[Opening Night] is highly ambitious in its basic conception, yet terribly disappointing in its realization. This is particularly devastating since the main conflict in the film is between the writer's static vision recorded in the script and the players' improvisation embodied in a living performance….
Opening Night immediately plunges us into a double reality of stage and screen and a double perspective on the performance. At first we identify with the actress [Gena Rowlands]: we share her nervous anticipation and see the audience from her point of view. But as soon as she begins to interact with Cassavetes [who portrays a photographer], we resume our more familiar role as audience and become involved with the film through exposure to the play. Thus we are forced to impose on ourselves the schizoid split between actor and viewer—the very process of doubling that will become so crucial for the central characters both in the play and in the film. (p. 50)
Contrasting sharply with the hot red carpet on which the couple restlessly pace back and forth and the emotional sparks ignited by their dynamic interaction, [the photographer's] powerful still photographs are static. They express the playwright's main theme of old age, which she forces her heroine and audience to accept; yet both Gena Rowlands as actress and John Cassavetes, in their double roles try to escape or transform the limits of this theme (both in style and content) through dynamic improvisation. This conflict is embodied in the dramatic punning on "stage." Rather than accept the rigid conventions of the traditional stage, or the definition of human life as a line drawn between fixed points that mark the boundaries between separate stages of development, Rowlands and Cassavetes stage a rebellion against such classifications by physically representing art and life as a constant stage of transformation and growth.
The polarity between youth and old age first comes to life as Gena and her seasoned collaborators leave the theater and are mobbed by young autograph hounds. Gena encounters an 18-year-old would-be actress, who reminds her of a younger version of herself…. We see Gena staring at the girl's blurred distorted image through the misted window as if she were looking at an old moving picture of herself. This powerful image simultaneously imprints Gena's consciousness and our own; again, we are forced into the same kind of schizoid split between viewer and actress that Gena experiences. When the young girl is struck down by a car a few moments later, Gena is the only one in the limousine who responds emotionally to the reality of what she has seen, insisting on stopping the car. In later sequences, she will make this experience the basis of a series of hallucinations, in which the girl represents her former self desperately struggling to stay alive. These psychotic episodes become her primary means of discovering an authentic way of playing the role of the aging heroine in The Second Woman. Although this sequence of events may represent a well-known interior approach to acting, the film never succeeds in convincing us that Gena's extreme psychic struggle is really essential or that it actually leads to the final improvisation where she spars—verbally, physically, and emotionally—with Cassavetes in order to give the play and its loser-heroine a dash of hope. (p. 51)
The seance is another form of theatrical performance or ritual that tries to externalize interior or nonphysical experience. Apparently, Cassavetes is using this scene to express the playwright's means of dealing with her emotions and her medium. Not surprisingly, Gena flees from the seance just as she...
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tries to escape from the play, despite her promise to accept a starring role in both. Gena is committed only to her fluid, intuitive sense of emotional authenticity, which is always focused on the present moment and which is supposedly the basis of her greatness as an actress. Although this all sounds fine in theory and despite the high quality of the acting performances, the causal connection between theory and practice within the film is not really convincing. This is especially true in the seance, which is precisely the point at which the film starts to be disappointing, for we sense the action is highly contrived, not only by the playwright but also by Cassavetes the film-maker.
Opening Night is very ingenious and inventive in comparing the media of stage and screen and in playing with the multiple artistic and personal realities that they both draw upon. Where it goes astray is in developing Gena's descent into madness and alcoholism as a means of discovering an authentic way to reinterpret her theatrical role. Even if the film had succeeded in convincing us that this path was essential and that it actually led to the particular improvisation that follows, the weakness of that finale would still make us seriously question whether it was really worth all the Sturm und Drang. Gena's torment smacks more of gratuitous masochism, either pathetically chosen by the actress out of some misguided notion of the suffering artist or imposed on her by her tyrannical director…. (pp. 51-2)
Of course, they are both well aware of this pattern, which is the explicit subject of two improvisational scenes that are embarrassing to watch…. When she complains that it is humiliating, her director allows her to slap both him and John (who double for each other on many levels) before subjecting her to repetitions of the scene, which are perhaps intended to desensitize both the actress and the audience to humiliation in the service of art. We have seen similar scenes in Faces and Woman Under the Influence where they were far better motivated both psychologically and aesthetically and where they consequently had far greater emotional power….
The extreme exaggeration [when Gena staggers drunkenly into the theater] makes both his motivation and her subsequent performance on stage totally unbelievable. The frank acknowledgment of Gena's masochism and her director's sadism within these two scenes explicitly identifies humiliation as the basic subject of the improvisations, yet it does not really lessen the gratuity or justify the pain.
I think my disappointment with Opening Night is intensified by the brilliance of the early sequences that open so many fascinating possibilities and by my extreme admiration for Cassavetes's earlier films. He is still one of the most talented, original directors who courageously succeeds in making personal films with great emotional resonance within or in spite of the Hollywood industry. (p. 52)
Marsha Kinder, "Reviews: 'Opening Night'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1978 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXXI, No. 3, Spring, 1978, pp. 50-2.