Opening Night begins with a start, with Gena Rowlands’ Myrtle Gordon being half-shoved into the frame, her voice hoarse and rushed as she gives instruction to the prop man who led her into view. The shot lasts long enough for the man to take the cigarette dangling precipitously from her mouth and give her a swig of liquid courage, then the camera cuts to face the audience of the stage show in which Myrtle is performing and is then reversed to sit among the crowd to watch the performance.
The brisk establishment of star and setting prefigures what may be John Cassavetes’ densest film, and the one most expressly about his aims as a filmmaker. Myrtle, an aging diva who still commands hordes of autograph hounds and tearful fans entering and exiting the theater, nonetheless feels an increasing detachment not only with this production but also with her self-confidence as an actor, losing the connection she could conjure so easily in youth. She once commanded the stage, but now she cannot help but feel limited by it.
Not that anyone can blame her for feeling that way with this show. The set is comically pretentious, with blood-red carpet and lampshades lying under massive blow-up pictures of a withered old peasant. Every time the film returns to this scene in the show, it always seems a matter of time before her co-star Maurice (Cassavetes) launches into a monologue about the cry of the fishmongers. As much as Myrtle frets about being seen as old and washed-up, everyone else around her clearly suffers the same fears. Sarah (Joan Blondell), the playwright, presses Myrtle on being able to admit her age, yet her preoccupation with finding the right actress to understand all the menopausal anxieties of the character speaks to her own issues. Besides, whoever put those blatantly symbolic images into the set effectively makes Myrtle redundant.
The breakdown of behind-the-scenes drama and Myrtle’s acting insecurities places Opening Night among the host of movies about the making of art, in which even subjects nominally about other fields of discipline double as films about filmmaking. Instead of retreating to the kind of cerebral self-reflexivity that characterizes such movies, however, Cassavetes continues to explore his singular form of experiential direction, of matching camera placement and movement with the actors’ expression to erase the boundaries between performer and lens. After Myrtle’s first performance, a close-up of her guzzling a drink cuts back to a low-angle, slightly fish-eyed shot that warps the ostensibly objective distance around her perspective.
The blurred lines between the characters’ subjectivity and the frame’s presentation of their “reality” also comes to bear on how Myrtle and the rest of the cast and crew react to witnessing the death of young fan Nancy (Laura Johnson), who is struck by a car while remaining fixated on Myrtle’s own vehicle driving away. Myrtle freaks out, but everyone else can only think about how hungry they are. Their callousness is stunning, and later, when Myrtle starts to hallucinate visions of Nancy as both tormentor and inspiration, everyone else practically denies that the girl ever even existed in order to try and break her of the spell.
Trying to solve whether Nancy is real or what she symbolizes to Myrtle is a game other films might play, but Opening Night merges the crew’s gaslighting of Nancy’s death with their general attitude toward Myrtle. When Myrtle turns to Maurice, he ex-lover, for comfort after the girl’s death, he responds, “You’re not a woman to me anymore. You’re a professional.” Soon after, a scene of director Manny (Ben Gazzara) talking on the phone with Myrtle leaves her unseen and unheard in his receiver as he listens to her apprehensions over having to be slapped by Maurice in one of the play’s scenes. He tries to reason with her, eventually losing his cool and barking, “It’s a tradition. Actresses get slapped! Do you want to be a star, or do you want to be unsympathetic?”
This is all pregnant with Meaning, but Cassavetes never plays it as smirking metaphor but as a complete aestheticization of Myrtle’s headspace, of the internal and external pressures she feels from co-workers and from her own experiences as a star. It’s telling that as upset as Myrtle is about the death, she passively stays in her car and only does something about it when she gets back to her hotel and stops by the concierge just long enough to tell him to call the police and report the accident. She, along with the other characters, has existed in the world of art for so long that life itself must obey the restrictive paradigms to which writing subjects reality.
Nancy, like the on-the-nose lines and art direction of the play, introduce the normal signs and signifiers that convey dramatic conflict, with all the attendant themes spelled out neatly to be decoded. It is in Rowlands’ increasingly unhinged performance and Cassavetes’ intuitive direction that the film moves away from these easy solutions toward an increasing breakdown that affects the stage show, and how Cassavetes films it. The first scene films the show with a single take from a camera situated in the audience, effectively taping it the way Cassavetes might have filmed one of his kids in a school play. As Myrtle pushes back against the myopia of her castmates, she also rips at the stilted play by going off-script. In turn, repeated scenes of the production start to become more broken-up editing, filmed at a closer distance to erase the clear divide between viewer and artist. In other words, cinema starts creeping in.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the climax, when Myrtle arrives for the opening night performance stone drunk, soldiers onto the stage and promptly seizes control of the show and bends it to her splintered will. Having stymied Maurice in a preview screening with a sudden burst of fourth-wall breaking improvisation, Myrtle now forces him to contend with a total refusal to play to script, and as she dredges up her fears and repurposes them as foundations from which she can reform the material, he has to reveal his own thoughts to keep pace. “There’s something deeply cynical about my face,” he confesses, which elicits a laugh from the audience but in an instant opens the play up from a narrow view of a woman worried she’s getting old to a more complex treatise on the way we all age and how it alters our self-perception. The on-screen and off-screen lovers tease each other, offer reassurances and admissions, and they even close out by playing a childish game with each other, having practically forgotten the audience is there.
Cassavetes hated the concept of auteurism and stressed acting over formal trickery, but there’s no denying how striking so much of the film is. Just look at those eerie shots of Nancy’s hand half-tapping, half-groping the rain-slicked windows of Myrtle’s car like a believer trying to touch the hem of Christ’s robe, or the way one shot of Myrtle just slightly out of focus matches the spaced-out look on her face. Cassavetes also stages wonderfully revealing bits of camerawork, like the scene of Sarah leaving the opening night performance in dismay, only to go outside, take a single, calming puff of a cigarette before tossing it and being drawn back into the theater as if by Myrtle’s gravitational pull.
But it’s that slow modulation of form with each return to the production that marks the director’s most impressive aesthetic achievement, in this or any other film. Opening Night even has an Old Hollywood antecedent in Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, another movie that foregrounds the tension between the ambition of theatrical productions and the spatial limitations of the stage. Minnelli’s film dealt with that idea literally, its stage show growing so massive that it can no longer fit inside the theater. Cassavetes’ tackles the shortcomings of the distance between audience and performer, and the simplification of traditional scriptwriting, in illuminating something real. Both films posit cinema as the answer, or at least the crucial next step in fulfilling their art to its fullest potential.
Cassavetes’ films before and after attempted to map out a new visual language attuned to the experiential and sensual over the intellectual and didactic. Opening Night’s exponentially accelerated deployment of perspective-hopping cuts and proscenium-erasing intimacy self-reflexively calls attention to his formal unorthodoxy. In this postmodern (or post-postmodern) age, that makes it one of the director’s most accessible films, even though it is also his richest and most elusive. Other meta-films ruminate on the director’s insecure ego, with actors divided into distracting, uncomprehending prima-donnas or lusted-after muses. Opening Night may be the only one that finds its director’s epiphany in total sublimation with the performer.