Saturday, 25 April 2020

Opening Night - and flailing women

written & Directed by 
John Cassavetes, 1977, USA 

This Cassavetes film is the portrait of a Broadway theatre’s behind-the-scenes turmoil. Let’s go with the Rotten Tomatoes’ synopsis:

John Cassavetes' Opening Night stars Gena Rowlands (Mrs. Cassavetes) as end-of-tether Broadway actress Myrtle Gordon. She is about to open in a play written by her old friend Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell), but a series of pre-show setbacks and disasters threaten to destroy not only the production but Myrtle's sanity.

Myrtle is playing up because she is having a crisis of personality starring in a play that requires her to confront her mortality and after seeing a fan accidentally killed. Amidst a general belligerence from the men around her, she manifests the dead fan as her muse, which is misinterpreted as something supernatural or her cracking-up. All this is played out on the stage – in rehearsal and performance – and her apartment, which is just as stark as the stage and with her testing almost every immediate relationship.

But ‘Opening Night’ does tap into one of those tropes that makes me unable to fully commit: The HystericalWoman This is a trope that I often feel hues too close to that old accusation that women are the hysterical, unhinged gender (as opposed to, say, ‘Rambo’, Nicolas Cage and other similar action film heroes… too many to mention). It often leads to over-acting. This is why I couldn’t dedicate to Zulawski’s ‘Possession’, although it’s well thought of. The problem, as I see it, is when the text seems to envision this female hysteria as, somehow, poignant and indicative of a free spirit, of a female character challenging convention. I had no problem with ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ because that was about a woman’s breakdown. ‘Black Swan’ veered a little too close to The Hysterical Woman trope, but I think I misjudged it in retrospect. The flailing woman in Tarkovsky’s ‘The Sacrifice’ doesn’t work for me. Toni Collette in the ‘Hereditary’ dinner table scene verges, but she is hysterical with grief so that gets a pass. Shelly Duvall in ‘The Shining’ works because the high pitch of the characters is set against the low pitch precision of the aesthetic. And besides, however hysterical she may be, Wendy is doing everything right when confronted with her husband Jack’s rampage - that is: her panic is appropriate and isn’t marred by silliness. Maybe I just prefer understatement.

Rotten Tomatoes says “a series of pre-show setbacks and disasters threaten to destroy not only the production but Myrtle's sanity”, but aside from the death of a fan that sets Myrtle spiralling, these “setbacks” are mostly Myrtle’s angst and playing-up. ‘Opening Night’, however, is about a woman’s struggles with art and aging. The multiple layers of reality and performance is artfully conveyed and blurred, and it of course boasts excellent performances, several memorable one-liners and Cassavetes’ agenda makes it compelling and rewarding - but it does steer into The Hysterical Woman. This only highlights a misogyny baked into the environment. “The three generations of women were important, because I think that, while it's masculinely directed and presented. The film is really about women and their points of view as professionals,”* Cassavetes says, and that is accurate and there’s no doubt the film is centred on female predicaments. It is perhaps the idea that hysteria is one tool women can use to rebel, to get their way that seems reductive and limiting.

When it has Rowlands crawling drunk on the floor and “Don’t help her!”, it’s hard for me not see it falling into a little amateur dramatics, achieving the awkwardness only found in desperate over-acted improvisation: trying too hard – acting!! - and a little embarrassing to watch. And these actors and director are anything but that, so maybe it’s down to my taste. But this film is about finding “the truth in the fiction of art”, which can produce shrugs if you deem it just self-involved angst and navel-gazing. And of course, there’s room for that too (I am thinking of ‘Birdman’ or ‘The Big Knife’, etc). Whereas Ingmar Bergman goes more for dreaminess and a kind of dream-logic for his ruminations on the muddling of art and reality, Cassavetes is after something raw and mostly scores.

The problem here is what to think of Myrtle: if she is having a breakdown, she is treated quite appallingly by her peers and friends. If she isn’t, she behaves appallingly and selfishly to her friends and peers in pursuit of “The Truth of Acting” as she sabotages rehearsals and performances and relationships. Is she meant to be considered heroic, to have found “The Truth” by acting up? By being shoved by her peers on stage so drunk she can barely stand up? And when we get down to the final act, showing the scene being performed fully by Rowlands and Cassavetes, it’s engrossing stuff and puts clear the lie to all the palaver about drunkenness being somehow a search for truth, a rebellion. It is just good performance. Of course, the question is how does an artist reach a good performance?

Cassavetes says: “So when she faints and screams on stage, it’s because it’s impossible to be told you are this boring character, you are aging and you are just like her, I would be unable to go on stage feeling that I’m nothing. I think that most actors would, and that’s really what the picture is about.”* In that sense, it’s about the separation of the artist from the art, that that separation can, for some, be impossible.

I am reminded of the legend of Laurence Olivier’s rejoinder in the face of Dustin Hoffman’s method acting in ‘Marathon Man’ where he suggested Hoffman just act. Or that Richard E. Grant gives one of the best drunken performances in ‘Withnail & I’ despite being allergic to alcohol. But we like the stories of actors going a little bit far for method acting, of weight loss and gain for a part, for example. And we like to think anyone that plays The Joker goes a little mad. Of course, there’s the abysmal behaviour of Jim Carey on set of ‘Man on the Moon’ (chronicled in ‘Jim & Andy’). “Asshole or genius?”: it’s a perennial question in culture. It’s the blurring of the lines between art and reality, an indication that art is transcendental. But mental illness is not transcendental, and breakdowns aren’t passageways to the truth.

‘A Woman Under the Influence’ remains definitive in portraying female breakdown. ‘Opening Night’, however it may not fully convince me in that theme, does get to grips with the thin line between performance and actuality and how those in the trade of making fiction from realism sometimes have trouble distinguishing the two; and how the former can force them to confront the latter. Cassavetes said that it’s making had been “a terrible experience”*, and if anything ‘Opening Night’ is about how hard it is to make art and how suspectable it is to human existential angst.  It is a fascinating if overlong behind-the-scenes depiction that digresses this way and that until culminating into the essence of acting. And that’s what we came for.

  • * “Extracts from an interview conducted with John Cassavetes soon after the release of ‘Opening Night’ in the United States, originally published in Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1978.” – Taken from Optimum Classic DVD release, ‘The John Cassavetes Collection’.

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