“I’m not acting,” stage star Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) tells her bemused director after a violent episode with her ghostly muse in Opening Night. That’s a loaded claim to be making in a movie that so conclusively smudges the line between acting and being, and indeed, Myrtle’s terse declaration is tantalizingly double-edged—a desperate plea and, more importantly, a daring refusal from a woman flatly boycotting her prescribed roles on- and offstage.
John Cassavetes’s ninth feature, completed in 1977 and all but ignored in the U.S. until after his death, is the most self-reflexive (and thus least typical) of his major works. While Cassavetes’s other great films are models of immediacy—gut-level attempts to devise a cinematic syntax that accounts for and responds to the quantum flux of moment-to-moment experience—the doubly framed and multiply mirrored Opening Night operates at a remove. The filmmaker’s habitual insistence on the inseparability of actor and character (and of art and life) reverberates here within the haunted corridors of a backstage melodrama. The aging, raging Myrtle is a directorial alter ego. Which is to say, Opening Night dramatizes what Cassavetes’s other films embody—the radical, rupturing search for a truthful means of expression. Single, childless, and resentfully cast in a play entitled The Second Woman (she has the menopausal title role), Myrtle falls into a boozy, depressive tailspin after witnessing the death of a teenage girl, an autograph hound, struck by a car outside the theater one stormy night. When a distraught Myrtle seeks solace from her onstage lover and offscreen ex, Maurice (Cassavetes), she’s curtly rebuffed. “You’re not a woman to me anymore,” he says. “You’re a professional.” Maurice’s devastating one-two punch sums up this lonely actor’s crisis of confidence and identity: she’s a middle-aged woman forced to confront her fading powers of seduction, and an established artist negotiating the trap of deadening complacency. Tellingly, the play’s wolfish director, Manny (Ben Gazzara), reiterates Maurice’s charges. “It has nothing to do with being a woman. You’re not a woman anyway,” he jokes, trying to assuage Myrtle’s qualms about a scene in which Maurice slaps her. Later, in another botched effort at consolation, Manny assures her, “Everyone loves you. You’re a super-high-priced professional.”
Thus goaded to new heights of unprofessionalism, Myrtle rebels for the duration of the play’s New Haven tryouts. She protests that she has nothing in common with her character, Virginia, all the while fearing that the exact opposite is true. Identifying with Virginia—the creation of the imperious playwright Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell), who’s several decades her senior—would be an admission of defeat too crushing to imagine. She isn’t ready to be convincing as an older woman, and she bristles at having to portray Virginia as written. “I’m looking for a way to play this part where age doesn’t make any difference,” she announces—an aspiration that, like those of so many other Cassavetes protagonists, is at once crazy, pathetic, and heroic. Alienated from her character and from her colleagues, who unhelpfully assert that her alienation is a sad, simple matter of denial, Myrtle conjures her own muse—in the form of her dead fan, Nancy. This initially friendly ghost represents, as Myrtle puts it, “the first woman in my own life,” and may even suggest a way into The Second Woman.
In rehearsal and performance, to the horror of cast and crew, Myrtle becomes viscerally incapable of sticking to the script, or even remaining in character. (From the first mutinous rehearsal we see, it’s clear that many audiences will be covered in the debris of collapsed fourth walls before the film is over.) It’s an ingeniously conceived, astonishingly acted part that encapsulates Cassavetes’s assumptions about the function of performance and the value of theatricality in social interaction. His films are not so much about acting as the harrowing, hilarious inability to act. They call attention to the theater of everyday life by studying the cracks in the proscenium—by privileging the nakedly revealing or wildly obfuscating occasions when performance fails, when the “script” no longer applies, leaving the stranded “actors” to break out of character, overcompensate in outsize ways, make it up on the spot. Myrtle Gordon, who does all these things many times over, is, in a sense, the ultimate Cassavetes character: an actor in revolt, she literalizes the notion of a performance breakdown.
