2016 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: ‘Opening Night’ (John Cassavetes, 1977)


“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”

– William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Shakespeare’s comedies were built on misunderstandings and deception. Characters assume roles and take up performances, with life imitating a scripted performance, rather than the other way around. The famous “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy, delivered by melancholy Jacques in As You Like It, measures human life as a series of performances; the seven stages of man, from infant to death. The poetic invocation of life as a stage transcends the vanity of seeing life through the gauze of our own experiences — it points to the fundamental truth of human nature, full of transitions and assumptions.

In John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, Gena Rowlands plays an ageing actress on the verge of breaking down as she rehearses for her latest role. After witnessing the death of a young fan, Myrtle (Rowlands) — who has been cast as an “older” woman — does not want to face the next chapter of her life. In full resistance, she drowns herself in booze as she rebels against those trying to get her to fall into line. But as much as we can’t choose whether we’re born, we have little control over our life transitions. We’re rarely “cast against type” so to speak, and while we maintain a certain illusion of the power of our will, most of us are limited by nature and circumstance, and we all have to reckon with the drum of time.


One of the ways Myrtle tries to hold onto her old way of life is by way of sex and desire. If she can still have the men she wants (whenever she wants), she has successfully held off ageing for another day. But the only man Myrtle clearly wants (John Cassavetes as Maurice) rebuffs her on the night of the accident, and as a viewer, one can’t help wondering if this might be a greater source of her anxiety than anything else. With the underlying need to be desired resulting in a propping up a sense of self, it seems that Myrtle feels more like herself in the throes of sex.

My heart dropped when I realized that Myrtle and her director, Manny (Ben Gazzara), were having an affair. There’s the converging meanings and insinuations, and the fact that it first comes to attention when Manny has a heart to heart with his beautiful, stoic wife Dorothy (the always great, Zohra Lampert). Myrtle calls, asking Manny to say that she loves him. For a flash, it feels that there might be something between the pair, but Myrtle already seems unhinged. Yet, as the film progresses, the truth comes to the surface, and it hits with bludgeoning force.


It hurts so much because Dorothy has so much love. It hurts so much because Myrtle has so little. It hurts so much because everyone lies, everyone lies all the time. That’s why theatre has that element of being so freeing, while through artifice, it destabilizes our perception. The lives we live, far from the stage, are no more real than the premeditated lines of the theatre. Artifice is more natural than authenticity. And, if you really think you know how to help another person, how to make them feel your love, I can only assume you’re a fraud. It doesn’t mean you’re incapable of love and incapable of feeling it, but you have only so much power. And in those desperate cracking moments, you can only help someone who wants to believe in lies.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.


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