John Cassavetes and Gena Rowland create a study of fear, guilt and personal horror.
If you really want an analogy for the death of cinema as an art form in the late 1970s, then look no further than John Cassavetes’ Opening Night. While Star Wars was setting new box office records and ensuring that mainstream movies would be forever aimed at kids, Opening Night – from a director who more or less encapsulated the idea of Serious Cinema – played in one cinema and was roundly ignored by audiences. The masses had spoken, and what they wanted was spectacle, not substance.
Opening Night certainly doesn’t offer spectacle; neither is is relaxing viewing. This is painful and dark, even by Cassavetes standards, making no attempt to be crowd-pleasing. It’s also something of a masterpiece.
Gena Rowlands – Cassavetes’ real-life wife – plays Myrtle, a famous actress preparing for a Broadway run in a rather nondescript new drama. As she leaves the theatre one night with the Manny, the director (Ben Gazzara), playwright Sarah (Joan Blondell) and producer David (Paul Stewart), she is bombarded by adoring fans, one of whom – a teenage girl (Laura Johnson) – serenades her. Moments later, the girl is hit by a car and killed. While Myrtle’s companions shrug off the incident, for her it becomes a catalyst, bringing to the fore all her fears about her own mortality and her anxieties about growing old.
She suddenly sees that the play she is performing in is a trivial work and her extreme reactions, exasperated by her alcoholism, creates tension with colleagues and co-stars (including her leading man Maurice, played by Cassavetes himself). She realises that the character she is playing is not someone she can relate to, though how much of this is down to the character and how much is down to her denial about getting older is open to question. Certainly, she is asked several times by different characters how old she is, and each time dodges the question – for a woman in a profession where youth is everything, ageing is the greatest fear. These fears are made worse by visitations by the dead girl – not a supernatural presence, as Myrtle accepts that it is her own imagination bringing the girl to life, but a ghost nonetheless; a ghost of her own lost youth. The ‘ghost’ becomes ever more confrontational, the visits culminating in shocking moments of (self-inflicted) violence – few horror movies can match the visceral assault that has Myrtle smashing her own face into a door frame for sheer disturbing quality.
As a study of self-destruction and mental breakdown, Opening Night goes where few other films dare. Shot in a deliberately distancing style and allowing the play that is being performed to take up a large amount of screen time (playing out the tensions within the performance as the dialogue slowly changes and Myrtle, along with Maurice, bring a more spontaneous honesty to the play), the film avoids either easy answers or making Myrtle a clichéd tragic figure. The viewer is left to make up their own minds about the nature of her breakdown and the changes to her relationships that follow. Myrtle is an alcoholic, certainly – but that’s a symptom, not the cause of her self-destructive path. Furthermore, Cassavetes avoids making other characters monsters – while there are past relationships, failed romances and infidelities at play in the background of the story, none of these are trotted out as simple excuses or causes for her misery.
The film ends with the opening night of the title, at which Myrtle arrives, late and bombed. Rowlands gives a genuinely breath-taking performance as the drunk actress – unable to even stand, barely conscious yet having to go on stage, she’s both tragic and pathetic as she gets ready to somehow deal with her demons by rejecting the narrative and instead displaying honesty before a restless audience. This is, make no mistake about it, a performance par excellence in a film where no one puts a foot wrong and where the real-life relationship between the two stars of the play brings a fascinating tension to the story.
That the play itself, even when improvised by the performers, is not particularly impressive can be forgiven – a little artistic licence is involved in having the audience love it. It’s not really about the stage show anyway – the performance in from of the audience is just another layer of Myrtle’s journey through a heart of darkness to perhaps reaching some sort of peace. Or perhaps it’s all a performance and Myrtle has simply learned to bury her feelings and her real persona, and the pain and self-destruction will return the next day. Either way, Opening Night is devastatingly brilliant, difficult and for too long misunderstood. An extraordinary film.