Title: Opening Night
Director/Writer: John Cassavetes
Music: Bo Harwood
Cinematography: Al Ruban
Myrtle Gordon (Rowlands) is a theatre actress, who is headlining a play named “The Second Woman”, directed by Manny Victor (Gazzara), written by Sarah Goode (Blondell) and co-stars Maurice Aarons (Cassavetes) and Gus Simmons (Tuell). Myrtle is not a nice woman, middle-aged, unmarried, and quite a big name in her line of work in light of the crazed groupies waiting for an autograph at the theatre, she is self-absorbing and emotionally unstable, especially when a young fan Nancy (Johnson) died in a horrific road accident after expressing her frenzied admiration. Myrtle’s world begins to unravel, to a point where it seems to inevitably endanger the entire project on the opening night when Myrtle arrives seriously late and is beastly drunken.
Again, Myrtle is not a likeable woman, anyone can condemn her being morally irresponsible, almost, yes, almost singlehandedly sabotages the play which is a labour of love of many many people, yet still, everyone has to treat her as a queen and patronise her every need, even in the last minute, there is no plan B, Myrtle has to be on stage, and act out regardlessly. But, Myrtle is such a real woman, we might not like her, but we understand her, we can relate her feelings, all her fear and confusion, thanks to Rowlands second-to-none competence, another towering achievement after her Oscar-nominated turn in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974), both under the aegis of her hubby Cassavetes, however, this time, she has been scandalously overlooked by Oscar voters (a Silver Berlin bear can do her some justice), Myrtle is a polarised opposite of the working-class housewife Mabel in AWUTI, even conforms to the stereotype of an over-the-hill celebrity, doted on by producers and directors, hoity-toity and capricious, dreads the loss of her youth and refuse to face squarely with her age. Rowlands indulges ravishingly in such a rich showcase with authenticity and empathy.
The Second Woman is about a woman who faces the music and lets go of her youth self, so as to embraces the next chapter of her life anew, which is exactly why Myrtle dithers, she is so afraid if her performance is good, she will be typecast as an older woman, which in the ageism showbiz, means the death knell of her illustrious career. And as her career is the only thing she can cling onto, to feel respected and loved, subconsciously she wants the play to bomb, thus she imagines the dead Nancy as a haunting figure, her vaporising youth, as the shackles to her commitment.
On many levels, OPENING NIGHT is the female counterpart of BIRDMAN (2014), thematically particularly, whereas BIRDMAN is invitingly engaging in its cinematographic gimmick, Cassavetes pierces his scalpel more astutely into the anatomy of Myrtle’s deterioration and those who are around her and in desperate state to pull herself together with persistent close-ups and intimate soft focus. Moreover, when the play is on, Cassavetes firmly places his camera among the audience for theatre simulation, which comes to a climax in the final act (both in the film and in the play), viewers cannot tell whether Myrtle and Maurice are improvising or acting according to the script, but utterly captivated by the spontaneous involvement of their quick-witted wordplay and top-notch dramaturgy. By the way, Cassavetes corroborates that he is a brilliant actor too, what a matchless triple-threat! I should also namedrop Gazzara and Blondell for their fine performances, although both pre-determinedly overshadowed by Rowland’s excellence, their reactions stand for the perspectives from a more objective angle, no matter how frustrating they are sometimes. To say the least, if you are stunned by BIRDMAN, Cassavetes’ decades-earlier OPENING NIGHT can genuinely blow your mind!