Opening Night

Opening Night (1977 USA 144 mins)

Prod Co: Faces Prod, Phot: Al Ruban Dir, Scr: John Cassavetes Ed: Tom Cornwell Art Dir: Brian Ryman Mus: Bo Harwood

Cast: Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes, Joan Blondell, Paul Stewart, Zohra Lampert

Let’s take this play. Let’s dump it upside down and see if we can’t find something human in it.

– Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands), Opening Night

A middle-aged woman, cigarette dangling casually from her mouth, enters from a door at the back of the “space”. She whispers something to her doting props man – something about the bags she has to carry – and takes a sizeable swig of something from a bottle that he hands her. We are backstage, moments before show time. With the sound of applause rising steadily on the soundtrack, we cut to a set of hands operating a lever, then to a sudden, vertiginous shot of the curtain rising up into the rafters. The camera looks up into the stage lights; its lens, momentarily, flares. We cut again to a brief shot of the audience, who are no longer applauding, but watching, waiting. There is a murmur of anticipation. We cut, for the third and final time in the sequence, out into the auditorium. We have joined the audience and are looking up at the stage. People’s heads keep popping into frame. The woman enters and the play begins.

And thus, with only five shots and in less than a minute of screen time, we have already been introduced to, and have traversed across, three distinct and wholly distinguishable spaces: backstage (the space of cool professionalism); onstage (the space of fiction); and the auditorium (the space of spectatorship). Having so quickly and economically drawn the boundary lines between these spaces, defining each in turn by the unique behaviour of the bodies which inhabit them, the film will now spend the next two-and-a-half-hours doing its best to tear them apart. It will question and test them and push them to breaking point, until they finally blur and dissolve into an inchoate mass of ambiguous relationships.

Arguably the director’s most self-reflexive work – only Love Streams (1984), with its nostalgically self-mocking web of intertextual echoes, comes close to challenging it for the title – John Cassavetes’ Opening Night was the director’s ninth feature film, made between The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Gloria (1980). The film tells the story (and I use the term loosely) of Broadway actress Myrtle Gordon (a suitably hysterical Gena Rowlands). Appearing in a new melodramatic soap opera entitled The Second Woman – a dullish piece of psychological realism in which she plays the title role – Myrtle becomes emotionally unstable after her car runs down a young autograph hound one night outside the theatre. Haunted by the spirit of the girl, the death of whom – not to mention the vision of her strangely tactile ghost – may or may not be a figment of an overactive imagination, the actress suddenly finds herself in the midst of a full-blown identity crisis, spiralling wildly out of control and threatening to take the play along with her. This chain of events initiates what Myrtle herself describes as an attempt to “find a way to play this role in which age doesn’t make any difference”, which, of course, it must do if the play is to make any sense.

Importantly, far from skipping merrily along on the level of narrative alone, this crisis is brought to bear directly on the film’s formal operations, feeding into its shape and texture and informing its structure deep down at the roots. Opening Night can in fact be seen to operate according to two interpenetrative formal logics: a logic of accumulation over time and one of spatial ambiguity. The first of these pertains directly to the thematic centrality of age in the film and the second to its more subtle attempts to rethink and revitalise the performative space of the theatre.

The issue of age is continually making itself felt on the narrative level in both the film’s image and its dialogue. Quite literally looming larger than life, manifested in the oversized photographs of an elderly woman which adorn the set of the play, the spectre of old age dwarves and overwhelms the characters from the opening moments of the film. Appearing in long shot, the figures of Myrtle and her co-star Maurice (Cassavetes) are rendered small and insignificant beneath the irrefutable fact of old age and its figural embodiment in the photograph. Later, in another scene, Maurice’s onstage character, Marty, puts the matter bluntly, saying: “I’m getting old. What do we do about that?”

This thematic preoccupation with age – foreshadowed in both Faces (1968) and Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) – is only the most obvious (and perhaps even superficial) manifestation of a broader and more fundamental interest in time: an ongoing interrogation of time and its pressures on the body, which informs all Cassavetes’ films from Shadows (1959) to Love Streams, with important formal consequences. The most striking of these is the logic of accumulation they initiate in and across the films, which emerge as the cumulative aggregate of closely observed physical and verbal gestures – hence all those wonderful close-ups of faces and hands (Cassavetes believed it was the job of the cameraman to make the audience want to touch an actor’s skin) – while the body of work itself becomes a compendium of such gestures as they develop over time. Compare the close-ups of Rowlands in Faces to those in Opening Night, which was made over a decade later: time – and therefore age – is clearly measurable. George Kouvaros has written presciently on the phenomenon that

what is at stake in this creation of a textual memory across the films is the cinema’s capacity to register a sense of lived time. […] Cassavetes’s films [create] a cinematic duration that passes from one film to the next, from one performance to the next, a time in which character and actor age simultaneously and are held together in a complex web of remembrance and correspondence. (1)

And while characters all throughout Cassavetes’ oeuvre express concerns with time and its passing – with the feeling of somehow being too late – is unarguably in Opening Night that this continuing formal concern with lived time is given its most explicit narrative expression.

