OPENING NIGHT

 (John Cassavetes, USA, 1977) 143 minutes

OPENING NIGHT

Director: John Cassavetes
Producer: Al Ruban
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Photography: Al Ruban
Editor: Tom Cornwell
Music: Bo Harwood
Gena Rowlands (Myrtle Gordon)
Ben Gazzara (Manny Victor)
John Cassavetes (Maurice Aarons)
Joan Blondell (Sarah Goode)
Paul Stewart (David Samuels)

Reviews and notes

Every film is an experience and really relates to the way you worked on it, what kind of a pleasure it was dealing with the people. OPENING NIGHT was just a war from the beginning, to see if we could do it; I found myself spending all of my energy saying, I don't care, we'll do it anyway."
- John Cassavetes



OPENING NIGHT is probably Cassavetes' best film to date. The reason for this, quite apart from the increasing interest in mise en scene that surfaced in A Woman Under the Influence and dominated The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, is not hard to find: in choosing to deal directly with the theatre and its mystiques, Cassavetes has also confronted the nigger that kept popping up in his cinema-verite woodpile.

In the opening sequence, with the camera hovering in anxious proximity, we see Myrtle Gordon backstage in the wings, waiting to go on and given a last comforting drink by the prop man as the curtain rises and she takes her cue. Immediately the camera cuts to a view of the stage from the back of the auditorium as the performance begins, largely masked by the back of an intrusive spectator's head until head and camera come to viewing terms. This is more than just a superbly concise evocation of the theatrical experience on both sides of the proscenium; it also calls that experience into question by juxtaposing the person backstage (raw. naked apprehension of inadequacy) with the actress on stage (smooth, mechanical representation of inadequacy). It may seem a simplistic notion, but even Stanislavsky and Brecht, after all, never got to the end of it from their conflicting standpoints; and while ostensibly dealing with the theme of a woman painfully learning not to cling to her spent youth, Cassavetes and his superlative cast (no one is less than brilliant) provide a wealth of marginal illumination reflecting light on the relationship between reality and representation (or between life and theatre).

In Myrtle's brief encounter with the frenzied fan who is killed, for instance, she is of course (like Bette Davis' Eve) faced with an unwelcome reminder of her own lost youth; but more importantly, perhaps, the professional emoter is confronted with the paradox that this amateur, because she has no control over her emotions (which lie "so close to the surface"), can express a tidal wave of ecstasy, devotion. despair and anguish that she herself could not hope to match. This art in artlessness is explored further in a scene where the distraught Myrtle telephones Manny just as he is retiring to bed with his non-theatrical wife Dorothy. As Manny comfortingly reasons with Myrtle, Dorothy meanwhile clowns a sort of "look at me" boredom; and the whole film is haunted by her fear, unvoiced yet screamed out in this scene, that she is going to lose her husband to his star.

At first glance seemingly a cop-out, a jocular happy ending in which a bad play is burlesqued into Broadway success, the final sequence in fact brings all the film's subtle divagations to a point. Here, Myrtle's concern for everybody else's lack of interest in the fan's death, which earlier rang out as an accusation of ivory towerism ("What's the matter with us? A girl was killed tonight...we lose sight of everything"), is set against the quiet, loving concern with which everybody in the company selflessly rallies round to pull the drunken Myrtle through the performance, genuinely delighting in her every small victory. Her concern, in other words, was to keep her art alive; theirs, to keep the human being from hurt.

Fittingly resorting to trickery to round out this survey of theatrical trickery, Cassavetes then makes both concerns coincide in the spontaneous burlesquing of the play. Suddenly forgetting the status difference that kept them as star and pet rather than as man and woman, each responding directly to an impulse in the other, Myrtle and Maurice join together in an improvisation of their feelings about the play and what it implies about their relationship; and it is to this improvisation, carrying its exhilarating intimation of raw reality breaking through the theatrical facade, that the audience in the film responds. Not entirely convincing on a dramatic level (the actors, one feels, would be too professional to risk jeopardising an opening night in this way, no matter what the pressures), this final sequence nevertheless constitutes a fine imaginative comment on Cassavetes' continuing concern with the always perilously shifting line between cinema (or theatre) and verite.
? Tom Milne, Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1978.

Weblink: Review by Roger Ebert

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