John Cassavetes called his 1977 film “Opening Night” “The Finest movie he’d ever had anything to do with.” While my respect for Cassavetes is undying, I can’t agree with this statement. In fact, I would say that it’s the weakest of his films I’ve seen so far.
The film follows the emotional breakdown and artistic epiphanies of theater actress Myrtil Gordon, played by Cassavetes’s wife and frequent collaborator, the wonderful Gena Rowlands.
Myrtil begins to question the nature of her roll in the play she is about to put on after she sees a young fan being fatally hit by a car. The film tackles the emotional journey that this event causes her to take—a journey that leads her to discoveries about herself as a person and as an artist. The film wants to be both a commentary on the nature of art (and acting in particular) and a depiction of a woman coming to terms with her own feelings of inadequacy.
The problem with the movie, though, is that we never really see exactly where those feelings of inadequacy come from. Cassavetes keeps the focus so much on the staging and premier of the play, and Myrtle’s crisis of faith as an artist, that we get hardly any sense of her personal life. It’s obvious that a very deep, painful wound is driving her, but what is that wound? Cassavetes never lets us know. This could be very effective, if the point of the film was that Myrtle’s own repression of her pain caused the audience not to know what that pain is, but that’s not how it plays.
Cassavetes seems to think that Myrtle’s psychology is entirely clear to the audience, but we get no sense of what drives her, other than dissatisfaction with the part she’s playing, and a vague insecurity about aging that is expressed through hallucinations of the fan she saw killed. Her deeper feelings are barely explored. Even with an actress as great as Rowlands giving everything she has for 2 and a half hours, when all is said and done, Myrtle seems a lifeless, empty creation.
What made Cassavetes a great filmmaker was his treatment of character. His best movies, like “Faces” and “A Woman Under the Influence” hold up after almost 50 years as devastatingly honest portraits of human behavior. “Opening Night,” on the other hand, plays out as a movie far more interested in process than people. It almost feels like a betrayal of what Cassavetes stood for, and, for a director who continues to be renowned for his clear-eyed integrity over two decades after his death, that’s a real disappointment.
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