DVD Review Of Opening Night
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/20/07
John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night is, what critics usually call the work of such a significant artist, ‘overlooked’. It is an excellent film, in its own right, and one of the best portraits of a midlife crisis ever put to film. It’s not a perfect film, in that, at two hours and twenty four minutes it’s about a half hour too long, and there’s a bit too much emphasis on the drunkenness of the lead character Myrtle Gordon, played by Gena Rowlands, the wife of Cassavetes, long after we’ve gotten the point. But only Woody Allen’s masterpiece, Another Woman, which also starred Rowlands, eleven years later, is a better portrait of the internal conflicts of an aging woman. Yet, Rowlands did win the Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival for this portrayal, and it was well deserved. Often this film, written by Cassavetes, is easily compared to his earlier- and inferior- film, A Woman Under The Influence, but it’s a spurious comparison. Rowlands’ character in that film is severely mentally disturbed from the start, as well as coming from a blue collar background, while her characters in this film and in Allen’s film are both artists who are haunted by apparitions. In this film it’s the ghost of a dead young woman who can be seen as Myrtle’s younger doppelganger, while in Allen’s film it’s her character’s own past.
Myrtle is a famed fortysomething actress of stage and film who is in New Haven, Connecticut, preparing a new dramatic play for a run on Broadway. Thirty years ago, when this film was made, major works of drama still stood a chance of capturing an audience. Sadly, the lack of such dramatic works nowadays makes this film a bit of an anachronism, in that respect. Yet, Myrtle is disintegrating under the knowledge that the play she is starring in, The Second Woman, is uncomfortably close to depicting her real life situation, and also trods close to the work of Tennessee Williams, in Sweet Bird of Youth, as well as Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. After a rehearsal, one rainy night, as she and the producer David Samuels (Paul Stewart), director Manny Victor (Ben Gazzara), playwright Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell), and cast- including Cassavetes, himself, as her play’s male lead, Maurice Aarons, are leaving in a limousine, an obsessed young fan, Nancy Stein (Laura Johnson), she has just left, who assailed her with stalker-like cries of ‘I love you! I love you!’, is run down by a speeding car that skids out of control. The rest insist they drive away, despite Myrtle’s pleas to stay, and they all quickly forget the incident, while Myrtle is plagued by it. Her aging fears are not merely the average woman’s, for she fears being typecast if she’s too successful in this portrayal. As Myrtle struggles with the role- refusing to allow herself to be slapped in a key scene, rebelling, flubbing lines, and improvising, the three main honchos all have different ideas on how to handle her. The producer feels she’s a pro, and is banking on his investment. The playwright feels she can relate to Myrtle, for she’s even older, at sixty-five. But the director, Manny, is an ex-lover, still adoring of her, and he has to balance personal and professional concerns, even as he deals with his sympathetic, yet jealous, wife Dorothy (Zohra Lampert), and Myrtle’s neuroses. Of course, in real life, far bigger stars have been fired from shows for far less reason, but we can accept that there are personal ties to her that allow he more leeway than usual.
As Myrtle continues to disintegrate, Sarah takes her to a medium, yet this only intensifies the hallucinations that Myrtle has been having of the dead girl, even to the point that she feels she is being physically assaulted by her. This may all be an outgrowth of her own fears of death, as well having no husband or children, and being consumed with her career’s demands, but also the icy reaction she gets when she goes to the Jewish girl’s wake, and her family oddly blames her for the girl’s death, due to her obsession with Myrtle. Perhaps she goes to the wake not out of sympathy but because she was thinking too much of how an event should not affect one, yet still does, in subtle ways. Myrtle then physically abuses herself in front of Sarah, after bribing a maid to let her in to the woman’s hotel suite, and finally kills the spirit of the girl, in front of another of Sarah’s medium friends, before she goes on a bender just before opening night on Broadway. She arrives late, just as the producer is about to cancel the show, yet after a few rough first scenes, leading up to which Manny refuses to help her even stand or walk, and makes her crawl to the stage, as punishment, she delivers a bravura performance, to glowing reviews, and is the toast of the town, as the film ends with her seeming bounce back from the brink, surrounded by celebrity well wishers, in cameos, like Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel, and Peter Bogdanovich, who play themselves. Whether or not her triumph is permanent is never revealed.