“I seem to have lost the reality of the . . . reality,” Myrtle murmurs at one point, and it’s no wonder. Instead of merely mapping correspondences between the play-within-the-film and the surrounding scenario, Opening Night furiously entwines its fictions to the point of utter disorientation. The recurring slapping scene best illustrates this heightened blurring. For Virginia/Myrtle, the dreaded slap functions like a hypnotist’s clap—it brutally unmoors her from the illusion of the play. In rehearsal, the day after Maurice’s rejection, before his character, Marty, has even made contact, she falls to the floor, refusing to get up—a stunning act of passive aggression that Rowlands’s Sarah Lawson reprises in Love Streams (1984). (Myrtle is, of course, another of Rowlands’s extraordinary madwomen with an overwhelming, raw-nerved capacity and need for love, A Woman Under the Influence’s  Mabel Longhetti being the mother of them all.) Each time, the slap provokes a new, wayward response. She screams, cries, laughs, and once, during a performance, is even moved to call an end to the whole charade: “We must never forget this is only a play.” Myrtle’s advice underscores how hard it is—for her and us—to distinguish between the competing realities. Actors slip in and out of their roles without warning, lines teeter between real and acted, scenes change context in the blink of an eye. The echo chamber of actors playing actors renders almost every utterance layered and ambiguous. The onstage pairing of Virginia and Marty, for instance, is shadowed, and sometimes displaced, by an offstage relationship (Myrtle and Maurice) as well as an offscreen one (Gena and John).
While Opening Night is often located in the Hollywood tradition of the aging-diva melodrama exemplified by 1950’s All About Eve (Blondell’s role was first offered to Bette Davis), it lacks the genre’s morbid nostalgia and nastiness. With its vertiginous stage/screen refractions, its delight in wrong-footing viewers and engaging their participation, Cassavetes’s film is perhaps closest to the work of Jacques Rivette. Opening Night has inspired homages from at least two European directors: Pedro Almodóvar, who performed an intricate triangulation with his 1999 All About Eve revision, All About My Mother (in which the inciting event is a fatal accident on a rainy night), and Arnaud Desplechin, whose Esther Kahn (2000), though based on a late-nineteenth-century novel, posits, with equal nutty urgency, an almost identical hypothesis on stage acting and self-actualization. (Certainly, Opening Night, the last film Cassavetes financed and distributed himself, has always been criminally overlooked in America; there was no interest from a theatrical distributor until 1991.)
Just as Rowlands miraculously ennobles Myrtle’s fear of aging, she infuses her epic, climactic drunken struggle with an existential resolve. (As in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a battered protagonist lurches to the finish line in the dogged belief that the show must go on.) By the end, Opening Night has turned into a spiritual thriller. After Nancy is savagely exorcised, a euphoric Myrtle turns up at Maurice’s apartment with a new approach to the play: “Let’s dump it upside down and see if we can’t find something human in it.” Cassavetes, who took on plenty of acting day jobs, would have understood this anarchic, redemptive impulse, but Maurice ignores her again. Arriving at the Broadway opening totally smashed, Myrtle spends the first half of the evening leaning against the nearest available wall or castmate. Playing opposite Maurice, though, she sobers up, and he in turn abandons the safety net of professionalism. Their improvised rampage—an arch identity striptease (“I am not me! . . . There’s someone posing here as us!”) that sprawls into a duet of shadowboxing and foot shaking—is an improbable success. The audience members, who were given no direction by Cassavetes, lap up the scene’s goofy, freewheeling ebullience. (Curiously, Cassavetes recut Opening Night after its first screening, supposedly because of the overly positive reception.) Manny’s generally unhappy wife, Dorothy (an indelibly selfeffacing Zohra Lampert), is the key spectator here, watching with rapt and seemingly empathetic joy—and bestowing on Myrtle the embrace that closes the film.
Myrtle’s triumph has less to do with reaffirmed public adoration than with her revitalized faith in art as a way of life . Onstage, she defiantly reanimates the selfhelp cliché of existing “in the moment” and, however briefly, entertains the possibility of pure experience. Myrtle and Maurice’s impromptu backandforth is a literally theatrical version of the intimate performative spectacle unique to Cassavetes films—an inter action beyond words and gestures, predicated on the invention of a shared language so hyperbolic and specific and almost inexplicable it counts as a form of love. The moving, sweetly redemptive upshot is that Myrtle’s madness proves conta gious . She can’t and won’t distinguish between her life and her art, which obliges those in her presence (those watching her, both inside and outside the movie) to join her in this state of exciting, alarming volatility—a willful confusion that Cassavetes grasped, cherished, and strove to capture like no filmmaker before or since.
Dennis Lim is director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He has written for various publications, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Artforum, and Cinema Scope. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2004 DVD release of John Cassavetes: Five Films.