There’s an indelible image immortalized on the Criterion release of Husbands that struck me when I saw it in context: we see our three men fighting and clowning in the street from a distance, and the camera makes them look like aliens, shimmering in focus while the world around them looks like it’s melting. And as alien and strange as these guys are, they also seem like the only real thing in this film.
The film sits us with a group of men who hold everything in contempt. The central trio of writer/director John Cassavetes, Peter Faulk, and Ben Gazzara are standoffish and aloof to the point of being surreal; it’s tough to imagine someone going out of their way to be this cruel, and yet we’ve all met people who are willing to go there. Husbands is a film where the limit of what’s funny is stretched to the breaking point, and anyone who’s been on the wrong end of someone committing to the bit will feel the residual sting.
What’s the worst way to experience this cruelty? Is it in the aloof, above-it-all attitude the three actors brought to their late night press tour? Is it the sarcastic doting that notorious Husbands detractor Pauline Kael experienced from Cassavetes, who she described as lifting her in the air sardonically declaring his love for her while she “felt that he wanted to crush every bone in my body”? Or perhaps it’s in the direct, searing attention that the three onscreen friends pay to the women they encounter. When the trio fix their attention on a woman they’ve implored to sing at their table, they turn unsettlingly petulant and demeaning. When Gazarra’s Harry returns home to abandon his wife, it’s violent and unsettling. And when the men all try to find someone to sleep with on their London getaway, they’re pathetic- their lack of connection, both to other people and reality, is on full display while these men debase themselves in shaky close-ups, clawing madly for the smallest victory they can find.
Cassavetes gets at some very uncomfortable truths about male friendship and the bonds between people who are better off without each other. The schoolboy dynamic has all the things we see but don’t know how to articulate in masculine friendships- a boorish leader who can’t offer the sensitivity they crave; a defensive screw-up constantly bickering with the leader; the affable middleman trying to keep peace. The two more submissive men form a pair that’s ready to talk behind the leader’s back; there’s the cycles of alternating abuse and encouragement that are needed to maintain these sickly bonds. There’s also something you don’t see often, which is the distinct closeness that comes from men mocking other people. It’s not an accident that Cassavetes and Gazzara start to snuggle while torturing a woman with their laughter.
And my goodness the laughter is torture. Cassavetes has a distinct lift in his voice that I love, but it translates into a grating, painful sharpness in his smoker’s cackle. This laughter bookends the constant confusion and seemingly improvised dialogue, and it’s the laughter that also serves as the film’s Greek chorus. Three pitiful men in a house of mirrors, laughing only at themselves, without another soul to rest on. They begin as they end- sad and confused, at first by the loss of their pivotal fourth member, and now by the seeming loss of their security in anything. It’s haunting in an old tragic sense to see their line of credit run out and for the bottom to fall out. The joke isn’t funny anymore, and the laughs have all dried up.
Could Husbands have been a riotous comedy? The film was originally cut without Cassavetes present, and it was modeled after the shooting script; when the original studio comedy version of the film played for test audiences, they loved it. While the film as it exists bears basically no resemblance to what it once was, it’s not hard to picture in a modern context. K. Austin Collins addresses the link between Cassavetes and Judd Apatow in his essay about the film, and there’s so many modern comedies with moral tales at their center that you could loosely adapt the premise of Husbands and it wouldn’t feel out of place. It’s easy to picture someone in the Ed Helms or Kevin James realm waxing poetic over gooey piano chords about a deceased friend in between fart jokes and ironic needledrops; the film’s themes of strained relationships and dashed masculine dreams is not far off from Dennis Dugan’s modern classic Grown Ups.
But what this film actually became is so much more jarring, so much scarier, and so much closer to our own lives. We often leave important things unsaid, and we hurt our friends as much as we help them. Husbands is extremely haphazard in the ways it chooses to speak these tough truths, but the ending is calibrated perfectly. We don’t see Gus make up with his wife, but we also don’t see him get torn apart for his absence. Cassavetes ends on a wary humanist note, giving us Schroedinger’s character arc where the future of a relationship hinges on the things it always hinges on- real people’s emotions and decisions, without the ability to ignore or deny the real hurt and strain we cause each other. There’s a hope that these men can choose to be better, and the people in their lives can choose to forgive them. There’s a hope that any of us fellas can do this when we return from our benders, whether real or not; that we can make amends and move on. As stilted and awkward as the film’s presentation often is, I’m thankful Cassavetes trusts enough to leave us with something that feels like the truth.