That Myrtle acts out her own rage in the play, and finally ‘gets it’, is a dual narrative structure that is an outstanding use of function following form, or perhaps the reverse, yet it works brilliantly, and this aspect of the film is the one area where the seemingly too long scenes, on first glance, are actually necessary, for they show how Myrtle recovers moment by moment, within the work and the work within the work, which also recapitulates her own inner struggle. Cassavetes even staged the faux play within the film in front of a real live audience, to gauge their natural reaction. The end scenes of the play with Cassavetes and Rowlands are excellent, and also serve double duty, in chronicling the aspects of the characters the two stage actors of the film are creating within, even as they are being created in the film by the husband and wife duo without. This realistic approach to the film, the scenes, and the struggles, raises what could have easily slipped into the campy Grand Dame Guignol films of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford into something approaching or achieving great art, and goes far beyond the rather conventional and predictable dualities that comic screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has been so lauded for in recent years. The film also allows us to see the dead past of Myrtle, embodied in the dead girl, as it struggles to stay relevant in her present, and her coming future, in the playwright, who gracefully accepts her aging, even after admitting to having had similar struggles earlier in her life. At one point, in the film, she even asks Myrtle what her age is, but the actress cannot even utter a simple number in reply. In this regard, the casting of Blondell was nothing short of a masterstroke, for this dramatic role as an aged and faded prima donna plays powerfully off her persona as a Great Depression Era social climbing hussy and second rate Mae West wannabe comedienne.
Many critics have taken this film to be a portrait of an alcoholic, seeing Myrtle surround herself with enablers, such as a stage manager who tells her, during opening night, ‘I’ve seen alot of drunks in my time, but I’ve never seen anyone as drunk as you who could stand up. You’re great!’, but this is wrong, for alcohol isn’t her problem- nor is her chain smoking. They are merely diversions from whatever thing is really compelling her to her own destruction, and much to Cassavetes’ credit, as a storyteller, he never lets us find out exactly what’s wrong with Myrtle, and despite her coming through in the end, there’s no reason to expect that she has really resolved anything of consequence. This sort of end without resolution links Cassavetes directly with the more daring European directors of the recent past, who were comfortable in not revealing everything to an audience, and forcing their viewers to cogitate, even if it hurts.
The DVD, part of The Criterion Collection’s five disk John Cassavetes Five Films collection, sadly comes with no film commentary, but it does have a conversation with Gazzara and Rowlands, and an interview with cinematographer Al Ruban, as well as an audio interview between Cassavetes (who died in 1989) and film historian Michel Ciment, as well as some trailers. The film is actually well shot, and much of the improvisational visual feel of earlier Cassavetes-Ruban works is gone, as Cassavetes opts for a more static, almost stagey feel for the film, to recapitulate its inner mise en scene. Yet, there are some very abrupt cuts between scenes, such as the effective one at the end of the young girl’s wake, where the grieving relatives ask Myrtle if she has any kids, and she replies no. There we get the cut, and a hint at what may really be behind her breakdown. In Woody Allen’s later film, Another Woman, Rowlands’ character’s ‘trauma’ is the fact that she aborted the only baby she ever conceived, and now, post-menopause, will never be a mother. Is her character in this film obsessed with the dead girl because she’s not a reflection of herself (as the girl is literally first seen by Myrtle while she looks in a mirror, and portrays her sexual history as something similar to Myrtle’s), but the daughter Myrtle never had? Again, Cassavetes only tantalizes his viewers, because he never gives ready answers from a Freudian handbook. Compared to such interesting and effective visual work, Bo Harwood’s film score is pretty pedestrian and inconsequential.
Yet, the film recapitulates perfectly the effect of a drunk or fever lifting out of the fog, and as such the viewer again is subliminally involved in its drama. Whether or not Myrtle Gordon does recover, after the film’s universe irises about her is left for each and every viewer to decide, and as we have seen before that lid closes, one’s choices do matter.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]
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