The John Cassavetes film Opening Night from 1977 stars Gena Rowlands as an alcoholic Broadway actress suffering through a series of breakdowns, including on stage.
The film is best known, and most praised, for Rowlands’s emotionally compelling performance in the lead role, though I thought Ben Gazzara in the less attention-grabbing role as her director/babysitter was very good as well.
Most of the other main characters, such as the playwright, the producer, and Cassavetes himself as the male lead in the play, have their moments as well but aren’t as well developed and don’t stand out.
The director’s wife not only isn’t that interesting, but is just annoying and unpleasant in her bitterness.
I read ahead of time that the movie is unusually dense and hard to follow, which always concerns me since I really don’t have a lot of patience for movies that are pointlessly obscure (as opposed to movies that are substantively complex because they deal with issues that are morally and psychologically deep). But really it didn’t stand out to me as being all that incomprehensible. I’m sure I didn’t pick up on every relevant detail, but the general storyline isn’t that hard to discern. It’s the story of a bunch of people trying to put on a play with a lead actress who’s falling apart.
Mostly what’s got her out of sorts is the play’s treatment of the issue of a woman’s aging, since that’s a big issue for her as a woman well into middle age. She knows that if she’s not there already, she’ll soon be too old to be cast in parts that call for conventional youth-based beauty, which is to say the vast majority of significant acting roles for women.
She makes an interesting statement at one point that she actually doesn’t want her role and this play to be successful as written. She thinks anything she gains thereby will be a pyrrhic victory, because to her the play is so focused on the woman having to deal with getting old that the more she’s associated with that part, the more in people’s minds she’ll be someone who’s made that transition to being old and is now only capable of playing women who are old.
So part of what she’s doing when she’s messing up in rehearsal and in the performances is ad libbing and trying to rework the part to alter its focus, though a bigger part of it isn’t any kind of coherent plan like that but is just her being out of control.
She’s also upset because a young fan from the crowd that mobbed her after one of her performances was struck by a car and killed in the confusion. (By the way, is there some artistic license being taken here? In this movie, the scene outside a play is tantamount to beatlemania, with screaming, sobbing, hysterical fans mobbing the stars. I always pictured playgoers as being more the sort of people who go to symphonies and such, not out of control fanatics like this.)
I was somewhat interested watching her deteriorate, but what drew me in the most, actually, was contemplating how everyone else has to adjust when one person in a play deviates from what’s expected like this. There are extended scenes that take place on stage during the play, especially the climactic scene at the end of the movie, where she’s dead drunk, crazy, intentionally rebelling against her role, or some combination thereof, where nothing about her lines, her physical behavior, her arrival or departure, etc. matches what they’ve all rehearsed and expect.
Suddenly her fellow actors are in the middle of an improv, basically. But more extreme than that in a sense, because they’re trying to keep the audience in the dark as to the fact that it is an improv. They have to make it seem polished and articulate and professional enough to give the impression that this is the way it was all written.
It’s a fascinating sort of high wire act. Stage acting itself–having to memorize all those lines and everything–strikes me as exceedingly difficult to begin with. To suddenly have to deal with a curveball like this raises the stress and difficulty several levels.
The process in those scenes is very interesting, though most of the substance is lost on me. It’s mostly she and the Cassavetes character engaging in witty repartee (while she’s so drunk she could at any moment fall flat on her face). The idea is she’s somehow succeeded on the fly in reworking the character and the play so that it’s not about a woman’s aging. But how these particular highbrow bon mots do that in a way that differs from the original written dialogue pretty much goes over my head. I don’t know why they’re saying what they’re saying, or why the audience is appreciating it as oh so clever.
There’s enough emotional intensity to this movie, and it’s thought-provoking enough in its treatment of how live theater handles an emergency, that I liked it more than not, but I’m not going to say it reached me on a deep level.