Indie-cinema godhead John Cassavetes cranked out his singular movies at a steady pace throughout the ’70s, culminating with this epic rumination on the dissipation of a middle-aged woman’s psyche—not be confused with the director’s previous epic rumination on the dissipation of a middle-aged woman’s psyche, A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Yet while that film earned two Academy Award nominations and is now considered something of a zenith achievement for Cassavetes’ improvisational style, Opening Night is easily the filmmaker’s most interminable movie of the ’70s, running a bloated 144 minutes without ever once revealing to the audience what’s causing the central character’s emotional spiral. As with all of Cassavetes’ films, Opening Night has many champions (the picture earned two Golden Globe nominations), but it’s telling that the picture was such a huge flop during initial engagements that it didn’t receive a proper theatrical release until the ’80s. By the time Opening Night was completed, Cassavetes had already made five previous auteur pieces laden with shapeless angst, including two starring his real-life spouse Gena Rowlands, so the public appetite for the director’s uniquely self-indulgent art had clearly been exhausted.
Rowlands plays an actress named Myrtle, who’s doing out-of-town previews for an upcoming Broadway show. Following a performance one night, Myrtle encounters a loving but troubled fan (Laura Johnson). Immediately thereafter, the fan dies in a traffic accident that Myrtle witnesses. This event spins Myrtle into a series of meltdowns, from alcoholic binges offstage to bizarre ad-libs onstage. Myrtle’s behavior worries the show’s costar (Cassavetes), playwright (Joan Blondell), and producer (Ben Gazzara), among others. The majority of Opening Night comprises dull, repetitive scenes of Rowlands acting strangely; sometimes she seems obnoxious, and sometimes she seems unhinged. Viewers are also subjected to excerpts from the trite play that Myrtle’s rehearsing. Whereas A Woman Under the Influence slid its title character’s dissipation into a narrative about a marriage under stress, Opening Night fails to surround Myrtle with formidable characters, so it’s as if everyone else in the movie exists only to watch Rowlands’ flamboyant acting. (Incidental scenes of Gazzara’s character with his wife, played by Zohra Lampert, don’t amount to much.) In the end, Opening Night seems more like a parody of Cassavetes’ more-is-more aesthetic than an actual example of the filmmaker’s craft.
Opening Night: LAME