Richard Combs

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 574

[Opening Night] is in many ways the logical extension and distillation of John Cassavetes' treatment of the actor as prime subject and co-creator of his films: a play-within-a-film story that never bothers to make too close a distinction between actress Myrtle Gordon's working out of her problems with a distasteful role on stage and Gena Rowlands' own experimentation with the part of Myrtle. As usual with Cassavetes' films, there is a lack of self-consciousness about the layering of ironies on art imitating life, and vice versa…. Since film-making is treated not as a form that mediates in life, but as 'life' itself, both the on- and off-stage events become equally raw material, each a possible permutation of the other. (p. 192)

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Unexpectedly, given its concern for such actorish tantrums, Opening Night remains probably Cassavetes' coolest film, mainly because the offstage relationships are never reduced, in the usual, psychologising style, to explanation for what is going on behind the footlights…. The fact that 'acting' and theatricality have formally been made the subject of the film is a subtle strengthening factor, if not distancing then at least providing a context for the kind of indulgence Cassavetes has always extended to his actors, and which in the past has often just spilled sloppily over the confines of plot and character….

Ultimately, perhaps, the very formlessness which Cassavetes establishes as the first condition for working with his actors leads to a kind of collapse. Since Opening Night is not a meditation on another art form but an opportunity for its practitioners to work out their temperamental/creative problems, there is nothing left to contain the haphazard fooling around once the integrity of the play-within-the-film is destroyed altogether—as it is, gradually, by the performers making themselves comfortable with it or, in Myrtle's words, by their dumping it upside down to 'see if we can't find something human in it'….

A paradoxical strength, revealed by both this film and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, is Cassavetes' ability to slide in a conventionally dramatic situation, which anchors but does not confine his subsequent permutations and free associations. The gangland killing which the hero of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is forced to carry out serves to identify the narrative, but it never really gains the expected purchase on either the characters or the atmosphere, which dreamily find more idiosyncratic routes out of the film noir situation. In Opening Night, everything flows from the powerful opening sequence…. [The girl who is killed] becomes for Myrtle an ever more substantial figment of her own youthful dreams, and finally a hostile inquisitor, invoking all the years of rapt sacrifice and renunciation of normal life spent in movies and theatres, and demanding now that Myrtle demonstrate in her own life how it was all justified….

Exorcist-like overtones are hard to avoid as Myrtle's relationship with the wraith degenerates from the querulous to the messily violent. But what Cassavetes continually keeps in view is both the emotional validity of the hallucination and its function in Myrtle's own psychodrama. It becomes the means by which she expunges her feelings of bad faith towards her past—just as, through her struggle with the elderly playwright, she must overcome her ill-will towards her own future—before she can carry on with any self-respect in her present role. (p. 193)

Richard Combs, "'Opening Night'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1978 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 3, Summer, 1978, pp. 192-93.

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