Opening Night: Aging Gracefully

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It has been suggested that, had Cassavetes followed A Woman Under the Influence with Opening Night, his career might have ended up in an entirely different place. People had been very taken with Woman… and they had come to embrace Cassavetes’ loose, introspective style because he presented them with a very compelling lead character brought to life by a captivating actress.

This is not to discount Ben Gazzara’s skill as an actor, but to follow the powerhouse of A Woman Under the Influence, with the more low-key and esoteric gangster picture The Killing of a Chinese Bookie might have been a mistake. Audiences were less eager to follow Cosmo Vittelli through the world of his nightclub. He didn’t connect with them the way Mabel Longhetti had because the movie didn’t seem to be about “real people” anymore. This was now (ugh) a gangster film; a movie about criminals! And it didn’t even have the good sense to include any action scenes to please the fan base.

I’ve already discussed the virtues and flaws of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie in detail, so I won’t go into them here. But my point is, it was not the movie audiences wanted after A Woman Under the Influence. Whereas, Opening Night definitely would have been. It’s a shame the Chinese Bookie had to come first to kill all of their goodwill – leading to an almost universal rejection of Opening Night. Because, not only is it about as good as A Woman Under the Influence, in many ways it is even more compelling and probing. It cuts to the heart of the matter with regards to an issue that affects everyone, and it does so with absolute clarity. Had Cassavetes put any thought into his career trajectory, he might have understood that following a “woman’s picture” with another similar film was a smart choice.

But keeping an eye on the zeitgeist was seldom of any interest to Cassavetes. He just wanted to tell his stories and explore the issues that engaged him at a particular time.

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It seems natural that, in 1977, when he was pushing fifty, his big concern was getting old. Opening Night is a movie entirely about that concern – a person’s mindset when faced with the inevitable reality of aging… How does this experience affect one’s sense of self-worth? How does it feel to come to the realization that you might be losing “relevance” in the grand scheme of things? More to the point – what does it mean to get old?

These are all questions the film asks constantly. It does not answer them. But it is not supposed to. As usual, that is left to the viewer.

It’s both interesting and appropriate that Cassavetes chose to set this story in the world of theater. It allows him to bring some of his own experiences into the mix in creating a world that feels absolutely authentic. But it’s also a perfect setting for the story of a woman not wanting to face the fact she’s aging, because it is such a real and palpable threat for people who work in the performing arts; particularly if those people are women.

The film has two strong, well-defined women at its center. One is the lead character, an actress named Myrtle Gordon, played by Gena Rowlands. The other is Sarah Goode, a playwright in her late 60s, played by Joan Blondell.

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Joan Blondell in Opening Night

Goode has written a play about aging. In it, Myrtle Gordon must portray a character she doesn’t want to admit is actually quite close to who she really is. Then, on the first night of previews, Myrtle is approached by an adoring teenage fan for an autograph. After exchanging brief words that don’t quite leave the fan entirely satisfied, she has to watch as that fan is struck by an automobile and killed.

This is the pitch at which Cassavetes chooses to begin the story – extreme emotional distress. If you start at such a fevered pitch, there’s really nowhere to go but up; and so the film becomes a harrowing psychological exploration, much the same way A Woman Under the Influence was.

Therein lies the second element that makes the theater such an appropriate setting. These are high caliber emotions and, at their best, are expressed with histrionics. What better place than a theatrical environment to explore those emotions in an honest and pure way?

As the play within the film unfolds, easy parallels are drawn between the roles the characters are playing on stage and the characters themselves. Subsequently, some of the same parallels can be drawn from the film and out into the real life of its makers. When you take that entire meta concept: the play within the film, and the film in relation to the circle of filmmakers that created it, Opening Night becomes an even deeper and more fascinating experience.

In a previous essay, I likened Rowlands’ work in A Woman Under the Influence to be on a par with Marlon Brando’s acting in Last Tango in Paris. When making the comparison, I was referring to the intensity and purity of the acting. But, in this case, that relationship runs even deeper. In Last Tango, it has been argued that Brando played himself – leading to a personal catharsis. In Opening Night Gena Rowlands is also very much playing a version of herself. Like Myrtle Gordon, at the time the film was made, Rowlands was in her late forties and already had a tendency to fudge her age in interviews and press releases. Understandable, given the natural ageism of the industry, but – when that is coupled with the fact she would often do what she could to appear younger than she actually was – it is very clear that she was not immune to the fear of aging that plagues most people as they enter a mid life crisis.

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This is what happens to Myrtle Gordon throughout Opening Night. Her first instinct is to ignore the age of the character she’s playing. She argues with Sarah Goode: “Why does her age have to matter? I should play this character as if her age is not important,” completely missing the point of the play. Constantly forgetting (most likely on purpose) her lines; throwing temper tantrums and refusing to perform on stage, she becomes a walking nightmare.

More than a playwright, Sarah Goode transforms into a kind of psychoanalyst for Mytrle to vent her frustrations, knowing all the while what the star is going through because she has been down that road herself. It’s possible she understands that Myrtle will ultimately have to experience the play before she can come to accept her reality. She never reveals this, however; and that is exactly what happens to the actress – she comes to embrace her role (in the play as well as her own life) after a powerful catharsis.

Another powerful catharsis comes in the film’s most unusual and unexpected element: Myrtle Gordon literally facing off with her past.

