It is his abilities as an actor’s director that has impressed me the most, even when his sensibilities in terms of scene construction and narrative pacing frustrate. His ability to coax performances that feel vulnerable and real in a way I’ve truly never seen before is remarkable, in particular his work with his longtime leading lady (and wife), Gena Rowlands.
She’s been in three of the five films I’ve watched for this series and has consistently been one of the standouts in each. She seems to be able to immerse herself so fully into these pockets of reality that Cassavetes creates. She was absorbing and harrowing “A Woman Under the Influence,” but it is her work in “Opening Night” that may be her most complete performance that I’ve seen.
In it she plays Myrtle Gordon, an aging stage actress who refuses to come to terms with or even acknowledge she isn’t getting any younger. She has no relationships to speak of outside her stage-bound co-workers. She’s an alcoholic. Her role in the show “The Second Woman” is more or less a mirror of her own life, despite her constant declarations of being unable to identify with the role.
She was perhaps capable of keeping all of those insecurities in check until an obsessive and adoring fan is killed in a hit-and-run accident following a preview performance. From that night on her life begins to slowly unravel as she refuses to socialize or eat or even stay on-script.
This is the kind of movie that would, in today’s cinematic climate, be Oscar Bait for a middle aged actress, providing ample opportunity to shout and be melodramatic and throw liquor bottles at walls and stare for long stretches into a mirror as she contemplates her existence and perhaps even has flashbacks to her glory days.
There are plenty of dramatic moments, but they are played with an immediacy and urgency that feel, as is typical of a Cassavetes film, as though we are plunged directly into the middle of them. There is not a false note hit among these moments. Each of them is played with the sort of subtlety and internalization expected of Cassavetes. Rowlands is incredible, able to convey with a single look or just a couple lines of dialogue what it would take an entire flashback sequence to accomplish in a different film.
Apparently “Opening Night” received essentially no distribution and only played in a couple of film festivals upon completion. It played small movie houses in New York and Los Angeles, but went largely ignored as almost no one went to see it. It was only after an independent distributor picked it up two years after Cassavetes’ death in 1989 that it was more widely distributed.
It’s a shame it almost disappeared. This is a challenging film (and at times feels more like a traditional feature film than any of the other Cassavetes films I’ve watched), but it’s a solid piece of work. Not Cassavetes’ best (that probably still belongs to “A Woman Under the Influence”) but it’s worth watching, to be certain.
One thing is for certain, even when I found myself frustrated by Cassavetes’ choices, I never lost interest in trying to figure out why he made those choices. I’ve seen less than half of the features he directed and I look forward to seeing the rest of his filmography.
Next week: I’ll begin a series looking at some of the films of Richard Linklater, including “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Waking Life,” “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.