Ben Gazzara’s strength as an actor lay in insisting with perfect reason on things that were insane. The actor, who died this past February at 81 after more than half a century of films, made a specialty out of cocking his head and chopping his arm forward with aggressive insistence; like Bogart, he could command a film into moving at his own personal rhythm, and whether you were charmed or alienated by his doing so was often a matter of context. His eyes light up in the early Anatomy of a Murder (1959) as he realizes (with Jimmy Stewart’s help) that he’s not responsible for killing a man because he was out of his mind when he did it. His tongue slows down and he rarely stands up in the late Buffalo 66 (1998) and Dogville (2001) as he addresses his elderly wisdom to younger women he’d like to molest. In between, in his great trio of films for the director John Cassavetes—Husbands (1970), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1978)—he plays a director trying to corral actors into achieving his vision, and growing angry with them when they break from his script.
Gazzara exuded authority, even if it was mad authority. He controls the screen in Peter Bogdanovich’s comedy They All Laughed as a private detective so confident that he never needs to hide or disguise himself. His coworkers comprise a rotating roundelay of klutzes involved in convoluted cases. He stands in contrast to them with his hands tucked into pockets beneath his leather jacket, ambling from job to job. He ambles, too, from woman to woman. The wolf employs the same subdued sideways smile to seduce a high-strung country singer (Colleen Camp) and a game-for-it female cabbie (Patti Hansen). One day he follows a middle-aged woman into a bookstore. The tailing assignment, which makes him move slower than usual, catches first his eye, then his heart.
She’s played by Audrey Hepburn in her last major screen role, nearly 30 years after Roman Holiday, and more touching as a fading beauty than as a naïve ingénue. This married mother of a young boy knows what she’s getting into, and welcomes it with sad delight. The house style of classical Hollywood-influenced director Peter Bogdanovich allows the actors ample room to play off of each other. As they walk together at night, framed side by side, each looks at the other, then away again, each considering how close a step to take to the other, each keeping one’s hands to oneself. They will never marry, never officially fall in love, but their bodies yearn past propriety. The actors were romantically involved during the film’s shooting, something easy to project onto the screen. You can tell from his eyes that he both wants and doesn’t want this, but also that to stop dreaming of her would be nuts.