Within one minute of screen time, John Cassavetes’ Opening Night introduces us to three discernible theatrical spaces: backstage (the space of where actors ‘prepare’ to embark on a role); onstage (the space of the drama); and the auditorium (the space of the audience). Having from the onset drawn the boundary lines between these spaces, defining each in turn by the behaviour of, in particular, our heroine the Broadway actress Myrtle Gordon – played by Gena Rowlands -, the film now spends the next two-and-a-half hours doing its best to eliminate those boundaries.
Like all of Cassavetes’ best work, Opening Night goes beyond being merely a self-reflexive investigation into the perils of cinema making. Made immediately after what may be Cassavetes’ best film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), the film tells the story of the week or so of out-of-town performances before the New York opening night of a play entitled ‘The Second Woman’ – in which Myrtle, who plays the title role of a woman cast aside in favour of a younger one, becomes unhinged after the death of a young female fan one night outside the theatre. Haunted by unbelievably real visions of the girl, Myrtle suddenly finds herself in the midst of a full-blown identity crisis. This initiates what Myrtle herself describes as an attempt to ‘find a way to play this role in which age doesn’t make any difference’, which, of course, counters the entire premise of the play she is in.
What makes this so typical of Cassavetes is the way in which this psychological crisis impacts directly on the film’s formal structure and subsequent events. As Myrtle’s sense of both time and space disintegrates so does that of the audience (as in us and the spectators of the drama being ‘staged’). In this respect, Cassavetes appears to aim for nothing less than to rethink what drama and play-acting actually are as well as the issue of female identity, sexuality and anxieties about aging in the process. Paradoxically, it is probably the latter, which – if anything – has (no pun intended) dated or aged the film and it is somewhat grating to modern viewers. It is an issue that quite literally looms over the proceedings in the oversized photograph of an elderly woman on the set of the play. It’s not merely that the spectre of old age haunts Myrtle in the form of a supernaturally beautiful younger version of herself (the dead fan), but that Myrtle drinks herself into oblivion continuously in order to survive this haunting. Granted, all the characters in Cassavetes’ oeuvre express concerns with time but here, Rowlands/Myrtle’s entire identity as a woman and an actress is completely consumed by the sense that things are slipping away. A rather depressing assessment of female creativity to say the least.
It is possible, of course, to consider this as a commentary on the death of theatre, or if you will, on the end of a palpable distinction between onstage and offstage, performer and audience. Thus, while it is Myrtle who keeps stumbling along the corridors of the backstage in a drunken stupor all the other characters, male and female, also appear liable to break down at any moment. There’s a wonderful scene where the director of the play goes through one of the sets on opening night, deliberately aiming to make it look more ‘messy’ as he agonizes over the complete chaos in which the play already finds itself.
By no means a perfect film, at two hours and twenty four minutes it’s at least half an hour too long, and for me personally, there was a bit too much emphasis on Myrtle’s drinking throughout as a perhaps rather trite, and dare I say, theatrical response to her schizophrenia. Nevertheless, in the grand finale when the play’s director Manny refuses to help her even stand or walk, and makes her crawl to the stage, we cannot help but be caught up in Myrtle/Rowlands’ bravura performance. By no means a standard Hollywood miraculous dramatic ending, Myrtle recovers moment by moment, within the work and the work within the work. Allegedly, Cassavetes even staged the faux play within the film in front of a real live audience, to gauge their natural reaction. Like us, the audience of the play is allowed to voice dissenting opinions on whether Myrtle/Rowlands really pulls it off. Despite her coming through in the end, there’s no reason to expect that she has really resolved anything, and the trick of the film, in a sense, is to make us be fine with this. Ultimately, it is not a film about recuperations or success, but about the agony of making choices. As Cassavetes put it himself: ‘The character is left in conflict, but she fights the terrifying battle to recapture hope. And wins!’