Opening Night (1977)
Director: John Cassavetes
Writer: John Cassavetes
Cinematographer: Alan Ruban
Producer: Al Ruban
by Jon Cvack
Somebody once said that a person should wait on reading Nietzsche until later in life, as a young mind simply couldn’t understand the practical aspects of his philosophy and cultural criticism without having lived for a while. I’d say the same thing about John Cassavetes; a filmmaker whose work I had long known about, but put off visiting until about five years ago, starting with Shadows (1959) and working my way through his six famous films - Husbands (1970), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Faces (1968), Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and rounding out his oeuvre with this film.*
Opening Night is about an upcoming stage play, featuring many of Cassavetes’ regular players - Gena Rowlands as the over the hill actress and alcoholic Myrtle Gordon; Ben Gazzara as the play’s producer; and John Cassavetes as the male lead, Maurice Aarons, opposite Gordon. It even features a cameo from Peter Falk in the end. At nearly two and a half hours, the film follows the disintegration of Myrtle’s mental stability as she struggles with growing old while trying to maintain the fierceness and craft which defined her earlier career; kicked off when a crazed fan chases Myrtle out of the theater, gets hit by a car and dies.
For two and a half hours we watch as Myrtle spirals out of control, attempting to convince the playwright Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell) that she’s in full control, even while Myrtle’s failing to complete the simplest of tasks. She forgets lines, she can’t control her drinking which is perpetuated by the producer and her co-star who realize getting sauced is all that can satiate the demons brewing beneath the surface. Myrtle is fully aware that her days are numbered; as between her inability to control her drinking - or even admit the problem - and its subsequent toll on her mind and body, her professional opportunities are rapidly drying up. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy; she drinks because she can no longer perform, but she can’t perform because she drinks.
Cassavetes would die from cirrhosis of the liver only twelve years after the film’s release; and given that most of his movies involve binge drinking characters, in no way exploring the activity as a problem so much as a debaucherous pass time, the story is eerie. Opening Night continues the theme, except while his other films display the humor associated with late-night binge sessions with friends, Opening Night shows the severe consequences. As Roger Ebert (and fellow alcoholic) says in his review, while alcoholics can talk about how great things used to be, they eventually must deal with the harsh reality of a sober now. Unfortunately, Myrtle never gets to that epiphany.
In the concluding scene, as Myrtle arrives at the opening performance hardly able to stand or speak, she passes a stagehand who offers the film’s best line, “I've seen a lot of drunks in my day, but I never seen anyone as drunk as you and still be able to walk. You're fantastic.” And yet it’s the fact it’s not all that funny that emphasizes Ebert’s point. Myrtle makes it to the stage, abandons the script and proceeds to improvise alongside Cassavetes as the audience laughs.
In the end, everyone smiles and hugs, and yet - like Ebert - I was left wondering what the cause of celebration was all about. It’s clear that Myrtle has struck rock bottom, and if she doesn’t get some help soon, she will likely die soon enough. I was left thinking of the HBO Documentary Risky Drinking (2015) about severe alcoholics, in which one man was so addicted that he could not physically function without getting blotto on alcohol; having difficulty even walking down the stairs, eventually going to a hospital to get himself sobered up. The withdrawal then kicked in, causing crazed and violent episodes of vomiting and pain that rivaled Trainspotting (1996), and still the man couldn’t kick the habit. We never knew what happened beyond the relapse, but I think it’s safe to assume the man too had a premature death. Myrtle seems destined for a similar destiny, and yet Cassavetes never comments on this doomed fate. The film seems more about a woman struggling to deal with an ailing career and old age than with a severe alcohol problem.
BELOW: Alcohol's a hell of a drug
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