A Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: on Opening Night
“In Cassavetes, the hand of the film-maker feels as though it comes from deep within the action. When Cassavetes recut Opening Night (1977) because it was ‘too good’, I suspect he felt that the flux of action and emotion was not sufficiently foregrounded, that there was too recognisable a structure generated from outside the life of the film. The way that the old Chinaman (Soto Joe Hugh) in The Killing of the Chinese Bookie (1978) close his eyes and mouth tightly, tilts his chin up and shakes his head with an oddly cartoonish sense of disbelief before he is shot by Ben Gazzara is just as much a structural event in Cassavetes as a change in angle is in Hitchcock. For many before us, and many still, Cassavetes is an authentic alternative to cinema. For us, he is the essential film-maker because he knows better than an other the difference between real life and cinematic life, and that there is no need to distinguish the latter with artifice since it already distinguishes itself well enough.”
-Kent Jones in Movie Mutations: the changing face of world cinephilia
Opening Night (1977) released one year after John Cassavetes’ masterpiece, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), was appreciated in Europe upon its release while being virtually ignored in North America. This film was also the last one Cassavetes distributed and financed himself and lacked a U.S. theatrical distributor until 1991. Opening Night, while being an extremely unique and in some ways groundbreaking film, falls into the melodrama tradition of classical Hollywood, in line with a film like All About Eve (1950), which for American audiences was a very popular sub-genre, one that is recognizable and fairly easy to market. What makes the lack of U.S. interest in the film somewhat more difficult to understand is that Opening Night, to my mind, is one of Cassavetes’ more accessible films (and yet it is also one of his most difficult films to comprehend). What makes the lack of interest more understandable is that Opening Night cannot be pinned down into one genre: it begins as a melodrama that slowly becomes a psychological thriller couched in a behind-the-scenes look at live-theatre productions. It becomes closer to Jacques Rivette’s films than All About Eve very quickly creating serious marketing problems akin to Robert Altman’s unmarketable neo-noir made in the seventies, The Long Goodbye (1973). Cassavetes also re-cut the film after its first screening because of the overwhelming positive reaction. I suspect the first cut was not as complex a film as the cut we have today and it is to Cassavetes credit as a committed artist that he would tweak his work right until the buzzer rings (in this case, after the buzzer) so that the final result is what he wanted to express.
Like Cassavetes’ previous film, Opening Night is a expression of this director’s own personal experience of living as a tortured artist, an artist that mines their emotions and lived experience for the sake of art. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (hereafter referred to as Chinese Bookie), Cassavetes used the main character, Cosmo Vitelli, an independent strip club owner and manager, as an obvious analog for his career as an independent film-maker. Opening Night is even more self-reflexive and in many ways an even more personal film than Chinese Bookie. Gena Rowlands’ performance as Myrtle Gordon tells us as much about the actress as it does about Cassavetes’ artistic process, mediated through the fictional play-within-a-film called “The Second Woman” where Myrtle plays the lead.
Myrtle’s preparation for the play and the rehearsal process with the rest of the cast and crew of the production make up majority of the film. In the first act, a young fan who is obsessed with Myrtle is accidentally killed after desperately trying to get her attention through a limousine window (Pedro Almodovar paid homage to this scene in the first act of All About My Mother (1999)). The young fan’s death barely registers with the rest of the cast that witnessed it but deeply affects Myrtle who decides to visit the dead girl’s family only to be told “if you had children you wouldn’t have come here”.
A downward spiral fueled by guilt, insecurity, vanity, alcohol, and anxiety befalls Myrtle making rehearsals extremely taxing for the rest of the cast and crew and most of all on Myrtle herself. But the death of the young fan, functioning in the story as a primal scene, is not the only problem Myrtle is dealing with in the rehearsal process. She cannot find a way into the character she is supposed to play. Myrtle does not understand the character’s problems or motivations and on a deeper level, which is played out in a conversation with the play director, Manny Victor (played by Ben Gazzara), Myrtle does not want to identify with this character because she is distressed about getting typecast as an aging woman in future roles. She is afraid to become the character and her rage plays out as an attempt to distance herself from the character while paradoxically embodying the character at the same time.
Like Cassavetes, Myrtle is an alcoholic and her alcoholism only makes matters worse, heightening her delusions involving the dead fan and driving her deeper into depression. The final act of the film is the New York City premiere where, even though the play did well in other venues, the financial and critical success of the production will either live or die. Cassavetes spends some time setting up the stakes in this act, showing us all of the preparation undertaken by the cast and crew, using quick cutaways to the posters for the play being advertised in New York City, and the eager audience coming to the show. Myrtle shows up late to the performance completely gooned. Everyone backstage must get Myrtle ready for her performance who can barely stand up without leaning on a wall or person. Myrtle, barely able to form coherent sentences, pushes through and makes it on stage. The final act of the film is unabashedly cathartic in more ways than one. Myrtle’s performance is a magnificent, improvised mess of comedy and melodrama and her scene partner, Maurice (played by John Cassavetes), accompanies Myrtle in the improvised madness. The New York City audience eats it up and the play is a success.
Opening Night, moves effortlessly from an aging actress melodrama to a complex psychological thriller all the while maintaining a fascinating mirroring aspect that plays out within the film, within the play-within-the-film, and between the film and Cassavetes’ biography. These self-reflexive moments show us Myrtle’s psyche and at the same time depict Cassavetes’ philosophy on theatrical performance.
Improvisation is the underlying concept behind Myrtle’s refusal to accept her existence and Cassavetes’ cinema. Myrtle continuously goes off the book in the rehearsals, searching for something more authentic than what was given to her on the page (again at the same these outbursts of improvisation could be read as another attempt to distance herself from the character). According to this film, acting is not simply pretending but pouring yourself into a fictional character, breaking down any comfortable boundaries between your self and the fiction. Myrtle’s psychological turmoil is as much about creating an authentic performance as it is about the dead fan, her fear of aging, and her alcoholism. The final scene demonstrates another catharsis, this time a catharsis for Cassavetes as an artist. In this fictional reality that refers to so much outside of itself is a Cassavetes day-dream. His aesthetic guidelines played out by Myrtle and Maurice are applauded and loved by the audience while in Cassavetes’ own biography we know the opposite was true.
It is to Cassavetes’ credit as a storyteller that he refuses to make one single ailment troubling Myrtle the dominant one. Certainly the death of the young girl kick-started Myrtle’s descent but it overlaps with her vanity, her alcoholism (another way Cassavetes indirectly refers to his biography), her lack of identification with the character she is playing and her anxiety about aging. Each problem overlaps and intertwines so there is no easy way to understand Myrtle’s psychological matrix of anguish. What we have in the end is one of Cassavetes’ most complex works of art in a groundbreaking filmography that forever changed American cinema.