Opening Night, 1977 / John Cassavetes

opening_nightWhat can I say, Cassavetes films are one of a kind. I’ve seen three of them so far, and on each of these occasions (yes, they are occasions) was taken on a very organic, totally unpredictable, truthful, inspired trip. Opening Night resonates with me in a particular way, as it depicts the world of theatre, a world special to me. I’ve always wondered about the relationship between cinema and theatre, and how possible it is to depict theatre on film. Soderbergh does something very interesting in Full Frontal, though the play there is not really such a central part. Cassavetes goes to an extreme in that respect, putting us viewers in the middle of long long scenes on stage, keeping the camera rolling, basically filming the play as it develops. Of course, the movie needs to be extremely smart for him to be able to pull this off, but above all it’s a very heartfelt movie, which is why it works. An accidental death of a fan triggers an emotional and mental breakdown in the life of its main character, actress Myrtle Gordon (the brilliant, powerful Gena Rowlands). And that’s it basically, as far as the plot is concerned. It’s a way to stimulate the action, but from that point on (the death comes in one of the opening scenes) nothing is straighforward or predictable. Cassavetes was renowned for his improvisational techniques, building characters with flesh, blood and tears, never forcing upon his heroes unconvincing, fabricated scenes. As in his other works, here again the script appears impossible to invent – everything rather flows as if lifted from real life, as if the film maker was luckily there with a camera as things were actually happening. It’s rather impossible to describe…

Myrtle is a woman about 45-50 (she never reveals her actual age, which is a manifestation of one of her deeply lying problems – the difficulty of accepting the advance of aging). She has no one (no husband, no lover, no children) but her art and her reputation as a major film and stage star. Grappling with issues such as growing old and loneliness (you know about lonely nights? how about those lonely days?), she is good friends with alcohol, but not so good friends with the writer of her new play, “Second Woman”. Uncharacteristically, Myrtle can’t find a thing to identify with in the new text she is working on. The struggle to create a believable character is exacerbated by the death of a young female fan – a 17-year old who dies seconds after meeting Myrtle outside a theatre. The image of the rain-soaked, crying, almost collapsing in her emotions young woman haunts Myrtle into a mental state that crumbles further as the film progresses. Who is this young girl? Or, rather, what is she to Myrtle? Searching for the answer of this devastating question, Myrtle resorts to visiting the girl’s funeral, then a spiritualist, to letting go of herself on stage and improvising with abandon, even viciousness, before actual audiences. No one who has ever been to a theatre performance can help but feel uneasy while watching these sequences. In this sense, Opening Night is a quite visceral experience.

I found it extremely interesting that Myrtle had no one to turn to outside of the theatrical world. She could only look for help from the director (Cassavetes fave Ben Gazzara), the producer, even the writer, to whose face she openly admits, “I don’t think we could ever be friends.” All these people however, despite harbouring some kind of love, or at least respect, for Myrtle, are after their own agendas – keeping up reputations, ensuring the success of the play, maintaining political or artistic control. Myrtle is basically on her own, fighting demons, wrestling with solitude, trying to preserve the last shreds of her integrity. All leads up to the final scene – the New York premiere of the play, the actual opening night. I don’t want to spoil it for you (if this is relevant at all in a Cassavetes movie), but I should say what happens is the living nightmare for any theatre director. The interaction between Myrtle and Maurice (played with verve by Cassavetes himself) in that closing scene is electrifying. So human, so wonderfully weird, so worthy of being captured on film. The end is only natural, as Myrtle fights with her last ounces of strength to do probably the one thing she can – get out on that stage and give everything she has, and to hell with it. We as an audience can only applaud this reincarnation of life.

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The personal website of director Ivaylo Minov

I am a Bulgarian-born filmmaker working between Sofia and London. Over the last six years, I have been directing TV commercials for agencies like DDB, Leo Burnett, Lowe Swing, Publicis, Huts JWT, Demner Merlicek & Bergmann. I have worked for a wide range of clients – from mobile telecoms through charities to a viral campaign for a presidential candidate at the 2011 elections in Bulgaria.

I have a film making diploma from the London Film Academy, following a BA degree in Journalism by the American University in Bulgaria. I have worked in media and theatre, before discovering my passion for film making and turning it into a full-time devotion.

Find me at:
liaminov (at) gmail.com
0044 7757 428696 (UK)
00359 886 880564 (BG)

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