In a subplot that feels grandly out of character for a Cassavetes film, Myrtle is haunted by the ghost of the dead fan. It should be clarified, however, that the film never presents this element in a strictly supernatural sense. Myrtle herself confesses she “invented” the specter. But still, the film features a séance and a genuinely harrowing scene in which the aging actress finally lashes out and “kills” the ghost, symbolically freeing herself of an attachment to her youthful past.

And that, ultimately, is what the specter represents – a mirror to how Myrtle Gordon perceives herself as a young woman. The actress who plays this deceased fan (Laura Johnson) actually resembles a young Gena Rowlands; and it’s interesting to consider that, in order to accept her role as a middle-aged starlet, Rowlands must destroy a physical manifestation of her youth. As if to drive home the point that, in order for us to confront the potentially unpleasant reality of our present, we must be prepared to completely bury our past.

Laura Johnson - the physical manifestation of a catharsis.

Laura Johnson – the physical manifestation of a catharsis.

The film includes other interesting parallels between the people involved and their real lives. Myrtle Gordon’s co-star (and former lover) is an actor named Maurice Adams, played by John Cassavetes. Early scenes in the film establish a tension between them, in the sense that they are playing lovers on the stage having left that aspect of their lives behind in real life. Although it is not explicitly stated by anyone, it becomes a very real possibility that Adams moved on and abandoned Gordon because she had gotten too old. That is most certainly an unspoken fear that runs through her mind.

The director of the play is Manny Victor – played by Ben Gazzara – here displaying a much more commanding persona than Cosmo Vittelli (in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) while inhabiting a very similar role, that of the repertory company director who has to also serve as psychoanalyst and mentor to his emotionally wounded stars.

There is an early scene in the film that is very compelling and somewhat revelatory. In it, Victor has just returned from a particularly busy day of rehearsals and is attempting to have a relaxing evening with his wife Dorothy (played by Zohra Lampert). But it is at that late hour that Myrtle Gordon calls and asks for consolation with regards to her insecurities with the role in the play. We watch Manny as he calmly repeats over and over into the phone how much he “loves” Myrtle – all the while, his wife is playfully dancing on the bed, trying to get his attention.

Manny Victor - Director and psychoanalyst.

Manny Victor – Director and psychoanalyst.

This particular scene actually did happen. During the making of the ill-fated studio picture A Child is Waiting, the film’s star – Judy Garland – was, by that point of the early 60s, going through a mid-life crisis not at all unlike the one experienced by Myrtle Gordon. After working on the film for barely a week, she wondered out loud why no one had sent flowers to her dressing room. Sure enough, late at night, Gena Rowlands had to listen to her husband console this aging Hollywood star over the phone – reassuring her that she was still wonderful and everyone loved her; in particular her director.

Once again, we have a strong example of John Cassavetes drawing from his own life to produce a powerful catharsis on screen; using his familiarity with a world he knows very well to present a completely relatable parable to his audience.

The final piece of this emotional puzzle is the play itself.

Opening Night, like many of Cassavetes’ works – started life as a play. The play within the film is in fact an unfinished work that Cassavetes was developing before losing interest. But what remained gave him enough material to then weave into the narrative of the film, since it explored many of the same themes – of broken relationships and the fear of aging.

The sequences in which we see the play being performed in front of an audience are hypnotic in a manner very similar to the nightclub acts of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The difference is that the dramatic material here is richer and far more emotionally satisfying. More importantly, it feels of a piece with the main narrative. It flows concurrently with the story and feeds it, instead of being a distraction.

Cassavetes and Rowlands - together on stage as in life. Of a piece.

Cassavetes and Rowlands – together on stage as in life. Of a piece.

These scenes were shot in front of an actual live audience who were invited to participate in the making of the film, even as they didn’t realize it. They saw an ad in the paper and assumed they would be watching a preview of a soon to be released play. Instead, they were treated to an unfinished Cassavetes theater piece, while cameras rolled around them. That energy extends to the viewer watching the play at home. The energy becomes positively electric because it is so real.

Before her final revelation, Myrtle Gordon decides to go out and get completely drunk before going on stage. She then proceeds to perform the entirety of Act One stumbling, as her co-stars lead her around the stage. It’s a funny, explosive and all too real scene. We watch her go through this humiliating trial, while the audience erupts into very genuine laughter. We begin to laugh nervously as well, because it’s far too easy to get sucked into the reality of the situation – a completely chaotic piece of performance art in which anything can, and probably will, happen.

The kicker here is that Rowlands actually was completely drunk when she performed that scene, knowing that makes it even more explosive.

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The play – and by extension the film – climaxes with a truly revelatory sequence in which Myrtle Gordon and Maurice Adams, totally lost in the moment, leave their script aside and begin to improvise a very real exchange to bear each other’s souls. Much like the drunken sequence that precedes it, it is an extremely honest and funny scene. As in all of Cassavetes’ work, the line between what is fiction and reality begins to blur. We may begin to doubt whether we’re watching Myrtle Gordon and Maurice Adams or Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes. Their chemistry on stage is exhilarating, allowing the film to erupt into exuberance in a way completely uncharacteristic of a Cassavetes film. After a roller-coaster of emotions, he leaves you with a shining ray of hope.

Because we will all grow old someday.

What matters is the dignity with which we face that reality. This sense of optimism flies in the face of most critics, who have always tended to label Cassavetes as a cynic.

There’s nothing cynical about Opening Night. It’s a film about the inevitability of aging that chooses to celebrate the pure joy of life itself.

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