John Cassavetes begins his divisive 1970 film Husbands with a photo montage of four middle-aged men strutting around at a pool party. The stills show them drinking, flexing, grinning, puffing each other up. Their wives and children periodically show up in the photographs, but for the most part we are focused on these men, and we get a decent sense of who they are: insecure middle-class men.
These men — Gus (Cassavetes himself), Harry (Ben Gazzara), Archie (Peter Falk), and Stuart (David Rowlands) — have been friends since youth, so when they get together they identify with their youthful self, the self that is receding into the past at a rapid pace. The implication in this montage is that at forty they are closer to each other than to their own families likely because their preferred self-view has been shaped by their relationship to each other — the masculinity, the competition, the connection to their youth. This is the self they want to maintain. Getting together, then, is a chance for them to reclaim that identity, no matter how ridiculous they look, and no matter that it leaves out their wives and children.
It’s all the more devastating for the three survivors, then, when Stuart dies and each finds himself face to face not just with his mortality but also with the decline that has been going on for years. This story is far from original, of course, but here we have three great actors working under the direction of a masterful director; surely this is a recipe for an original and interesting exploration of this perennial story? The response to that question varies greatly from viewer to viewer. Roger Ebert, for example, wrote, “[Husbands] shows an important director not merely failing, but not even understanding why.” Ebert dislikes several aspects of the film, but he seems to rest his disdain mainly on the film’s “non-script.” Cassavetes allows the actors to improvise scenes and — I see it too — it often makes it look not like the characters are struggling but rather that the actors floundering for words. Ebert’s view of the film is shared by many others.
However, for a film that follows three men around as they drink, fight, and demean women, a surprising defense arose when none other than Betty Friedan reviewed the film a year later:
[Husbands] shows the actuality of the crisis between men and women in America today, that is sickly reflected in the elimination of women from the boys?together films and the dehumanized death?of?sex skin flicks. “Husbands” unmasks the festering rage pent up in the Good Housekeeping?seal?of?approval American Dream?house: Mama the housewife, Papa the breadwinner, Junior and Janie, appliances humming, wall?to?wall carpeting, station wagon and second car, crabgrass under control.
The film certain has some power when Friedan writes:
Cassavetes, Gazzara, et al., I salute you as fellow liberationists. You get beneath the cruel laughter, you make so clear the male case, the male need for women’s liberation — and your own liberation from the oppressive masculine mystique that inescapably, brutally intertwines with the feminine mystique to oppress us both.
It may not be that Cassavetes was going for this (and Friedan admits this in her piece). He must have been sympathetic to the men, these husbands, who feel trapped in in their lives and feel like the walls are closing in. The women and children can be seen in this film as part of the trappings. But they are part of the film, and I think Friedan is right to show how ugly these men are, even if they are sometimes sympathetically portrayed. Perhaps the actors faltering for words and even meaning emphasizes all of this.
To the film for a bit: after that initial photography montage, the next scene brings us into the motion picture. Cassavetes and Falk are walking to the funeral and riffing on truth and death. Then we see the three men numbly walk around with the other funeral guests.
Cassavetes films this long scene, and most of the movie, in a style he is famous for: it’s as if Husbands is a cinéma vérité documentary, the camera as a fly on the wall that doesn’t intrude on the tedium and allows the audience to observe all of that faltering unperturbed. Cassavetes utilized this style to instill gritty realism into his films throughout his career, but in Husbands he may push it to the extreme more so than at any other point, and I think that leads to Ebert’s central gripe. It’s a long film at 142 minutes, and apparently Cassavetes even made a 225-minute version but Columbia demanded cuts. The scenes can be drawn out and uncomfortable, and whether you feel that discomfort because of the characters or because of the film itself will likely make the film win or lose in your book.
From the funeral, in an effort to regain their vitality, the three survivors go to the gym to play basketball, and they look just as you might expect a trio of forty-year-olds who think they’re still at their peak should. We then go to a very long, distasteful scene at a pub. The crowd sings and bickers, and insults start to fly. I believe this scene is over a half hour, but I didn’t have the heart today to go and confirm — just know that it is long. There is more drinking, and a few nights in the subway. But, of course, these men start to feel pressure from their responsibilities as husbands who must work to support a family. They continue to run, continue to drink, continue to push against the world they are in.
They are tedious and contemptible in their selfishness. They are pathetic. But, despite Ebert’s gripes, I find them to be real. I dislike them and find each to be his own enemy. If sympathize with them for the very reasons Friedan lays out: even if they are ugly and contemptible they are also, in some sense, prisoners, and here we see them fighting against that cage.
Like Friedan, I don’t know if Cassavetes meant this. For him the film may have been a genuinely sympathetic look at the harsh realities these three friends were experiencing in the wake of their friend’s death, a sympathetic look at what, for him, “husbands” go through that their wives and children don’t understand. But the title of the film — and its ending — also leads me to wonder if Cassavetes did know how tedious, how ridiculous these men were. That photo montage: Did he do it to show these men as a genuine ideal, just about to leave the bloom of youth? Or is he mocking them? Are the long scenes that allow them to speak without saying anything sympathetic explorations of men who are genuinely at a loss? Or is he mocking them? I can take it both ways, and that’s one thing I really loved about the film.