A New HBO Documentary about Johnny Cazale

For cinephiles, one of the pleasures of being an HBO subscriber is witnessing that network’s commitment to documentary filmmaking. Over the years some of the best documentaries to be produced anywhere in the world have been HBO vehicles.

Enter I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale. (To date, I’ve only seen the trailer and some press for it.)

I have no way of knowing whether or not this film is any good, or whether or not it does the wonderful Mr. Cazale any justice, since I have not seen it. But I can opine on what appears to be the concept of the film, which I take to be: Here is this world-class screen actor, whose work has left its singular mark on some of our most beloved films, yet so few moviegoers know his name. They’ll know his face—oh, that face!—but not his name.

There should be more documentaries like this. I like using documentary films to educate moviegoers about the movies they watch (bonus featurettes on DVD extras have been a boon to this cause of mine). As I watch the trailer, and meditate on the work of John Cazale (for those who don’t know, he played Fredo in the first two Godfather pictures, among other roles), I wish for more documentaries like this. It is a good thing when documentaries (like I Knew It Was You appears to set out to do) ask movie fans to stop and appreciate a great and largely unsung hero of the movies we love. (This is one of the many reasons I loved Mark Wexler’s Tell Them Who You Are.)

So let’s see more documentaries about these “overlooked icons.” With the right filmmakers at the helm, how great would it be to see a film about Hume Cronyn, or S.K. Sakall, or Sydney Greenstreet, or Joan Blondell, or Joan Bennett, or—dare I say?–Margaret Dumont? If you don’t know who these actors are—don’t worry. You just may know them when you see them.

I’m reminded of yet another reason why film is such an extraordinary medium. As a writer, it strikes me as unlikely—perhaps even in more literate, Victorian times—that I would be able to get a large group of everyday people to read biographies of the actors I named above. It would be difficult, in fact, to even get folks to read an extended magazine profile of those actors. But there’s something about the medium of film that allows those same folks, who would be such reluctant readers of the aforementioned biographies and profiles, to sit down and watch a documentary. There is something to lament in this, however, at the same time there is something majestic and mysterious about the power of film.

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