No one can accuse John Cassavetes of being unoriginal. In fact, he is uncompromisingly original to the point of infuriation. Many of his detractors would say that his films often rely too heavily on reality, leaving his actors to “be” instead of perform, but with Opening Night, the indie godfather is able to pull of his greatest feat: a supernatural morality “tale” set literally in a theatrical play.
The incomparable Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ stalwart paramour and professional partner in crime until his death) plays world-famous actress Myrtle Gordon, a train wreck of a woman involved an emotionally complicated stage play, who accidentally witnesses the death of a stalker/autograph hound. What follows is a complex, entertaining story about femininity, aging in the entertainment business, supernatural possession and performance.
Rowland’s Myrtle is a raging alcoholic who will do whatever it takes to find her way into the character she is playing. As she so eloquently puts it “I have no husband. I have no children. This is it for me.”. She communes with the spirit of the malevolent dead girl to while trying to find a perspective for her part. Rowland’s performance is stunning and towering. It’s an experimental, thoughtful take on an almost selfish woman who could have descended into caricature and parody in the hands of a less seasoned performer. The improvisational nature of many scenes is amazing and for me, this was a better performance than her critically acclaimed work in Cassavetes’ equally effective A Woman Under the Influence.
Veteran character actress Joan Blondell, who is probably most recognized for her small performance as “Vi the waitress” in Grease, but made over 150 films in her near-fifty year career, plays a distinguished sixty-five year old Broadway playwright. It is so interesting to watch an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age giving their comments on aging in the business. Blondell essays a clever, meaningful performance that should be remembered more fondly. Legend has it that she had numerous on-set meltdowns because she was used to working in the old studio system, where serious method acting was often discouraged. Cassavetes publicly commented that he had to trick the performance out of her because she just didn’t understand his ways of working.
The men are really just second bananas here, but when they are director/actor Cassavetes himself and legendary Ben Gazzara that’s no small order. Gazzara, as the play’s enigmatic director is, as usual, magnificent, packing a lifetime’s worth of detail into just a few lines of dialogue. Both gents acquiesce to their female counterparts with a startling compassion and chivalry that is absent from present-day filmmaking.
The scenes of the actors performing an ad-libbed play were reportedly filmed in front of a live audience, which adds so much depth to the proceedings. This is a fascinating behind the scenes look at how actors work in theater and the process of putting on a show. It is certainly challenging, but more than rewarding! I think this is Cassavetes’ true masterpiece. The innovation of his storytelling and the clear regard for the performances is just wonderful to watch.