I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale -- TV Review

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Even if the name John Cazale fails to ring any bells, you know him: Although he died at age 42, just before the release of his fifth and final film ("The Deer Hunter") he managed to pack in five -- and only five -- feature film performances in five of the greatest films of the 1970s: "Deer Hunter," "The Godfather," "The Godfather 2," "The Conversation" and "Dog Day Afternoon."

If that doesn't jar your memory, just go with this: He's Fredo.

Brett Ratner and Richard Shepard want to resurrect the man from obscurity, though whether HBO's "I Knew It Was You" (a line from "Godfather 2") can do it is unclear. A mere 40 minutes, this Ratner-produced and Shepard-directed doc wavers between hagiography and an Acting 101 course.

Although it provides some sense of the underlying reasons for Cazale's legacy, it never reaches deep enough.

Feted on camera by film and theatrical lights including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, Steve Buscemi and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cazale seems an unlikely hero. He was never going to be A-list material, with his receding hairline, protruding, soulful eyes and nervous countenance. But in the acting biz, if you can't be a leading man, support, support, support -- and Cazale was that unique sort of talent who could deflect the spotlight from himself on to other actors.

Such insight undoubtedly is accurate, but that's about all "It Was You" has to offer. Talking heads say kind and meaningful things about Cazale, there's a terrific home-movie snippet of the play that brought him to Coppola's attention, and there are stills from his plays. But his prestage history gets short shrift -- there are no family interviews and only a few photos to indicate the Massachusetts-born Cazale didn't spring from the Earth fully formed.

The short taste viewers get is meaty, though, and in a perfect world this doc would precede a marathon of Cazale films. As a stand-alone doc, however, this feels somewhat soft and unfinished -- a bit like the man himself.

Airdate: 8-8:40 p.m., Tuesday, June 1 (HBO)
Production: HBO Documentary Films
Executive producers: Bryan Furst, Sean Furst, Jay Stern
Producers: Brett Ratner, Stacey Reiss, Richard Shepard
Director: Richard Shepard
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