Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Opening Night" • Whoa… it's a film!

"I seem to have lost the, uh, reality of, of the, uh… reality".
~Myrtle Gordon, "Opening Night"

A film about a Broadway actress having a psychological breakdown during out-of-town previews?! I'm in.

Now don't get me wrong, I have no intention of turning the focus of this blog to movies, but I was recently re-introduced to this film (thanks for the x-mas gift, Kay!), and was struck by it, and felt compelled to write a little bit.

This is one of those films that you show to 7 people, and you get 7 different opinions on what it's about. Reminds me of my college days in film classes watching "non-conventional" movies with subtext all over the place. I'm sure there's been more than one or two film school papers written about this puppy, and for good reason.

I can't talk about this movie without a little examination of its director, John Cassavetes and his style. He was an actor, screenwriter, filmmaker and pioneer of independent film, whose work often examined the lives of those who were on the brink. He avoided the big budget movie system, often financing his own projects, filming parts of many of them in his own house. He was anti-plot devices, anti-big name movie stars, and anti-Hollywood. Although his films have often been mistaken for being improvised, he usually always had a script. But he made sure his films served his most important consideration -- the performance of the actors. Because of this, they often featured long takes (including what happened between takes), natural light, off the shoulder camera work, and tight intimate shots of his actors.  Love…
 John Cassavetes (Maurice Aarons),
Ben Gazzara (Manny Victor), and Gena Rowlands (Myrtle Gordon).
This film revolves around Myrtle Gordon (Cassavetes' real-life wife, Gena Rowlands), an accomplished stage and film actor. At the start, we're immediately propelled into a backstage environment as Myrtle takes a healthy swig of liquor before she meets Maurice, (Cassavetes) an ex-lover and current co-star, on-stage. Myrtle and her cast-mates are having out-of-town previews in New Haven, Connecticut for a new play. As Myrtle and her entourage are driving away from the theatre that night in the rain, a tragic event involving a young fan sets off a psychological breakdown in Myrtle that she wrestles with for the rest of the film. It disrupts her concentration, puts the play's success in jeopardy, and instigates a recurring apparition of Nancy (the young fan) serving as (maybe) a representation of Myrtle's lost youth.
Gena Rowlands (Myrtle Gordon)
and Zohra Lampert (Dorothy Victor).
Now, the play within the film, "The Second Woman", concerns a woman who is dealing with her lessening power as she gets older. Hmm. Word is that Cassavetes put an advertisement in a local paper for people who would dress up and watch some actors perform scenes from a play. He didn't tell them when to laugh or applaud, because he wanted their reactions to be genuine. Cinéma Vérité at its finest. On the surface, this appears to be a film about aging (huge photographs of an elderly woman loom at the center of the on-stage set). The most explosive on-stage scenes show Myrtle dressed in black with a veil (subtext, anyone?).

While aging is a predominant theme, it incorporates so much more than that. I've read that Cassavetes was very sensitive about actors, and (though appearing in many films himself) was fascinated with how actors see themselves, as opposed to how others see them. In this film, Myrtle's life is a balancing act. While she's doted on by her dedicated props man and dresser, she's struggling with an on-stage character she resents having to portray -- not wanting to be seen as an "over the hill matron", enduring passive insults from her playwright (Joan Blondell) -- many years her senior, adoration from her fans -- a constant stage-door presence, and flirtatious, at times patronizing compliments from her director (Ben Gazzara), while all the time, trying to deal with her hallucinations of Nancy (Laura Johnson), and her own personal doubts about her significance at this precarious point in her life -- middle age. In a constant blurring of the lines between on-stage drama and off-stage reality, this film has a way of gripping you from the get go. Honestly, I could write an essay about this film, but I don't have the attention span I used to, and I would probably get a headache from the exertion.

The film culminates at the opening night in NYC. Myrtle has gotten completely drunk, shows up late to curtain, and the rest of the film looks at how she manages through the show. Does she win or lose? That's open to interpretation, but John Cassavetes wasn't about giving the audience any easy answers. There's a great excerpt from this particular scene in the clip included below at around 2 min. 18 sec. in.

It's kinda heavy, but incredible -- if you like this kind of style. Rowlands won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 28th Berlin International Film Festival for her performance. I pledge an everlasting love to her. She's magnificent.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam's
Photo: Sara Krulwich
The New York Times
"Opening Night", Cassavetes' ninth film, was completed in 1977, but tragically didn't receive a U.S. release until 1991. I naturally wondered why this hadn't been adapted for the stage, but after a bit of googling online, I found out that it had!  In December 2008, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Netherlands' largest repertory company, staged OPENING NIGHT, directed by Ivo van Hove at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Here's a trailer for the film. It's a wonderful trailer, at a little over 4 and a half minutes. It's longer than your average trailer, but I practically wet myself when I watched it on my DVD. It gives you a perfect taste of what this film's about (with a sweet french horn riff at 4 min. 14 sec. in). Trust me -- if this trailer piques your interest, check it out. This, I think, is a must-see for all theatre lovers.

"Opening Night"

Gena Rowlands (Myrtle Gordon), John Cassavetes (Maurice Aarons), Ben Gazzara (Manny Victor), Joan Blondell (Sarah Goode), Paul Stewart (David Samuels), Zohra Lampert (Dorothy Victor), Laura Johnson (Nancy Stein) and John Tuell (Gus Simmons).

Directed by John Cassavetes; produced by Al Ruban; written by John Cassavetes; music by Bo Harwood; cinematography, Alan Ruban; editing by Tom Cornwell.

1977 release: Faces Distribution; 1991 release: Castle Hill Productions
Original release: December 22, 1977; Theatrical re-release: May 17, 1991

Running time: 144 minutes

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