr. Right” and how “he doesn’t exist” flowing into the conversation; it is a natural assumption to make that Minnie is a single girl.

Then she stumbles home drunk, and we are surprised to see a man there waiting for her. This man, who we later learn is named Jim, proceeds to slap her silly and verbally abuse her. Is he her husband? She fights back, they reconcile, make love and he leaves early in the morning. We follow him as he drives to a different house, where we see he has a wife and three children. He walks in and joins them for a typical family breakfast.

That’s how Cassavetes chooses to tell us everything we need to know about Minnie Moore and her relationship history. The revelation that she is the mistress of a married man is important, of course, as is a later scene where Jim goes to her office to call the affair off. But more crucial than any of that, is the initial scene at the apartment, where he beats her, and the fact that Jim is played by John Cassavetes himself.

Gena Rowlands was not informed, until the very day of shooting, that her own husband would be playing Jim. So, that shock and confusion finds its way into her performance in the scene. As a result, we are exposed to a raw vulnerability and Minnie Moore comes alive as a real person before our very eyes. From the movie date with Florence, through the candid talk about “Mr. Right,” up to the dramatic revelation of Jim’s reality… It’s an extraordinary sequence. In my opinion, the best part of the film; and it gives you an immediate indication that this narrative means to surprise you and defy conventions, while pretending to follow the rules.

Cassavetes and Rowlands - defying conventions

Cassavetes and Rowlands – defying conventions

So, Cassavetes didn’t actually follow the rules. He promised the studio a romantic screwball comedy, while delivering – once again – his own personal brand of emotional catharsis.

If there is any doubt as to his intentions, you need to only look at the key casting of two roles. In the role of Seymour’s mother, he cast his own mother – Katherine Cassavetes. And Minnie’s mother is played by Lady Rowlands – his own mother-in-law. There is a scene, towards the end, where these two women meet. It’s an uncomfortable dinner at an Italian restaurant where Minnie and Seymour announce their plans to marry. The film acknowledges this is a fairy tale conceit (the couple have only known each other for a week), while still treating it realistically. “How will they live?”, Mrs. Moskowitz asks; “look at my son. He’s a bum. He only came over to Los Angeles because I gave him 400 dollars,” she says. The working class, Jewish mother shocks Minnie’s very prim and proper Wasp mom with this honesty. And it becomes clear, once again, that this particular scene is probably not that far removed from an actual truth. John Cassavetes, a struggling character actor from New York, fell in love with Gena Rowlands, a well bred starlet-in-training from the Midwest. Reportedly, it took a long time for Cassavetes to ultimately win Rowlands over and, when he finally did, neither family thought they were a good match.

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Seymour Moskowitz takes approximately four days to reach Minnie Moore’s heart. But the dramatization of those four days is charged with the emotional truth of an entire lifetime. The result is arguably John Cassavetes’ most directly personal film.

A romantic comedy buried under a confession.

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