If someone were to ask me to break up a movie into it’s bare bone parts I would say that there’s writing, directing, acting and editing. What’s tough about admitting that is that every so often there’s a film that happens to deliver so well on all of those elements, but at the same time has one overshadow that fact by being miles ahead (and much louder) than the rest of them that the praise that element receives can be misinterpreted as denouncing the others by not discussing them. I’d like to say that Opening Night is one such film for me as the more I think about it all is the more I love everything about this film, but at the same time I openly admit that the key factor that screamed the loudest to me was the performance of Gena Rowlands.
This being the ninth film of Cassavetes‘ catalogue that I’m discussing I’ve been privy to many wondrous performances by Gena Rowlands (multiple time actress for Cassavetes) but somehow this was the one that really made it to me.
Mrytle (Gena Rowlands) is a famed theatre actress who’s preparing her latest play, Second Woman, when she’s forced to confront her entire life as she deals with witnessing a fan die one night while trying to see her.
While we never get the privilege of witnessing what Mrytle is like before the witnessing of her fan’s death it feels as a reformative film where she is trying to rediscover herself. The play she’s preparing for asks her to come to terms with not only age and what that will mean for her. Her many discussions with Sarah (Joan Blondell), the writer, about the play and her character as she struggles to find the ‘angle’ that she needs to make it all work for her we see her inability to cope with life as it stands.
There’s a crucial moment, that’s talked about at length, in the play where Maurice’s character (John Cassavetes) slaps Myrtle’s character. The film takes us to audience filled staging of the play where Mrytle responds to the slap a lot more affected than expected to the point where Maurice isn’t sure if he hurt her or not and we (the film audience) know this. We are then able to watch curiously on as we see Maurice, and Mrytle, try to navigate this moment without (and sometimes with) breaking character which adds an odd level of narrative to the film. Here we see evidence of not just Mrytle’s delusions – in how she feels power on stage – but also her need as an actress to be the one of note always.
Where some may see the use of Mrytle’s hallucinations of her teenage fan (which I honestly thought for a moment was to be a younger her) as a over bearing method of bringing us back to the existential points of the film I see it as masterful juxtaposition. Cassavetes is able to place the much needed hope that’s missing from the film (as so eloquently stated by Mrytle when discussing the play) back in by not just inserting literal hope but at least having the discussion of a need for it. As we see this teenage girl discussing her life and having Mrytle be aggravated by it, wanting to tell her it all changes with age, but we never get there. The film uses this as a catalyst to help get Mrytle where she needs to be for her character in the end when we actually get to the Opening Night of the play so that not only do we applaud her as the play is over but we understand even more about the acting process (or maybe this idealized version of it) is like.