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Faces (Movie 1968): Landmark + Long-Winded Dysfunctional Marriage Drama

Faces movie Gena Rowlands John MarleyFaces movie with Gena Rowlands and John Marley: About three years in the making, John Cassavetes’ 1968 dysfunctional marriage drama is an American independent cinema landmark and a self-indulgent exemplar of storytelling recklessness.
  • Faces (movie 1968) review: Hailed in some quarters as the first [sic] independent American film to find wide critical and commercial acceptance, John Cassavetes’ 130-minute dysfunctional marriage drama is not only a cinematic landmark but also a cinematic chore.
  • Faces was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Seymour Cassel), Best Supporting Actress (Lynn Carlin), and Best Original Screenplay.

Faces (movie 1968) review: John Cassavetes’ dysfunctional marriage drama is an independent U.S. cinema landmark; it’s also a narrative wreck

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

After playing Mia Farrow’s slimy husband in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, John Cassavetes reportedly used the money he made as an actor to apply the finishing touches to his Faces movie project, a $200,000 personal endeavor he had begun shooting in 1966. Cassavetes spent months (some sources say a couple of years) editing the film into a “manageable” seven hours, and eventually into its final 130 minutes.

Silent film maverick Erich von Stroheim, whose initial version of Greed ran nine hours, would undoubtedly have been an admirer – at least in regard to Faces’ original cut and to Cassavetes’ committed (and at least in part Morris Engel-inspired) auteurship.

But would the pathologically meticulous Stroheim have also approved of Faces’ frequently inaudible dialogue, sloppy editing, poor lighting, careless camera placement, and faux-naturalistic acting?

Home movie from hell

Shot cinéma vérité-style, in high-contrast, black-and-white 16mm (that looks like poorly developed Super 8) at his Hollywood Hills home and the Los Angeles home of his mother-in-law,[1] Faces is John Cassavetes’ home movie from hell.

Once its characters begin to booze up, spout off philosophical musings, and scream out of despair, expect a significant percentage of viewers to run looking for a soothing drink, wonder about their life’s purpose, and do their own bit of screaming.

And here is where you’re reminded that many consider Cassavetes’ Faces one of the greatest American releases of the 1960s.

Straying husband

Faces begins as a group of film executives get together to watch their newest effort: Faces.[2] Now, before proceeding, readers must be reminded/made aware that this “innovative” cinematic trick of having the main storyline be framed as a film within a film can be seen at least as early as 1940.

That was when Michel Simon, Ramon Novarro, Jacqueline Delubac, Micheline Presle, Sylvie, and Louis Jourdan all played characters in a movie/reality within a movie/fantasy in Marcel L’Herbier’s unjustly forgotten La comédie du bonheur.

Back to Cassavetes’ Faces: Once the film-within-a-film begins, we see two drunk middle-aged businessmen babbling the night away in the company of a high-class prostitute. One of the men, Freddie (Fred Draper), is an insufferable bore with strong misogynistic tendencies; the other, Richard (John Marley), is a married man who develops feelings for the sex worker, a good-looking blonde named Jeannie (Cassavetes’ real-life wife Gena Rowlands).

Richard’s 14-year marriage has been suffering from chronic ennui for some time, and the cool, experienced Jeannie has managed to arise his long dormant spirit. It doesn’t take long before Richard returns to Jeannie’s home for more fun and games – in addition to some nasty arguments with a few of her drunk, woman-hating clients.

Straying wife

Meanwhile, Richard’s much younger but equally bored wife, Maria (MASH filmmaker Robert Altman’s former secretary Lynn Carlin), decides that she needs some excitement of her own. Joined by a group of female friends, she goes to a club where she meets a nice young man, Chet (National Society of Film Critics’ Best Supporting Actor winner Seymour Cassel).

Once back at Maria’s home, the friends try to figure out who’s going to bed their eager-to-please guest. Maria is the lucky one.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Maria and Chet’s night of sex and physical solace is followed by a morning of guilt and emotional turmoil on the former’s part – an unpleasant combo that leads to a suicide attempt. She is saved by Chet, who slaps her some and then hands her a cigarette. He also tells her that “nobody has the time to be vulnerable to each other.”

Ultimately, husband and wife are left to their still disaffected – albeit radically changed – lives.

Faces movie Gena RowlandsFaces movie with Gena Rowlands: Prior to Faces, John Cassavetes had directed his wife in the Stanley Kramer-produced United Artists release A Child Is Waiting (1963), starring Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster, and with Rowlands in a supporting role.

