This title is currently available only as part of Optimum's The John Cassavetes Collection boxed set.
“Myrtle is the star of the show.” And thus Gena Rowlands, as Myrtle Gordon, lead actress in The Second Woman, is the star of Opening Night. Indeed, it is testament to Rowlands’ abilities that she holds her own in such esteemed company, as she finds herself alongside the usual gang of John Cassavetes players – including the director himself in front of the camera. And yet whilst the likes of Ben Gazzara, et al may add much to Opening Night’s qualities, the casting of Joan Blondell is perhaps the most telling. The presence of this old time Hollywood star inevitably forces us to place the film within the tradition of the big screen backstage drama, though perhaps only All About Eve can match it in its sourness.
For Opening Night is still firmly located in Cassavetes territory. In fact, the theatrical setting proves highly inviting to him – all of those lengthy rehearsals and tension-ridden performances being the perfect excuse for him to hold onto to the action in long scenes and tease out the tiniest details. And yet it also allows for some new additions, this being his most heavily layered film as we crosscut between on- and offstage and Rowlands’ Persona-like fantasies as she heads towards a nervous breakdown.
Of course the prospect of Rowlands slowly losing it unavoidably begs comparisons with A Woman Under the Influence and the inevitable question as to whether this particular is as successful. The simple answer is a direct no, but this isn’t to say that Opening Night doesn’t offer its own pleasures. Indeed, the theatrical setting allows for a wonderfully suffocating environment as it barely strays from its single set, mammoth hotel rooms which only enhance the characters’ emptiness, or just outside the stage door where numerous autograph hunters swarm and engulf our leads. Moreover, the use of the play means that Cassavetes is able to confine any melodramatic excesses solely to that area and as such we have one of his quietest films.
Not that the brutal edges are lost, that is. As is usual for Cassavetes, Opening Night presents an extremely tough look at these peoples’ lives, whether it be Rowlands’ battering herself against a door frame or Blondell offering acidic remarks. Yet in diminishing the noisier parts which were key to Faces, Husbands and the latter half of A Woman Under the Influence, the film also proves far more elusive. Certainly, this may prompt the viewer to come back to it time and again, yet it’s also true that it lacks the forcefulness of these earlier pictures. It’s certainly not a poor work, or even a failure – it won Rowlands the Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival, after all – but it is undoubtedly a minor work in Cassavetes oeuvre.
Opening Night is perhaps the best looking of Optimum’s John Cassavetes discs. Indeed, given the lack of graininess which was so integral to many of his other independent offerings, it also proves far easier to judge. As such we get a remarkably clean print presented anamorphically with few technical faults to speak of. As with some of the other Cassavetes discs it does suffer from some intermittent flicker, but otherwise the results are superb. The colours in particular - Opening Night makes fine use of whites and reds – being a standout. As for the soundtrack, this is likewise given a fine presentation with both the dialogue and Bo Harwood's score demonstrating the requisite crispness and clarity.
With regards to the extras, the film comes with a full length commentary, in which Harwood and camera operator Mike Ferris are joined by film historian and Cassavetes biographer Tom Charity, and another series of excerpts from an audio interview between the director and French film critic Michel Ciment. This latter piece, recorded at the Berlin Film Festival in 1978 (the same year Rowlands won her award), takes the same approach as the other Cassavetes’ interviews found on Optimum’s other discs: for the most we stick to film itself, though digressions do allow us a greater insight into the director’s views and practices.
With this in mind, the commentary is therefore the more desirable item. And, indeed, highly impressive it is too, with Ferris and Harwood proving themselves to be particularly shrewd in their discussions, whilst their long working relationships with Cassavetes allow for both a wealth of anecdotage as well as a genuine understanding of what he was trying to achieve. As such Charity mostly sits back, but then his presence does nudge them into some interesting areas and keeps them talking for the duration.
As with the main feature, both extras come without optional subtitles, English or otherwise.
Anthony Nield reviews Opening Night, the final film in Optimum's The John Cassavetes Collection boxed set.