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#22: Opening Night
(USA, 1977; dir. John Cassavetes; scr. John Cassavetes; cin. Al Ruban; with Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, John Tuell, Paul Stewart, Laura Johnson)
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I'm fond of Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother and teach it often, but I've always somewhat resisted it. All that color, all those glowing reaction shots: maybe it seems too aimed at being loved. Or maybe it feels familiar: raised on Judith Butler's theories of gender and performative selfhood, I see how All About My Mother views the identity and cinema as sites for strategic pastiche, where various signs, scripts, and habits get incorporated and reconfigured, defying in some cases the mandates of pure duplication, edging instead toward new potentials in the inherited discourses. If you show up granting all the above, Almodóvar's movie can verge on preaching warmly to the choir, something Agrado almost explicitly does to a sold-out theater. By contrast, John Cassavetes's Opening Night—one of the movies that inspired All About My Mother, catching one of its closing bouquets "to actresses who have played actresses"—risks a huge amount on nearly opposite orientations. Lending Almodóvar his catalyzing sequence of a fan's rainswept death, following a stagestruck brush with an idol, Opening Night refuses to condense its themes. Even within the narrative, summary accounts of what its characters are thinking, or of what their play-within-a-play is about, repeatedly fail. Where Mother carries postmodern parody to a tender apex, I wouldn't even know what to call Opening Night's theory of performance, or its relations to story structure. When it's sturdiest on its feet, I love it. When it's collapsing into nonsense or flirting with shapelessness, I still love it.

To love Opening Night, which drives itself spectacularly off some very impressive rails, or to love Myrtle Gordon, the dipso-genius protagonist who suffers slings and arrows throughout the film but keeps on trouping (sort of, with major assists from Hendrick's and Ketel One) is to echo a tendency in gay culture of worshipping female wrecks. I'm neither totally comfortable with this nor totally above it, as hundreds of hours watching Jessica Lange or Sandy Dennis or Opening Night's own Gena Rowlands fray at every seam will surely attest. But one of the keys to Opening Night is that it isn't really about failure. The first 130 minutes build toward a performance in the last 15 where Myrtle must find a credible way to play a character who keeps eluding her. Amazingly, after so much anguish and borderline behavior, on a night when Myrtle's blood alcohol content is as high as the flies, the performance seems to come off. We'll get to that later. But despite how long Opening Night suggests a spiral into madness or defeat, it eventually reframes that process as a bloody march to victory. Forget how scary failure is: this is what success looks like! Or, perhaps closer to the film's spirit, this is how blurred those terms become by the time you've finished working on something that feeds but also gorges on your soul.

Why does Myrtle struggle so? Two reasons get rehearsed over and over. One concerns that old war-horse, the Woman's Fear of Aging. Myrtle is sabotaging herself in a role that's too old for her, lest she persuade the world of having entered her dotage and thus disqualify herself forever from better parts, friendlier perceptions. She and the much older playwright (Joan Blondell, surprising and sensational here) hash out their differing vantages on aging and womanhood several times without getting anywhere. The men on the set, mostly on a spectrum of loutishness, are good enough to share their thoughts on aging and womanhood, too, and Myrtle hears over and over that she's barely a woman anyway. None of that helps. But there's another problem, sometimes evoked literally and sometimes via weird dispositions of the camera: that the ghost of the girl killed in the prologue is angry at Myrtle, lurking in rehearsal spaces and hotel suites to beat the shit out of the idol who indirectly claimed her life. Rowlands, as ever, finds brilliant ways to play both conflicts. She shows us how Myrtle (and maybe Gena) is genuinely preoccupied by fears of aging and failure, but also a bit annoyed at getting mired in such generic, looping questions, which nobody poses to the men. She also shows us a Myrtle (and maybe a Gena) driven to self-harm and/or mediumistically possessed by the dead girl, but also weirdly pragmatic in the face of spiritual takeover. "I'm a little shook up" she deadpans to the playwright after throwing herself against a wall, cracking her glasses, and bloodying her face. "Mind if I sleep with you tonight?" All part of the job, apparently.

I love the tale of a struggling creator who cannot decide if the factors impeding her progress are banal or truly exceptional, external or self-imposed. We've all been there, and not always honest about what's really holding us back. Note the irony by which Myrtle's most notorious handicap, her red-alert alcoholism, gets rationalized, consciously or not, as what finally saves her. I love that Rowlands, a career-long sorceress of uncanny and singular effects, so plausibly typecast as an actress possessed, both risks and refuses portraying a semi-surrogate of herself as a neurotic, needy, unstable headcase. Myrtle often flails in the grip of her demons but is also more in control of them, savvier about using them, than any of the folks trying to "help" her. Opening Night treats the edge, every edge, as a scary but productive space. What gets produced, though? The climactic opening-night performance is insane in a different way than everything that's come before. With Rowlands and Cassavetes playing disputatious spouses on stage, their characters rib and needle each other through a series of mannered improvisations I can barely stand to watch, but which the paying customers vehemently applaud. There are ways to gloss the craziness of this ending (are audiences just determined to love what they've paid top-dollar for? are we watching an imagined version of how opening night really goes?), but it's worth conceding that no Cassavetes movie was ever going to culminate in straightforward triumph. Creative outcomes are as disconcerting here as creative process, as is surely the point.

I saw Opening Night after Shadows, Faces, and A Woman Under the Influence in a college course called Five Directors, which introduced us to 4-6 movies apiece in chronological sequence by five major auteurs, each run for us on 16mm or 35mm. (The others were Bresson, Antonioni, Akerman, and Kiarostami.) Each of those other three movies seemed to burnish the Cassavetes legend, showing him, or so I thought, exercising ever more control over his resolutely chaotic gifts, and culminating in the masterwork of Woman. Opening Night does something else: erratically structured, inviting but also refusing sympathy, repeatedly shifting its center and core concerns, picking and choosing characters to take seriously, yielding a finale that refuses to satisfy in conventional ways. Sometimes, and here we enter the Projection booth, I imagine A Woman under the Influence as the ghost haunting the set of Opening Night, pushing it around, scaring it to death, demanding that this suddenly Oscar-nominated repertory evade the threat of mass approval, when they'd always been such semi-scrutable heretics. Opening Night was barely released and dismally received upon completion, and though that clearly rankled Cassavetes, I wonder if it also pleased him. As much as the movie is an obvious, indelible parable of how much Rowlands puts on the line in crafting her inimitable performance, it just as clearly embodies Cassavetes's commitment to idiosyncrasy and alienating intensity. Many of the movies that have borrowed from it, like All About My Mother, like Birdman, like Black Swan, even Blue Jasmine, whose heroine has a lot of Myrtle in her, have emerged as game-changers and reputation-builders for their directors. Opening Night, somewhat by contrast, has settled in much criticism as a touchstone but also a wobble in the Cassavetes trajectory, and I adore it on precisely those terms. Again, it's often hard to tell when you're glimpsing success or failure, or which one you're courting, or who's responsible, and sometimes there's no difference.


Hey, Reader: What is your favorite movie by a famous director that you're quite sure isn't his or her "best"? And if you died right after meeting Gena Rowlands, would this strike you as a tragedy or as the perfect way to go? Do tell.

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