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Eastwood, Travolta...Gazzara?

Two scenes — from ”Road House” and ”The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” — show why this underappreciated actor will always be on the DVD Insomniac’s A-list

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Everett Collection

Eastwood, Travolta…Gazzara?

Every movie star has a scene that defines them. It’s the one that plays in your head when you hear their name. For example, if someone says ”John Travolta,” I’ll picture his opening-credit strut from Saturday Night Fever. I remember watching that scene in the theater 30 years ago and it’s been burned on my coconut ever since. You might picture him shaking his moneymaker in a loincloth in Staying Alive. Someone else might imagine him stuffing his face with Krispy Kremes in Primary Colors. But to this day, no matter how bloated he becomes or how terrible his movies get, I prefer to think of him as the swaggering, outer-borough disco peacock, Tony Manero.

You can play this game with any actor. Warren Beatty? I see him with a blow dryer and snug bell-bottoms hovering over Goldie Hawn in Shampoo. Clint Eastwood? I picture the Man with No Name in a poncho, squinting during the final gunfight in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Paul Newman? Chowing hardboiled eggs in Cool Hand Luke.

For Ben Gazzara, I break the rules and have two scenes.

Wait, Ben Gazzara, what the hell?!

Let me explain. Yes, I know that mentioning this ”lesser star” in the same breath as Beatty, Eastwood, and Newman is a bit ridiculous. But not to me. I love Ben Gazzara.

Whether it’s in the penny-pinching verite films he made with John Cassavetes or as the pitch-perfect pornographer Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski, Gazzara is one of those actors I’m always thrilled to see pop up onscreen. With his cocky grin and hot temper, he’s like a tough-guy version of Charles Durning, Hal Holbrook, or Martin Balsam: a man’s man character actor who has the rumpled air of an insurance salesman from Toledo, returning from an out-of-town bender. Any movie he’s in is automatically 120% better just for having him in it.

Okay, so back to my two Ben Gazzara moments. The first is from Road House, which features Gazzara as Brad Wesley, the reptilian villain with a posse of mulleted, monster-truck-driving henchmen out to bring down Patrick Swayze. My scene isn’t particularly crucial to the film’s plot (actually, I’m not sure there’s a single scene in the movie that’s crucial to its plot). But I’ve always been kind of obsessed with it. It’s when Gazzara, driving in a convertible, swerves down an empty road while singing along to the doo-wop song ”Shaboom.” It’s as brilliant as it is utterly goofy. But it personifies a man who doesn’t have a care in the world. Swayze might be about to turn his goons into hamburger meat, but at that moment Gazzara’s just a fella taking a Saturday afternoon joyride, singing ”Shaboom.”

My second indelible Gazzara image comes from his greatest film, 1976’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie — his second collaboration with his old pal John Cassavetes. Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, an L.A. strip-club owner who gets into hot water with the mob when he can’t pay back his gambling debts. To wipe his I.O.U. clean, he reluctantly agrees to shoot a geriatric Chinese crime lord.

What makes Bookie a classic — aside from Gazzara’s desperate, doomed performance — is how unblemished it is by Hollywood cliché. Here’s a man who lives large, takes no guff, and finds himself in way over his head. You have no idea at any point how it’s going to turn out. And Gazzara, with a cigar in his mug and a mischievous twinkle in his eye, commandeers the camera in every scene.

But the one moment that really sticks with me comes near the beginning of the film, when Cosmo sits in the backseat of a Cadillac limo wearing a tux with a ruffled shirt and a red carnation in his lapel. The Caddy pulls up to a house and Cosmo steps out with a corsage box under his arm and picks up a blonde for a night on the town. I mean, who even brings a date a corsage any more? To do so is either hopelessly square or undeniably suave. In either case, having the name Cosmo doesn’t hurt.

After Cosmo gets into the backseat with his statuesque blonde date, he pops open a bottle of bubbly. Then the Caddy pulls up to a second house. Gazzara gets out with another corsage and returns with another blonde. Finally, he makes a third stop and picks up a third knockout! Sitting in the backseat, clinking glasses with his harem on the way to the disastrous poker game that will seal his fate for the rest of the film, Gazzara is the epitome of Mr. Charisma. And the smile on his puss is as priceless as it is short-lived. Within a few minutes, Cosmo’s cards will run ice cold and he’ll be hollering for a line of credit to guys you don’t want to holler at. But until then, he’s every bit the star Travolta was at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Every bit the ladykiller Beatty was in Shampoo. And every bit the badass Eastwood and Newman were. He’s Cosmo Vitelli, the King of Cool. All hail Ben Gazzara.

What scene defines your favorite movie star for you? Post your comments below.