Woody Allen said that he could watch a Bergman movie and feel himself gripped as if by a thriller; that's how I felt watching this restored version of John Cassavetes's 1977 picture Opening Night, presented as part of the new Cassavetes season at London's BFI Southbank, and soon to go on national tour.
It is both a psychological drama of eerie, internal strangeness, and a meditation on the enigma and loneliness of being beautiful. Gena Rowlands is Myrtle, a star actress in the late summer of her career, performing in out-of-town previews of a new play in which, for the first time, she will play an older woman. While mobbed by autograph-hunters outside the theatre, Myrtle finds herself transfixed by a troubled teenage fan, the very image of her younger self, who desperately flings herself at Myrtle's departing limousine. Through the rear windshield, in the confusion, darkness and driving rain, Myrtle witnesses the young woman hit and killed by the car following hers. The event profoundly shocks Myrtle and triggers a crisis: she behaves erratically, drinks heavily, departs from her lines and is heading for a full-scale, on-stage breakdown for the imminent opening night on Broadway. Ben Gazzara plays the careworn director who is more than a little in love with Myrtle, but senses a catastrophe in having hitched his career to hers, and Cassavetes himself plays her leading man and former lover.
Myrtle is scared that if she does too well playing the older woman, then that is what she must resign herself to being - in art as in life. Her producer and director are baffled by her uncertain grasp of the material, but Myrtle is frantically scrabbling for a way of playing the part that finesses the whole question of age, of time passing, of approaching death. Can she defy the grim reaper's ultimate typecasting? There is of course no way she can explain these fears to the various male courtiers with whom she is surrounded.
Cassavetes' loose, fluid shooting style and the low-key intensity he gets from his actors is compelling, as is the way he constructs a story. Scenes from the play unfurl in real time, photographed head-on, level with the proscenium arch. We are not sure how much is being improvised (or indeed how much Cassavetes and his actors are actually improvising for our benefit) or what exactly is going wrong. Scenes from Myrtle's life, off stage and on, succeed each other with a sudden, seamless switch, and quite without the traditional narrative-arc punctuation. They proceed almost like the constituent moments of a remembered dream: at one moment, Myrtle will present herself among the dead woman's anguished relatives; we just have time to absorb her mortification at how misjudged her visit has been, and then the scene will vanish, and we are somewhere else in Myrtle's life: her hotel room, her rehearsal room, a restaurant. The seamless effect is helped by the sound mix: an unmistakable part of 1970s independent cinema, with dialogue kept at a low, almost murmuring level, and the ambient New York traffic noise that is so redolent of the period.
We are not short of suppressed black comedy, as director and producer tensely absent themselves from the auditorium while Myrtle loses it on stage, and have a much-needed drink in the interval bar - like Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers. After watching the movie, I found myself looking out Simon Gray's Fat Chance, his brilliant memoir of Stephen Fry's West End breakdown: there is a similar mix of compassion, worry, but also exasperation and even resentment.
I'm not sure what to think about the final scene, whether it is a cop-out, an evasion, or the ultimate expression of concealed gloom, but the fact that Cassavetes and his players appear to have genuinely improvised it, in front of a theatre full of extras playing the audience, is a brilliant all-the-world's-a-stage effect. For those of us who tend to think of Rowlands only as a tough old broad, it is moving to see how beautiful she was, or rather, in the cinema's eternal present, how beautiful she is.
John Cassavetes’s fourth feature, “Faces,” from 1968, is a classic independent production made before such things were in vogue. He financed the film himself from his paychecks for acting gigs and even with a mortgage on his home; the star is his wife, the actress Gena Rowlands; he filmed in their house and edited in their garage; and when the film was completed, he distributed it himself. Then it received three Oscar nominations (Cassavetes, for Best Original Screenplay, and the film’s co-stars, Lynn Carlin and Seymour Cassel, for Best Supporting Actress and Actor). Even more important than its acclaim is its artistry: “Faces” is the core of Cassavetes’s work. He started his career as an independent, with “Shadows” (1959), which he financed with a precursor to Kickstarter, an appeal on a radio show. He then directed two Hollywood features, “Too Late Blues” and “A Child Is Waiting,” and chafed under studio restrictions. The freedom with which he made “Faces” bore aesthetic fruit. With this story of marriage on the rocks and the desperate quest for love, Cassavetes conjured an air of tragic exuberance that’s as original as it is thrilling. The liberated actors blend impulsive comedy, intense physicality, and agonized tenderness; the spontaneous camera work offers soul-baring closeups and sculptural compositions. With its unsparing confessional drama, “Faces” set the themes, the moods, and the styles for the rest of his career. It also inaugurated a new era in the history of cinema, opening possibilities that most directors have yet to confront or even admit.
P.S.: “Faces” screens July 22nd at Metrograph, in the series “Cassavetes/Rowlands”; Rowlands herself will be there July 15th for a Q. & A. following the screening of “Opening Night.”