This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.
When I wrote about Husbands, I’d only seen one other movie by John Cassavetes. I’ve seen a few more now, but I’m by no means an expert. After reading more about the cult of fandom around him, it’s clear that people who like him really, really like him. I was especially fascinated by finding what I thought was a term paper from a film class but was apparently the personal website of critic Ray Carney. Most people can’t name more than one or two film critics, but as I’ve gotten more interested in film over the years I’ve grown more familiar with the big names. Carney is a new one for me, distinguished by being seemingly the world’s premiere Cassavetes expert. He very literally wrote the book, but the list of directors he hates includes just about everyone I, and probably you, like. It’s clearly contrarianism, but some people love that approach.
This seems to be the thing, though. Even among outsiders, Cassavetes provides space for you to like an outsider. Most of his films, even the ones considered classics, seem to have flopped. He has several films on most top films lists, no matter who you side with for your list of greats, but he continually struggled to get audiences (and often critics) to be interested in what he was making. He made very different movies, but often with the same central cast and with the same ethos. He had a way of viewing the world and a bleakness that was central to the tone of his films. Just as Tarantino, who Ray Carney hates, is obsessed with style, Cassavetes could be said to be obsessed with tone. But that’s just my opinion, you should probably ask Ray Carney, to be sure.
Opening Night is the story of an older woman who would not agree with that description. Myrtle, played by Gena Rowlands, is a recognizable star and a big name, but now is doing a play in Connecticut. The Second Woman, a fictional play that we never see all of, is the story of a woman who may be confronting her age or may be running from it. We never see enough of it to discern the message, but that’s the whole point. Myrtle can’t find the heart of the character, saying she has lost the “reality of the, well, reality.” She especially struggles with a scene where her co-star Maurice, played by Cassavetes himself, has to slap her. Director Manny, played by Cassavetes staple Ben Gazzara, has to make this whole thing work.
Most of the film follows Myrtle, but we see Manny drink scotch and wonder what it all means with his wife. She does some physical comedy while Manny stays on the phone in the middle of the night to calm Myrtle down. The scene ultimately ends in an immediate cut to the next scene, virtually in the middle of his wife’s line about how they should stop pretending. I had to rewind three times to catch it, as I did a few other times with other seemingly important lines. Some of this is the style of the day for the late 70s, but it’s also a sign that Cassavetes doesn’t really care about what is said in these moments. Maybe Manny’s home life is cracking up and maybe it’s not, but that’s not what we’re here for. It should all carry a certain tone to it, but what people are actually saying over those glasses through bleary eyes is a little less important.
Myrtle either can’t or won’t do the play as written. She insists on inserting her own dialogue or surprising the supporting cast during previews. She tells everyone involved that the part doesn’t connect for her, but we are led to believe no one has a choice. The show is happening and it’s happening with the name that’s four times larger than the others on the billboard still attached. Manny has to figure out how to make this work, which includes loud, drunken discussions about art and meaning and aging just as much as it does agreeing to let Myrtle go see a spiritualist after she continues to mention the ghost of a young girl whose death she witnessed after a show.
Most of the reviews of Opening Night center the story around Myrtle’s drinking, and it would be impossible to ignore it. Myrtle is a severe alcoholic, surrounded by lesser drunks, but she has problems that alcohol doesn’t intersect with. The young fan who dies in the opening scene haunts Myrtle, which some reviewers chalk up to drunken mania. It seems to me to be a lot more than that and actually a pivot away from the booze being the problem. Myrtle drinks to avoid the elements of her life she actually struggles with, which are then compounded by the drinking. It’s not possible to fully separate all of this, but it’s important to see this as more than the story of a drunk falling down.
Myrtle does fall down, though, and shows up disastrously drunk to the actual opening night. To this point, she has not really performed this play. It stretches credulity that the cast wouldn’t be furious, but Cassavetes addresses this by showing us a side character saying that she’s more honest in her crazed, unreal version of the play than when he’s really on. Her co-star is far less gracious and directly says he’s going to do it as written. The whole film builds to the moment where both approaches are put to the test. We get resolution on both points, but it may not satisfy every viewer.
Rowlands is an icon. She was married to Cassavetes for more than three decades and was in almost all of his films. Her performance here is excellent, going beyond the typical requirements of what a person following the beats of a destructive artist would do on the way down. This is a complex performance to the end. The ending is unambiguous on screen, but I really do wonder if we’re supposed to take it at face value. Cassavetes said he and Rowlands performed the final scene three times for the audience and escalated it a little bit each time. The third one is the one in the final film. You really have to see it to see where it goes, because I assure you that you cannot guess.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I think so. I liked this a great deal more than Husbands and I do think I liked it more than First Cow, our last film in this series. I have fewer criticisms of First Cow, which maybe makes this feel like the wrong answer, but I feel pushed to see more Cassavetes after seeing this. I didn’t feel that going in, so it has succeeded in that regard.
Is it the best movie of all time? Nope. Persona retains the crown, though I think this is my favorite Cassavetes so far, except possibly The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The main issue I took with Opening Night is that it never feels very real in a macro sense. The author of the play is available and never gets as flustered as you’d expect and we addressed the cast responses in the review. The dialogue is all excellent, a strength of Cassavetes even if he seems uninterested in it, and visually this is a really fascinating movie, but it does not feel true to how people would actually behave. That may bother you and it may not, but it didn’t interfere with me enjoying the elements I did.
You can watch Opening Night on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or Amazon Prime ($2.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.