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Opening Night (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on October 25, 2014

I was thinking recently about all the movies I used to love that I no longer do.  Movies that, 20 years ago, would have appeared on my top 100 list but now I’m not as fond of.  Sid & Nancy, This Is Spinal Tap, Die Hard, Yellow Submarine, Harold & Maude, both Forbidden Planet and Fantastic Planet.  The list goes on.  Tastes change over time and I wonder what my list of favorites will look like in 2034 (three-quarters of the movies on my current list are ones I hadn’t even seen — or didn’t exist yet — when I was in my 20’s).  There are also a few movies that rubbed me the wrong way the first time that opened themselves up to me on a second viewing.  The Apartment and The Lady Eve come to mind.  But these cases are less numerous, and it’s rare for a film to win me over when I had previously reacted negatively to it.

I’m really not sure why I gave Opening Night a 4 out of 10 (lately I’ve been toying with the idea of going back to the old 10-point scale, but I’ve changed my rating system too many times already) when I first saw it nearly ten years ago.  The charges I leveled against it don’t make sense to me… they sound like a different person seeing a different movie.  “A good dramatic premise gone to waste”?  What did I think was supposed to happen?  Perhaps the “ghost” of the dead girl (Laura Johnson) gets a proper exorcism?  I’m not even sure which dramatic premise I was referring to.  What I see now is an actress struggling with aging, her reputation and her craft.  An actress who can’t figure out if she’s too far from reality or too close to it.  It’s not gone to waste… it’s dealt with in a nuanced, multi-faceted fashion.

“The conclusion is quite unsatisfying”?  I think I remember where this gripe came from, a feeling that the “improvisation” that Myrtle (Gena Rowlands) and Maurice (John Cassavetes) perform is lame.  Which is somewhat fair, but I don’t think it’s meant to be brilliant ad-libbing.  It lets the film end on a message of hope… a message that early on Myrtle complains is missing from the play.  Rather than be a dour meditation on aging and the loss of “the first woman”, Myrtle shows the love and life still burning inside both her and her character.  The author (a terrific performance by veteran Joan Blondell) may be disgusted, but the audience is appreciative.  Cassavetes’s stories always seem to end on a note of hope, I think, even Chinese Bookie.  As much as he showcases the unlikable characteristics of people, he truly loves them and wants them to flourish.  It’s a very satisfying conclusion indeed.

“Even Rowlands is disappointing in this one”?  What was I thinking?  I’m baffled.  Okay, so Myrtle Gordon is not quite as electrifying as Mabel Longhetti, but it’s still a riveting performance.  One of my biggest pet peeves is bad drunk acting, but here Rowlands does drunk acting as authentically as I’ve ever seen it.  And she does fear and frustration and nervous breakdown as real and touching as they could be.  In loving close-ups, Cassavetes invites us to share her emotional turmoil, to see the world through her eyes.

Granted, the movie still isn’t one of my favorites… it doesn’t gut-punch me like the best of Cassavetes does.  But it’s a frequently beautiful piece of work, with surreal, ambiguous touches and a lot of thoughtful insights on both aging and acting.  Perhaps one difference between the me of today and the me of a decade ago is my understanding of what the craft of acting meant to Cassavetes and how this film connects to his other works on many different levels.  And if you ever want to program a triple feature with intriguing connections, I suggest All About Eve, Opening Night and All About My Mother.  Rating: Very Good (82)


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