On another, less explicit, level, Opening Night is also a film about how one mode of representation might transform itself into another: about how carefully delineated and hierarchical social spaces – such as that of the theatre – might open themselves up to something more conducive to life. It is the story (and if I used the word loosely before, which I did, I probably shouldn’t be using it at all this time) of an attempt to effect this transformation through a series of disruptive experiments; from changing one’s lines and abandoning the stage to introducing performance into non-theatrical spaces and – finally and most dramatically – alighting the stage so incomparably legless as to be legally comatose. In the process, Myrtle transforms theatrical space into a laboratory of performative possibilities in order to breathe life into a wooden and soulless theatrical process that she no longer believes in.

Against the partitioned and restrictive idea of theatre as the professional recitation of a pre-written text to a passive, paying audience – an idea of the theatre outlined, as we have already noted, in the first five shots of the film, and unwittingly reiterated by Sarah (Joan Blondell) when she tells Myrtle that “all you need to do is say the lines clearly and with a degree of feeling” – Myrtle seeks to inaugurate a more volatile performative space, open to the vicissitudes of the moment and the interminable flux of life. Insofar as Cassavetes’ films are themselves all about performance – about its potential and its limits; about its shape, form and texture – Myrtle’s concerns are directly contingent with those of the film itself. For Myrtle, as for Cassavetes, binary oppositions between reality and fiction, onstage and offstage, performer and audience, and performance and being, are false oppositions, liable to breakdown and susceptible to interference.

Myrtle herself interferes with these oppositions all throughout the film: in her hotel room, where, with its open plan layout and dressing room-like bedroom, she performs for Maurice, David (Paul Stewart), and Manny (Ben Gazzara); on stage, where she allows reality to intercede on numerous occasions, exploding the fourth wall during one performance with the admonition that “we must never forget this is only a play”; and in the space of the fiction itself, where she continually foregoes or else builds upon the written text in response to the most minute fluctuations of emotion and gestural stimuli, which she – and we! – find infinitely more interesting and worth exploring. One of the key lines of the film, delivered (like the key monologue in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) backstage in the greenroom, sums up Myrtle’s project nicely. Waiting for her to show up for the opening night performance, her co-star Gus (John Tuell) defends her to no-one in particular:

You know, with all the pressure the time we were in New Haven, even when she went wrong she made me laugh. In some crazy way, with all her craziness and her nuttiness, it was more real for me being up, and being in it. In some nutty way, it seemed like something real. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Where the hell is she?

Concurrent with this monologue is a gradual breakdown of theatrical space on formal terms. Consider, in contrast to the first sequence of the film, with its clear-cut distinctions between one space and the next, the last, one of the finest in all of Cassavetes’ cinema, in which the contours of image and meaning swirl in a virtual haze of themselves.

Fashioning itself as a more or less direct echo of the earlier sequence, with important qualitative differences, the final sequence begins with the props man and makeup artist accompanying Myrtle to her place in the wings: “I’ve seen a lot of drunks in my day”, he says, “but I’ve never seen anybody as drunk as you and still be able to walk. You’re fantastic.” Again he takes her cigarette from her and again she makes her entrance.

Where the opening sequence frames the play’s action in an unbroken wide-angle long shot, as if to simulate the viewing position of the spectator in the stalls, and others are framed and edited in a more or less classical manner, eschewing visual reference to the audience as if to suggest that the play’s reality is slowly overwhelming and becoming that of Myrtle, the final sequence exists in an wholly indeterminate and mutable third space between the two. Shot from the stalls, but with a telephoto lens forcing proximity to the stage, the images of the final sequence are both similar to and different than the ones that we have seen throughout the film: the space of this image is all of these prior spaces, and none of them, at once. Similarly, whereas in the opening sequence the relationships between the bodies on stage are immediately comprehensible and definite, those of the final sequence operate across multiple levels of meaning at once. Structurally, Opening Night constructs itself as a passage between altered images: the image of the theatre as a predefined set of relations and spatial configurations, and that of the theatre as an open and unfettered space of intense expression and experience (2).

For when the woman in red and the man in the suit walk toward each another and grab at one another’s feet, exactly who and what are we watching? What is it that’s going on in this image? Is it Marty and Virginia in the final scene of The Second Woman? Is this – finally! – the play as written? Or are we watching Maurice and Myrtle trying to bury each other alive on stage? Their unhinged and seemingly impromptu exchange is certainly suggestive of that. It is also entirely possible that we’re watching Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes performing some burlesque husband-and-wife two-hander for a real live audience. Or that we’re watching all of these things and none of them at all.

This is Cassavetes at his most complex and compelling. The air of ambiguity is palpable. The image is packed with possibility. The only thing that is definite here is the lack of definition.

Endnotes

  1. George Kouvaros, Where Does It Happen? John Cassavetes and Cinema at the Breaking Point, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2004, p. 132.
  2. I have borrowed the idea of the passage between altered images from Nicole Brenez, Abel Ferrara, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2007, p. 21.