From the start of Opening Night, director John Cassavetes situates us firmly both as the audience of a film and in the real-life audience of a play. Myrtle Gordon, played compellingly by Gena Rowlands, is the star of the film and the play. When she witnesses a young fan of hers run over in the street, Myrtle breaks down. The girl’s death invokes feelings of guilt, but also a dizzying journey into time, highlighting what it means to live in only one direction in time.
Myrtle is no longer young, and being cast as an older woman in the play traps her in a dilemma in which she sees no way back: if she plays the role well, her career will be catapulted into the geriatric ward; if she accepts the implications of the role for women in general, women will be forever delegated to life without hope. Instead of accepting and assuming her role as an older woman, both in the play and in her own life, Myrtle decides not to compromise. She chooses to inhabit differential identities, at once reframing characters and her audiences’ opinions of them. This brings her into conflict with others, each of whom has decided upon and assumed a fixed identity, for better or for worse. She wants to keep all of her possibilities open, even though time and circumstance have already shut many doors. This openness leads to much emotional turmoil, augmented by heavy bouts of drinking.
Cassavetes shows that in order to be someone fully, we need to recognise, through pain, loss and grief, what we are not or can be no longer. Paradoxically, struggling with these questions and limitations provides a way to personal growth: recognising the boundary of the self is the first step to pushing it back. Myrtle refuses to exorcise her demons except through the work of her own hands, making the transformative process a dialectic within herself rather than an imposition by external forces.
This exploration of the self in a state of becoming is a continuation of themes present in Cassavetes’ earlier works. Cassavetes tends to shoot his arrows via his actresses. Rather than this being based on Romantic notions of women as fleeting and inconstant, perhaps Cassavetes is subverting these assumptions in order to urge everyone to embrace a more mercurial approach to the possibilities life has to offer. Contrary to A Woman Under the Influence (1974), this film is about a woman on her own, with no responsibility to anyone but herself and her work. However, both films portray characters moving out of positions of power and control into spaces that are exploratory and dangerously underdetermined. The characters are quite literally taken out of their roles, stripped of their scripts, left to wade through the possibilities of what the stage, qua stage, and actors, as other human beings, will offer.
The script and the role are basic abstractions of actual human experience. Cassavetes’ work, itself heavily scripted, drags us into what Ron Carney calls ‘non-contemplative art’. This is thought that occurs in ‘time, space and the body’. Cassavetes throws off the fetters of the platonic valuation placed on reflection, and sees thought as something dynamic, not restful, something that happens in the body in real time. The non-scription of Cassavetes’ work is perhaps the reason it is so hard to watch his films. Not only are we unaware of the character’s next move, we actually have to watch it being formulated through thought and action over time. For Cassavetes, this is film: just as a real life scene presents traces – dialogue, action, etc. – of the process of a character in becoming, so too the film presents traces – image, sound, etc. – of the experience of the director creating. Both document and bear witness to a dynamic set of decisions and choices. Cassavetes’ films are a temple to this negotiation.