John Cazale is arguably one of the greatest actors of all time and he is not a house hold name. He only made five films, all of which were nominated for Best Picture at The Academy Awards. He received no Oscar nominations for acting and was nominated only once for a Golden Globe in 1975 for Dog Day Afternoon. Sadly, he died in 1978 at the age of 42.
I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale is a very short documentary about a very short life. My first impulse after it ended was to lay into it and really express my disappointment at its length. This subject is deserving of a 12 hour Ken Burns documentary. But I figured I'd do something a little different and review the DVD instead of the film on its own. Richard Shepard, the director, was smart enough to realize that 40 minutes wasn't sufficient, so he added quite a few extras including feature length director's commentary and it will take you over two hours to view all of it. During the commentary, he actually explains that HBO financed the movie, and they only produce documentaries that are either 40 minutes or two hours. Shepard felt that 40 minutes would be better because John Cazale's life was so short and because he knew that there wasn't very much information out there on him. No one had ever made a documentary on John Cazale before. If they weren't able to get all of the interviews they wanted, they would still be able to make the film. I knew it Was You is almost a minute for every year of John's life.
I would say that the film is divided up into three parts: childhood with an overbearing father, acting career, and death from lung cancer at 42. Luckily Shepard was able to get all of the interviews he needed to complete the documentary. The only one he wanted that he wasn't able to get was director Michael Cimino. Cimino directed John Cazale in his last film The Deer Hunter (1978). Cimino was also responsible for one of the biggest disasters of a movie ever- Heaven's Gate (1980). So for whatever reason Cimino didn't want to talk about John, but who cares. This documentary has many interviews with some great actors and directors that worked with John- Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Gene Hackman, Carol Kane, Richard Dreyfuss, Francis Ford Copolla, Sidney Lumet, Israel Horovitz and Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep almost didn't do the documentary, but John's brother convinced her to do it. Her participation was probably the most important piece of the puzzle. Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Rockwell also appear in the documentary as examples of younger actors who were influenced by John Cazale.
The documentary is made up almost entirely of clips from the interviews with these people. The DVD extras include the full length interviews with Al Pacino and Israel Horovitz (who is a writer and play director). Horovitz reads his eulogy for John that was printed in The Village Voice after John Cazale died. One thing is missing from the extras. Richard Shepard mentions during the commentary that he interviewed Talia Shire, but cut out the entire interview. That really should have been on the extras and I'm really unsure why they didn't do that.
Two short films are included on the DVD. The American Way (1962) features John Cazale as a silent man with a beard going around New York trying to blow things up. The Box (1969) is about a television and John's not in it, but the credits say he photographed it. Both films are part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
John Cazale was an extremely gifted actor. But you knew that if you've seen his films. When you see this documentary, you realize how much people loved him. He seems to still be around inside all of these people and just talking about him brings him back to life, like he was never gone at all. He died much too early and had a lot more to give. Instead, he broke our hearts.