If you’ve never heard of John Cazale, let me ask you if you’ve ever heard of THE DEER HUNTER, THE CONVERSATION, DOG DAY AFTERNOON or THE GODFATHER I and II? Each film was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and starred actors like Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and Robert DeNiro, all of whom realize the thanks they owe Cazale for playing his smaller roles so well that he boosted the performance of every actor he worked with, not to mention the films themselves. No matter the size of his role, Cazale was a perfectionist. He was called Mr. 20 Questions on set because he wanted to know every last detail about the characters he portrayed. Seldom playing off the cuff, Cazale thought deeply about all the possible ways to act out a scene, and then chose the best approach. It’s this commitment to the craft that makes his characters ring true and elicit our sympathy, even when we know he’s a shifty, shady rat of a guy.
Most sports movies will try to convince you that it’s not about winning, it’s about how you play the game. Not DOWNHILL RACER (1969). In fact, one of the primary reasons Robert Redford struggled to get this film made was because no one had made a sports movie with a protagonist whose amorality and arrogance had no effect on his winning streak. He chose to center the narrative around downhill racing pretty much because baseball and football were already taken.