Self-indulgent ‘anti-Hollywood brilliance’

John Cassavetes’ Faces movie experiment fails not because of its plot, however predictable at times, or conventional set of characters and situations. In point of fact, the film’s chief handicap is its screenwriter-director, who apparently felt so enamored of his own anti-Hollywood brilliance that he wouldn’t let a mere story and a handful of distraught human beings get in the way of his stock-in-trade cinematic devices.[3]

These include the use of a handheld camera that makes the barely discernible action even murkier, and an overabundance of close-ups. True, the film is called Faces, but unlike Ingmar Bergman, whose close-ups (usually) serve to expose the inner workings of his characters, Cassavetes presents us only with talking heads. And do those heads talk.

What they actually talk about is anyone’s guess, since much of the dialogue is inaudible,[2] but the sections that are intelligible are best described by one line in the movie: “Blah, blah, blah.” And when actors, no matter how capable, are given loads of such vapidness – or if that’s all they’re capable of ad-libbing – their performances come across as one single, flat blah. For an interminable two hours and ten minutes.

That’s deplorable, for underneath all of Cassavetes’ artificially created “rawness” there is a real, tragic story about two desperately lonely people struggling to come to terms with both the passing of time and their crumbling relationship.

Even while taking into account that Faces was three years in the making, it’s probably no coincidence that when the movie came out Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, like the lead characters in the film, had been married for 14 years. John Marley, in fact, looks like an older Cassavetes.

Landmark indie

As for its historical importance, Faces is generally accepted as the first independently made and distributed American film to reach a (relatively) wide mainstream audience.

That is, if you choose to label something like Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures, which released Mike Nichols’ blockbuster The Graduate in 1967, a “Hollywood major.”

Besides, as mentioned further up, at least in some circles Faces remains one of the most admired American productions of the 1960s. It was nominated for three Academy Awards (supporting nods for Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin, plus an original screenplay nod for Cassavetes), while John Marley was named Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival and Cassavetes was given the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Screenplay award.[4]

Far better dysfunctional marriage movies

Looking for a no-holds-barred 1960s look at a marriage on the rocks?

Check out director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s big-screen adaptation of Edward Albee’s Broadway hit Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as, respectively, a former blushing bride and a former stalwart groom.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

From the 1970s, there’s Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage – like Faces, at least to some extent a self-reflective effort – which examines Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson’s troubled union.

And from the 1930s, let’s not forget Irene Dunne and Cary Grant’s matrimonial angst in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth.

Faces (movie 1968) cast & crew

Direction & Screenplay: John Cassavetes.

Cast: John Marley. Gena Rowlands. Lynn Carlin. Fred Draper. Seymour Cassel. Val Avery. Dorothy Gulliver. Elizabeth Deering. George Dunn.

According to unverified sources, the following have bit parts/cameos in Faces: Filmmaker Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), future filmmaker James Bridges (The China Syndrome), and Joan Crawford’s daughter and future Mommie Dearest author Christina Crawford.

Faces (Movie 1968): Dysfunctional Marriage Drama” notes

John Cassavetes’ mother-in-law

[1] As Lady Rowlands, Gena Rowlands’ mother would be featured in three John Cassavetes movies starring her daughter: Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), and Opening Night (1977).

Blu-ray edition

[2] Update: The Criterion Collection’s Blue-ray edition of John Cassavetes’ Faces includes what’s described as an “alternate eighteen-minute opening sequence.”

The Blu-ray edition also features a “high-definition digital restoration, with newly restored uncompressed monaural soundtrack,” which may help to make the film’s dialogue more comprehensible. (Alt Film Guide’s Faces movie commentary pertains to Pioneer Entertainment’s no-frills 1999 DVD release.)

Saving P.A. Spielberg

[3] Steven Spielberg was a production assistant on Faces.

That didn’t prevent the future director of Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Saving Private Ryan from becoming the very personification of slick Hollywood filmmaking.

New York Film Critics infighting

[4] At the 1968 New York Film Critics Circle awards, when Faces lost the Best Picture citation by one vote to Anthony Harvey’s more mainstream The Lion in Winter (though a de facto “indie,” as it was an Avco Embassy release), Life reviewer Richard Schickel became so incensed that he accused several veteran NYFCC critics of being “deadwood” and – temporarily, as it turned out – resigned from the group.

