A young woman gets killed in an accident trying to meet her favorite actress Myrtle Gordon after a play. Then Myrtle Gordon felt responsible for the killing leading her down to an emotional crisis that interferes with her professional work as an actress.Written by
Chemi González <email@example.com>
Yesterday, I went to the monthly Antique Flea Market that comes to town. I really have no interest in such things, but I went for the fellowship of friends who do have such an interest. Looking over the hundreds of vendor, passing many of them quickly, I spotted someone selling VHS tapes and DVDs. Most of the films he had on DVD were rather recent; the oldest one I noticed was the 1940 Cary Grant-Irene Dunne co-starrer MY FAVORITE WIFE. But the VHS tapes, by their nature, were mostly older films. I couldn't resist buying SOMETHING since they were being sold at 3 tapes for $10.00. What a bargain, as Eddie Murphy used to say. I came across one film that I had heard about for years but had never seen: John Cassavettes's OPENING NIGHT (1977). Well, I certainly wanted that being a fan of Gena Rowlands, and I had heard that this film contained one of her finest performances. He also had FACES (1968). I had seen this about 20 years ago, a time when I probably had not had enough life experience to appreciate it thoroughly. And I wanted to take advantage of the bargain, so I grabbed that one too. My other choice was CLAIRE'S KNEE (1970).
When I got home, I decided to put aside the work I had planned to do so that I could watch OPENING NIGHT. I was totally enthralled by this film. It focuses on Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands), a famous actress of stage and screen, who, during out-of-town previews, is having personal and professional problems coming to terms with both her character and the play's theme of facing aging. After one rehearsal, an avid fan and autograph hound accosts her with cries (and tears) of "I love you! I love you!" A few minutes later, this fan is hit by a car and killed. This begins Myrtle's descent into herself where she must face her own fears of aging, the future of her career as a mature actress, and the inadequacies she finds in the play itself (written by a much older female dramatist, played by Joan Blondell). Throughout the film, she sees the dead girl, an obvious symbol of her past; drinks almost constantly; and receives insincere support from her director (Ben Gazzara), the producer (Paul Stewart), her costar (John Cassavettes himself), and the dramatist. Actually, they're more concerned about how her behavior will affect them and their careers: flubbing lines on stage, improvising new lines, generally cracking up on stage, and arriving for the Broadway opening totally drunk.
This story functions not only to address the issues of aging but also to promote Cassavettes's displeasure with mainstream movie-making. As I watched the film, I was at times surprised, confused, amused, disparaging, but ultimately involved, entertained, and satisfied. Cassavettes really had a great sense of humor, cared very much that his audience understood what he was implying, and wanted them to be emotionally involved in the story. He makes allusions to ALL ABOUT EVE with the use of the avid theater fan, even dressing the young girl in a slicker and hat similar to the one worn by Anne Baxter at the beginning of that film. This allusion functions most obviously to support his aging theme, the contrast of the older and younger woman. He also obviously uses the contrast as a symbol for Myrtle's confronting her own lost youth. At first, I felt the symbolism was TOO obvious, but then I realized that that was Cassavettes's intention. He doesn't want his audience misunderstanding what he's getting at; if they did, it would interfere with their emotional involvement. This spectre of youth haunts Myrtle, attacks her, and wants to destroy her. Myrtle eventually "kills" her, but before she can really come to terms with herself and the play, she must reach bottom (another figurative death?). So Cassavettes has her get so drunk that she can't walk and must crawl to her dressing room the night the play opens on Broadway. She resurrects herself (helping yourself out of such situations is also important to the film's theme) and makes the play a success by giving a great performance and changing the direction of play for the better by improvising so that it contains some ray of hope for the aging character she's playing. These scenes are funny and interesting. Cassavettes and Rowlands actually did the play in front of live audiences, who did and did not know they were going to be part of a movie. The play they're doing also acts as contrast: it's mainstream and self-serious about the issues it addresses, that is, until Myrtle changes its denouement. In doing so, she also improves the work of her co-stars. The natural evolution of interaction (achieved through improvisation)between and among human beings, subjective realism, and universal truth - these were Cassavettes's concerns in making films.
Gena Rowlands is amazing throughout. Of course, she has that great face, and Cassavettes (notoriously in love with her throughout their marriage) treats us to numerous closeups of it so that we too can feel her emotions and that we know what's going on inside of her. She makes you care so much about this character that you want to see her work her way out of this crisis of the soul. And this is what holds your attention for the 2 hours and 30 minutes running time. The film is deliberately paced at times and requires constant attention, but anyone with interest in good film-making and great acting will be rewarded. Someone else said that this is a movie for people who love movies. All others be forewarned.
Seek out OPENING NIGHT if you've never seen it. Everyone in it is excellent, and it's one of Cassavettes's best films.
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