Gena Rowlands is as destabilizing a screen presence as Marlon Brando. Both bring the unpredictable electricity of live theater to the cinema. Somehow, they make viewers feel that what we’re watching could veer in any direction at any moment, even though we know that their acting choices have long been trapped in celluloid.
A Woman Under the Influence is considered Rowlands’ pinnacle, but I actually prefer her performance in Opening Night, another film written and directed by her husband, John Cassavetes. Here she plays Myrtle Gordon, a middle-aged actress struggling during preview performances for an upcoming Broadway play—which just happens to be about a woman struggling with middle age.
Mid-life crises onscreen are usually reserved for men, so it’s refreshing to see Myrtle’s experience of one. Well, both refreshing and troubling. Myrtle keeps her anguish at bay for a while—as with many Cassavetes characters, hard drinking helps until it doesn’t—but eventually the themes of the play hit too close to home. Myrtle takes it out on her character, derailing the preview performances with impulsive stage decisions and off-script embellishments. (After being slapped in one scene, she stays on the ground so long the show nearly comes to a standstill.) At times, it’s as if she’s deconstructing the material live, having an argument with herself, her character, and the audience all at the same time.
Rowlands takes the movie by the throat in the dramatic, onstage sequences, just as Brando would have done, yet she’s equally compelling in the film’s smaller moments. Alone in her dressing room at one point, Myrtle sits cornered by mirrors. Staring hard into one of them, it’s as if she’s seeing an alien or a ghost. (Rowlands somehow drastically changes her expression the moment the camera focuses on her reflection.) Cassavetes then employs an array of different shots—inserts of Myrtle’s eyes or lips, blurry close-ups—perhaps playing on the notion of actors having a “good side” and a “bad side.” Slyly edited into the middle of all this is a cutaway shot to a much younger woman: either a vision of Myrtle’s younger self or the ghost of the fan who was killed in a car accident outside the theater in the movie’s opening scenes. Or maybe she’s some combination of the two. (This figure, played by Laura Johnson, will appear more prominently in the film’s second half.)
Opening Night takes us deep inside Myrtle’s distress, tempering any frustration at her erratic behavior with understanding and empathy. Myrtle is in crisis, one we feel from the inside, and the tragedy of the movie is that no one offers to help. The playwright (Joan Blondell), an older woman, tries to offer some consolation, but in the end she’s mostly concerned about the integrity of her work. The same goes for the director (Ben Gazzara, doing a variation on his strip-club impresario in Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) and Myrtle’s costar (Cassavetes himself), a former lover of Myrtle’s who has no intention of getting involved again. Even the audience—which is generally depicted as adoring—offers little real comfort. Cassavetes often places the camera at the level of an audience member’s head, so that we feel surrounded; similarly, an early scene with autograph seekers emphasizes the way they’re pushing in on Myrtle, claustrophobically crowding her. The audience is an oppositional force in Opening Night, including in one of Cassavetes’ most ostentatious shots: of Myrtle’s angelic figure, in color, rising onto the screen while superimposed over a black and white photo of a crowd.
It’s as if Myrtle is deconstructing the material live.
So Myrtle is alone. If Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother, which also includes a veteran stage actress in crisis, was inspired by Opening Night, it’s also something of a reverse image of Cassavetes’ film. The various characters in that ensemble melodrama extend an abundance of unexpected care for each other. They represent the one thing that Myrtle claims is missing from the play that has ensnared her: “hope.”
No such thing is found in Opening Night, either. When the play finally makes its Broadway debut, Myrtle shows up drunk, barely able to stand. The show probably shouldn’t go on, but it does. In the final scene, Myrtle once again hijacks the production and turns the material into a garish, grinning sitcom, complete with the live audience as a laugh track. Her performance is regarded by some as a triumph—the audience applauds and one crew member marvels that she’s “fantastic”—but everyone else sees this as a rock-bottom moment.
Indeed, it’s similar to those “mornings after” experienced by the characters in Cassavetes’ Faces, which centers on middle-aged boozers who pursue younger partners because it seems to make the years shed away. Yet the next morning, they’ve still aged another day. With Opening Night—released when Rowlands and Cassavetes were nearly 10 years older than they were at the time of Faces—we get an even more urgent variation on the same question. “You want to be young again?” Myrtle is asked in a scene from the play. Don’t we all.