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The Theater of Fear: John Cassavetes’ ‘Opening Night’

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Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) lives her life on the stage in John Cassavetes Opening Night (1977). Even the living room in her hotel suite resembles the theater, with a strangely spacious wooden floor that rarely welcomes anyone’s steps other than Myrtle’s own (except for the occasional disappointing suitor). Throughout the movie, whenever she walks into the room, the actress is framed in the center with her back towards the audience, a lone figure in a vast but emotionally claustrophobic space. Faced with the challenge of portraying a middle-aged woman in a new play, Myrtle no longer knows how to perform, both in theater and in real life.

Throughout Opening Night, reality and make-believe are interwoven into a mass of chaos. Myrtle’s internal crisis spirals out of control as a 17-year-old girl dies after trying to see her. The fan’s impulsive actions and sudden death remind the actress of her own intensity in her younger years. Myrtle tries to regain that quality through external means, calling her director Manny (Ben Gazzara) late at night, seducing her co-star/ex-lover Leo (John Cassavetes) and even going to a spiritualist to discuss her obsession with the girl’s death. Nevertheless, she is not alone in her confusion. Other characters similarly struggle to perceive art through life and vice versa. At one point, in order to understand the play better, Manny asks his wife what it means to be a woman. In another instance, Sarah, the playwright played by the incomparable Joan Blondell, triumphantly declares her age of 65 to override Myrtle’s own interpretation of her character. What does the silly actress know about aging? She hasn’t lived enough.

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Myrtle is indeed at that peculiar age where she is painfully between stages of maturity. She is not old enough to possess the authority of wisdom; she is also not young enough to be fearless. The movie is a metaphorical and literal walk of a woman on the road to self-discovery. Myrtle drifts in hallways, behind staircases or near the theater curtain that lingers between real life and fantasy. She fears of growing older, but more importantly, she is afraid that age would not add any edges to her professional persona. In other words, Myrtle is more concerned with the effect that age would have on her as an artist, not as a woman. Consequently, her obsession with the dead girl is not born out of a rejuvenating desire; it’s instead an acknowledgement of the emotional intensity belonged to the young, a privilege with which Myrtle is out of touch.

Stylistically, Opening Night resembles Cassavetes’ Faces (1968). The film is rampaged with people who try to communicate with one another but ultimately fail. Characters, especially Myrtle, are repeatedly filmed in close-ups, as if their emotions are caught off guard. Their facial expressions are on full display and yet they reveal nothing. Manny throws compliments and pops jokes at Myrtle, but they remain disconnected; he’s unable to fathom a crisis that she could not describe. If a play is an artistic conversation between the performers and the audience, Myrtle fears that she will fail as an artist due to her inability to express her ambivalence towards aging. In the latter half of the film, even when she is indoors, the actress continues to wear a pair of oversized sunglasses covering half of her face, effectively shutting herself from the outside world while hiding her furtive looks for clues that might solve her enigma.

Interestingly enough, Opening Night marks the first time that Rowlands and Cassavettes perform onstage. During a TV interview to promote the film, Rowlands shared her surprise to find out that her husband was a terrible scene stealer who constantly tried to upstage her. The ending result was a magnificent tug-of-war that tears at the vulnerability of inching closer to middle age.

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In the play within the movie, Leo finally asks the lurking question, “I am getting older; what do we do about that?” and Myrtle replies, “Well, I would like to be your friend.” What follows is a series of linguistic and physical acrobatics, with the two characters at one point attempting to and succeeding in walking while grabbing each other’s legs. The answer to Myrtle’s turmoil is human connection, but not in real life. Off stage, she remains lonely and confused, showing up at the opening night drunk or muttering disheartening remarks at Leo right before their scene. On stage, however, she’s able to communicate, not with the people behind the curtain, but to the audience, whose roaring laughters confirm that they are listening. The final scene of Opening Night is masterfully done as it intercuts between Manny embracing his wife and Myrtle receiving praises from her peers, representing two different ideas of family. For Myrtle, she has found a place where her age plays no part in people’s perception of her identity. The stage has become a home again.

Phuong Le (@smallnartless) studies film at Manhattanville College and interns at Film Comment. Her writings can be found at Movie Mezzanine as well as her own blog, Cinematic Gloom. When not writing, she enjoys caring too much about David Bowie.

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