Gena Rowlands in ”Opening Night” (1977) | Faces Distribution
The Editorial: thoughts, short stories
or essays about the world of cinema
It is one of the best films about an actor’s life and work. There have been other great movies about the world of theater or film – All about Eve (1950), A Star Is Born (1954), Birdman (2014) – but John Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1977) lays bare the drama of an actor and the all-consuming act of acting like no other.
Myrtle Gordon (superbly played by Gena Rowlands) is a star actress in the prime of life, performing in out-of-town previews of a new play in which, for the first time, she will play an older woman. Ben Gazzara plays the director, Joan Blondell is the playwright, and Cassavetes himself plays the leading man. Myrtle wreaks psychodramatic improvisations upon the text, she gets drunk, chain-smokes, sows chaos among her colleagues because nobody knows why she acts this way. You, the viewer, do not easily identify with Myrtle either and that’s exactly what Cassavetes wanted to prevent. Cassavetes’ films are about life, emotions, feelings. But life is not simple. This is a harrowing and profound film that makes you think. “You have to fight knowing, because once you know something, it’s hard to be open and creative; it’s a form of passivity – something to guard against,” the director said.
The entire film has a loose, fluid shooting style, it’s like you can not really tell whether what you see is Cassavetes and the actors backstage rehearsing and improvising or the actual movie – this was a director who always took the risk of being an original. But in the last scene, when Myrtle comes in late, drunk, for the opening night of the play, Cassavetes and all his players appear to have genuinely improvised it (something the filmmaker often did), in front of a theatre full of extras playing the audience. It is a brilliant all-the-world’s-a-stage effect.
Myrtle is alone, she’s on her own, she has no family, no responsibility than her own, and is in desperate fear of losing the vulnerability she feels she needs as an actress. That’s her whole life, being an actress. “I have no family, no kids. This is my life. This is it for me,” she says desperately at one point. And she goes to extreme lengths to keep that vulnerability. And she hangs on to it, she hangs onto her ideas. She knows that the only measure of her success, and of her life, is what she can create and express on stage. And that if she can not do that, she’s lost. She’s very honest to herself, she doesn’t go along with the crowd, she doesn’t want to accept someone else’s point of view, she wants to find her own answers. And she goes after them unapologetically. That she succeeds in the end, that she redeems her role, is very moving and hopeful. “An actor is a very loyal person to life, a person who fights against all odds to make something work and doesn’t want to be fed a lot of lies,” said John Cassavetes. I think every person should apply this to their own life. The only measure of someone’s success is being authentic and true to oneself.