Criterion: Opening Night
OPENING NIGHT, JOHN CASSAVETES, 1977
At times while watching Opening Night, it felt like I was watching the ideological sequel to A Woman Under the Influence. Gena Rowlands again plays a woman going out of her mind, only this time it is not her immediate family that suffers, but the production staff of the play of which she is the star. Cassavetes explores her character a little deeper, focusing less on the peripheral characters, and more on her internal breakdown. We see what she sees, mostly from her perspective. She is primarily haunted by an autograph seeker who died outside of a playhouse, and sees images of this dead, young girl as she continues with the production.
It is probably unfair to compare the two movies despite the similarities, because Opening Night is more abstract and deeper in how it approaches its central theme, the aging of a famous actor – something certainly close to home in the real lives of Cassavetes and Rowlands. Age is the subject of the play, and it is overtly part of Rowlands’ hallucinations of this younger girl, who she at first feels sorrow for, which eventually transforms towards resentment. As she descends further into madness, her downfall has less to do with any feelings of guilt towards the girl’s death, and more as a wrath for her representation of youth. The character looks like a younger Rowlands, and as she rejects the script of a play that characterizes her as older, she takes out her wrath on this phantom youthful ideal.
If anything, age was too much of a central theme, and even if it was approached creatively, it was not portrayed with much subtlety. I felt that too much of the lengthy running time was dedicated to exploring this theme, but the message would have been just as clear with a lot less.
With the utmost respect for Cassavetes and his craft, and some people that I regard highly consider this his best work, but I had some problems with Opening Night. Part of this has to do with the heavy-handed treatment of aging. Another part was that I felt the independent nature of a Cassavetes production did some damage to this film. Sometimes answering to a producer can keep someone accountable with their ambition.
Realism went out the window, and I’m not referring to the hallucinations. The plot became unbelievable as the producers of the play continued to abide by someone who they could tell was losing it. I don’t expect they would have kept this person in the lead role and risk disaster during opening night. Or they would have delayed the open until they got the situation under control, resolved, and the star actress became comfortable with the material, which she clearly wasn’t. I also had problems with the final scene with Rowlands and Cassavetes playing off of each other, obviously improvising, and the audience gushing at them. The scene itself was entertaining simply because of the magnetism of two experienced actors. The problem was that the play did seem all over the place, and an actual audience would have trouble enjoying it. A real broadway audience would have problems with this play within a play. The final scene continues for awhile and expresses very little, and I feel the audience would have become impatient.
Film Rating: 5.5/10
Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara: There was a similar conversation after The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. It’s enjoyable to hear these two talk to each other and reflect. They discussed how disappointing it was that this movie essentially flopped after Bookie did as well, and that the final scene was mostly improvised.
Al Ruban: This was a short interview yet was one of the more revealing interviews of the entire disc. He said that Cassavetes gave his crew almost carte blanch to work based on their own interpretations of the script. He also revealed that John could be difficult to work with, and during one period of the shoot they ran out of money and had to go on hiatus for two weeks. Ruban had a falling out with Cassavetes and considered walking off, but Gazzara convined him to finish his work.
Criterion Rating: 5/10