Once Schickel was done with his Faces fit, “some of those girls had tears in their eyes,” a Circle member told Variety’s Stuart Byron.

Lastly, even though John Marley and Gena Rowlands were bypassed at the 1968 Oscars, they would both be shortlisted in later years: Marley as Best Supporting Actor for Arthur Hiller’s Love Story (1970), and Rowlands as Best Actress for Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Gloria (1980).

Faces (Movie 1968)” endnotes

Faces movie budget via several sources, including Carnegie Magazine, Vol. 53 (1979) and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s The Oxford History of World Cinema. According to the AFI Catalog, John Cassavetes initially said that the film had cost $40,000.

Faces movie original length via the AFI Catalog.

Steven Spielberg’s work on Faces is mentioned in Joseph McBride’s Steven Spielberg: A Biography.

The New York Film Critics Circle’s Faces debacle is discussed in Damien Bona and Mason Wiley’s Inside Oscar.

Al Ruban is credited for Faces’ cinematography, though several sources also mention Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night) as a contributor. Also worth noting, the Anne Shirley listed as a cast member is not the 1937 Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for Stella Dallas.

John Marley and Gena Rowlands Faces movie images: Continental Distributing.

Faces (Movie 1968): Landmark + Long-Winded Dysfunctional Marriage Drama” last updated in April 2023.

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Nedim -

It’s uncanny how much I agree with Andre about the relative merits of this movie and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” I saw Mike Nichols’ film in 1966, when I was 16, and this was probably the only movie in my life I went to see again the following day – so impressed was I with Albee’s play and the Taylor/Burton performances.

Faces starts out very fresh and promising with the movie screening scene but immediately bogs down in improvised banalities of a drunken party, too much labored laughing (remember the laughing competition between Seinfeld’s Jerry and Kramer, interrupted by George, who asks, “Why are you guys pretending to be laughing?”) which occurs throughout most of the film, overplayed machismo of the male characters, the actors grabbing for straws in their effort to sound unrehearsedly conversational, etc. I’m sure this feature looked terribly innovative and culturally bold for the American moviemaking of the time, but then again, I din’t see anything there that European directors hadn’t already done in a much more organic, innovative, and more interesting way.

Barbara MacKenzie -

I thoroughly agree with Soares. Very “over-the-top” to the point of nausea. Can’t possibly imagine the 6-hour version. This is why top-notch editors are so vital. Poignant, vulnerable dialogue does not have to be overplayed in scene after scene. “On the Waterfront” is a good example of raw, gut-wrenching emotions from every character. You get it the first time. You don’t need to overstate the angst, and suffering over and over. The editing, and all scenes are tight, as is the direction. In “Faces” I “got” the bumbling, gross American loudmouth businessman the first time. Then another shows up . . .left me annoyed and irritated . . .now I know why so many films are not edited by the directors.

stephen -

With all due respect, you didnt get it.

Faces is alive like no film I’ve ever seen.

The psychology it evinces is profound.

Witness the scene where Richard tells Jeannie she doesnt have to be “on” (or however he says it); that she can just relax and be herself with him. She is flustered, pretends not to understand him. That happy mask she wears is a cover and a wall. She leaves the room on some pretense… paces the kitchen.. then Richard appears in the hall, singing to her, reviving an inside joke they’ve been sharing — essentially saying, “okay, we dont have to hurry, this is enough,” and she is elated, and comes to him. It is beautiful for many reasons, not least of which is Richard’s understanding. But, while reassuring, the viewer also may have a sense that this is the beginning of the end; the first sign of what will be their failure to connect on other levels. Or the scene where the women are competing for Chet’s attention and the reserved younger woman is watching as the brave older woman shamelessly lives life to its fullest… At first, she thinks they are being foolish, but then, you can see, she wants to loosen up and dance with him.. after a few drinks she works up the courage and when she does, Chet practically pulls the rug out from under her by saying something like “What are we doing, we’re being ridiculous.” And she is mortified, she slaps him and storms out… This is a big theme in Cassavetes’ work: That we should TRY, we should live, and confront our fears, put ourselves out there, even if, sometimes, we will fall flat on our “faces”… Scene after scene, nuanced psychological process are shown with a master’s blend of detachment and sympathy. How could you fail to miss this?!

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a terrific film, and another one of my favorites. But do you really need it to be so in-your-face and over-the-top? It makes me wonder if you missed a lot of the more subtle gems in that film, too.


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