Friday, November 29, 2013

Opening Night














OPENING NIGHT           A      
USA  (144 mi)  1977  d:  John Cassavetes 

[Opening Night] is the other side of A Woman Under the Influence, about a woman on her own, with no responsibility to anyone but herself, with a need to come together with other women. [Myrtle] is alone and in desperate fear of losing the vulnerability she feels she needs as an actress. [She is] a woman unable any longer to be regarded as young: Sex is no longer a viable weapon. You never see her as a stupendous actress. As a matter of fact, her greatest thrill was comfort, as it is for most actresses. Give me a play I can go into every night and can feel I have some awareness of who I am, what I am. [She didn't] want to expose myself in [certain] areas. So when she faints and screams on the stage, it's because it's so impossible to be told you are this boring character, you are aging and you are just like her. I would be unable to go on to the stage feeling that I'm nothing. I think that most actors would, and that's really what the picture is about. Although she resists [facing them,] Myrtle must finally accept and resolve the dilemmas which lie not only at the core of the play she is doing, but which [reflect] the basic realities of her own existence, from which she has heretofore fled, aided by alcohol, men, professional indulgence – and fantasy! The character is left in conflict, but she fights the terrifying battle to recapture hope. And wins! In and out of life the theme of the play haunts the actress until she kills the young girl in herself. 
—John Cassavetes

Perhaps the gutsiest film about theater ever made, right alongside Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT (1952) or Desplechin’s ESTHER KHAN (2000), and though filmed in 1977, it was not released commercially until 1991, two years after Cassavetes’ death, as until then, incredulously enough, no theatrical distributor expressed an interest.  A film about the making of a theatrical play, both onscreen and off, with Gena Rowlands starring as Myrtle Gordon in the play A Second Woman written by the 65-year old Joan Blondell as Sarah Goode, which concerns a woman at the moment in her life when she realizes she has lost her youth, and the second woman takes over.  The part of the writer was originally conceived with Bettie Davis in mind, both screen legends from the 30’s, where the film was originally about the writer, where the integrity of the story came by showing an actress standing up to her.  Davis would have brought a much tougher dimension to the role, adding her own sense of theatricality as well.  Rowlands plays a still vibrant middle-aged star in her forties who has difficulty coming to terms with Blondell’s age, so avoids it at all costs, continually haunted by the ghost of a teenage girl (Laura Johnson), one of her fans whose accidental death she tragically witnessed one night, fantasizing a younger version of herself.  Perhaps inspired by ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), purportedly one of Cassavetes’ favorite films, a movie that might be called a woman’s picture, as it delves into different phases of a woman’s life and career, examining the various motivations, where Cassavetes turns the adoring fan of the Hollywood picture into a disturbing hallucination that haunts the actress, while also similarly staging out of town, tryout rehearsals of the play in New Haven, Connecticut as it nears its premiere in New York on Broadway.  One of her onstage actors is Cassavetes himself as Maurice Aarons, who interestingly plays a version of himself had he not married Gena Rowlands, a charming actor onstage who is something if a cynical womanizer offstage, largely making his way on his own, much as he did before he met Ms. Rowlands.  A word about the giant photographs of aging women on the set, a similar device was used by Woody Allen in Stardust Memories (1980), who used a giant, wall-sized photograph in his apartment that continually kept changing pictures, depending on his changing moods.  Also, the introductory still photos shown in the opening credits are used to brilliant effect, opening credits montage Opening Night YouTube (1:11), where Cassavetes, as he did in Faces (1968), uses close ups of blown-up photographs to exude sensuality to the character, while also using a cavernous penthouse apartment to reflect the immensity of Myrtle’s isolation and loneliness.     

Using the theatrical device of a play within a play, what’s curiously interesting about the film is there’s more time spent together onscreen between Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands than anything previously seen in a Cassavetes film, where they appear to relish each moment shared with the audience, becoming a sheer, unadulterated joy to watch, where through various rehearsals there’s a continuous stream of looks at scenes within the play, and each time it’s played just a bit differently, where their performances are not so much acted as captured in a time capsule retaining all its original vibrancy, where their characters are so effortlessly and absolutely real.  Rowlands gives an enthralling performance, perhaps especially significant because she absolutely defies the part she’s been given, even though it’s been written especially for her.  Part of it appears like a melodramatic soap opera as she wanders into an earlier part of her life, almost like a ghost, but the scenes onstage playing ex-lovers with Myrtle and Maurice are unmistakably more significant, as it appears they’re talking about their own lives, where the film continuously blurs the line between performance and real life.  Part of the genius of the film is this rare glimpse of intimacy into their real lives, yet it’s always shown with a flair for theatricality, where the underlying emotions grow more abstract by negotiating this strange and somewhat illusory boundary world that exists between reality and the imagination.  Art impacts life, where Cassavetes and his real life wife have achieved a work of astonishing emotional depth that may be unique in all of cinema.  Cassavetes has indicated “I won’t make shorthand films, because I don’t want to manipulate audiences into assuming quick, manufactured truths,” where the beauty of this film is creating a work of art that explores the mystery of the personality and the often unfathomably complex motivations of artists.     

