Wednesday 15 October 2008

Opening Night (1977)

Myrtle Gordon is a stage actress and it would seem a good one. She has talent, she has the lead and she has fans. People in bars ask her for autographs. She also appears to live for her art, as highlighted by the fact that her apartment is large with a sprung floor and sparse furniture that seems like a collection of props, suggesting that she literally lives on a stage. But one night, after a performance of The Second Woman in which she's starring, a fan is killed outside their theatre, one to whom Myrtle has just given an autograph. She's only seventeen, she's a little strange and she's hit by a car, standing in the rain silently blowing kisses through the window of Myrtle's car.

This becomes the catalyst for a breakdown, which actress Gena Rowlands explores throughout the rambling two and a half hours of this film by her husband John Cassavetes. He's here too, playing one of her co-stars but during that initial autograph session outside the play his character repeatedy tells a fan, 'Myrtle Gordon is the star of the show'. It's no difficulty to see this as Cassavetes pointing us towards Rowlands, not that this is needed given the dynamic performance that she gives. While there a number of powerful actors in this film, it's definitely her show.

Myrtle's breakdown is because she's getting old. She's never married, she has no children and she's getting old. Given that the play is about aging, the second woman of the title being the part of the self that takes over when youth dies, she quickly associates Nancy Stein, the dead fan, with her own youth and doesn't want to let go. When the writer of the play, Sarah Goode, asks her how old she is, she won't answer. With the play nearing the end of its rehearsal run in New Haven, she's running out of time to find a way to come to terms with her part and her self before they open on Broadway.

Everyone else involved has to deal with her too, but they don't have the same connections that she has, leaving them floundering in their ability to help. Given the level of quality of the cast (mostly Cassavetes regulars, of course) and the amount of time they're given to build their characters, they're formidable support. The director is Ben Gazzara, the writer Joan Blondell, the producer Paul Stewart, her co-star Cassavetes himself. All of them have their own reasons to ensure that she gets through her problems.

What I'm learning most about John Cassavetes is that I'm still learning about John Cassavetes. He's an amazing filmmaker, that's obvious, but he's not an easy one to approach. He made very personal films that sprawl and improvise and deal with complex issues. They delight and infuriate at the same time. They refuse to focus on anything in particular, choosing instead to rack up impressions that coalesce into the film's message or theme. They require that the actors pour themselves into their roles because it's their nuances that comprise the stories. Luckily he had a dedicated band of regulars who understood what he wanted and appreciated what he did. They shared his vision and were willing to have these films wash over them.

We as viewers have to do the same thing and if we can do that, we're treated to insights that never fall prey to cliche. Opening Night is another powerful Cassevetes film with a powerful lead performance by his wife Gena Rowlands. However it's also an insight into the mind of an actor, framed by the collective mind of the performance itself. The questions about age are only the most obvious questions. There's so much here that talks about how actors find their characters and so much that underlines how whole productions are families that have to look out for each other, not in some sappy Disney way but in order to survive. Without Myrtle Gordon there is no production, but without the rest of the cast and crew there's no Myrtle Gordon.

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