Myrtle, however, has found herself in the midst of a full-blown identity crisis, where an early tragic encounter with a young fan continues to haunt her for the rest of the film, as she’s literally visited by the young woman’s ghost who’s not at all happy with the outcome, yet Myrtle attempts to channel some of her own character through her youth, but her warmth and affection for the young woman is received with anger and disgust, turning brutally ugly on occasion, where the two are literally fighting spirits, creating a whirlwind of emotions that continually swirl around the theatrical production.  Countering this maelstrom of dramatic force is the play’s director, none other than Ben Gazarra as Manny, as suave and debonair as ever, who continually coddles his actress, believing she is one of the great actresses of our time, and perhaps an ex-lover as well, but he constantly pushes her to accept Sarah’s play, which he feels offers brilliant insights into a woman aging.  Manny, Sarah, and a kindly producer David, Paul Stewart, the butler in CITIZEN KANE (1941), form a kind of troika of theatrical convention, like the drama police, as they continually urge Myrtle to accept the provisions of the play, while she continually experiments with the role, often changing the lines altogether, telling Sarah “age is depressing, age is dull,” claiming “I’m looking for a way to play this part where age doesn’t make any difference,” which deeply offends the author by changing the intent of her play, who believes all the emotions are clearly evident on the written pages, where “all you need to do is say the lines clearly and with a degree of feeling.”  But therein lies the problem for Myrtle, because if she’s accepted as an “older woman,” she’ll never receive any other lead casting roles for the rest of her career, relegated to the world of older secondary character performers.  For men, like Maurice or Manny, they typically deal with the questions of aging in full denial by having an affair, but Myrtle has to reach inside herself to find something else. 

More than anything, the film is about personal transformation, where theater simply offers an artistic vehicle for personal expression.  Myrtle’s defiance to accept a role as written because she feels it’s constrictive and suffocating leads to major disagreements and confrontations with the consistently inflexible theater management, continually altering the format of the play, inventing new lines, literally fighting for her life by turning to the audience in live dress rehearsals and exclaiming, “We must never forget this is only a play.”  Exacerbating the fears is heavy alcohol use, where in the middle of the night before the play opens, Myrtle desperately turns to Maurice, her co-star and ex-lover for comfort, exactly as Judy Garland used to call Cassavetes in the middle of the night looking for reassurance during the filming of A Child Is Waiting (1963), where Myrtle encourages him to try a radically new approach to the play, “Let’s dump it upside down and see if we can’t find something human in it,” an approach the real life Cassavetes would find inspired, but Maurice rejects her, telling her “You’re not a woman to me anymore.  You’re a professional,” telling her “I have a small part. It’s unsympathetic.  The audience doesn’t like me.  I can’t afford to be in love with you.”  By morning, however, she becomes traumatized, where her inner demons take over, and she mutilates herself viciously in front of the playwright, who by this point she despises, believing this may put her own demons to rest, telling her, “I will do anything, anything, to give my character authenticity on stage.”  Myrtle is late for the opening, then arrives dead drunk, yet she is cruelly pushed by Manny to perform anyway, refusing to allow anyone to help her, forcing her to literally crawl her way to her dressing room.  Unbelievably, still careening off walls, she stumbles to her backstage position, receiving the encouraging words from Cassavetes stalwart John Finnegan, “I’ve seen a lot of drunks in my day, but I’ve never seen anybody as drunk as you and still be able to walk.  You’re fantastic!”    

Leaning against walls, and with the help from everyone involved who often carry her from one location to the next, she goes onstage, where she then proceeds to change all the lines of the play, totally improvising with co-star Maurice, leaving characters alone onstage as she disappears unexpectedly, then completely reinvents the dialogue when she returns.  Despite her state of extreme inebriation, she remains a sympathetic figure, actually reversing the roles, with Maurice playing her aging character while she flirts with everyone in sight, showing signs of Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball, even the Marx Brothers, some of which is brilliant, other times failing miserably.  Breathing life into an otherwise failed literary misadventure (despite those giant feathers in Joan Blondell’s lavishly ostentatious hats!), this is a film that is not afraid to fail, and is about the fear and pain of performing, heightening the anxiety and the insecurity of the star to the limit, somewhat similar to the exaggerated theatricality of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), but stretched and expanded here, juggling on stage and off stage actions, becoming a free-wheeling comedic improvisational farce, Opening Night (1977) - Stage play with the leg trick  YouTube (4:28), like something out of a hilariously inventive vaudeville routine with actors addressing the audience directly with personal asides, “I am not me!...There’s someone posing here as us!”  While it’s always important to recall that Rowlands is really channeling her husband, becoming his alter-ego for both his methods and his madness, OPENING NIGHT shows what happens both on the stage and behind the scenes, capturing the persona of all persons involved in the theater, large and small, where this is a brilliant, in-depth look at the world of performance, art, and the extraordinarily fragile connections between the performers and the audience.  Of interest, the ending was allegedly recut as the preview audience stood up and cheered at what they saw on stage, not the bewildered effect Cassavetes was looking for. 

In this outtake from a 1978 television interview (which was never broadcast), Cassavetes discusses his film Opening Night for a while, and builds into a terrific rant on movies and movie audiences.  This is a great example of Cassavetes way with words, his dislike of people who live only for the approval of others, and his anger at the low popularity of his later films (especially Opening Night and Killing of a Chinese Bookie):  John Cassavetes - "Television Sucks!"  YouTube (8:08).

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