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Excerpts from a discussion of
OPENING NIGHT

[Opening Night] is the other side of A Woman Under the Influence, about a woman on her own, with no responsibility to anyone but herself, with a need to come together with other women. [Myrtle] is alone and in desperate fear of losing the vulnerability she feels she needs as an actress. [She is] a woman unable any longer to be regarded as young: Sex is no longer is a viable weapon. You never see her as a stupendous actress. As a matter of fact, her greatest thrill was comfort, as it is for most actresses. Give me a play I can go into every night and can feel I have some awareness of who I am, what I am. [She didn't] want to expose myself in [certain] areas. So when she faints and screams on the stage, it's because it's so impossible to be told you are this boring character, you are aging and you are just like her. I would be unable to go on to the stage feeling that I'm nothing. I think that most actors would, and that's really what the picture is about. Although she resists [facing them,] Myrtle must finally accept and resolve the dilemmas which lie not only at the core of the play she is doing, but which [reflect] the basic realities of her own existence, from which she has heretofore fled, aided by alcohol, men, professional indulgence – and fantasy! The character is left in conflict, but she fights the terrifying battle to recapture hope. And wins! In and out of life the theme of the play haunts the actress until she kills the young girl in herself.

—John Cassavetes

....What sets Myrtle apart from each of the others in the acting company is that each of them has cut a deal with life in one way or another, while she refuses to compromise her definition of herself. While they shy away from emotional danger, uncertainty, or exposure (constantly trying to calm Myrtle down and talk her out of her distress), she keeps opening herself up to new and painful personal recognitions. At one point or other in the film, Kelly, Manny, Sarah, Maurice, and David each tell her a story about how they have accepted limitations on their definitions of themselves – made compromises which Myrtle (and her creator) utterly refuse to accept. As we hear in their weary, resigned, business-like tones of voice as early as the initial scenes outside the stage door and in the limo, they are, in their different ways, at this point in their lives, only going through the motions. They have decided who they are and what their lives mean, and have accepted the definition as final – something all of Cassavetes' work is opposed to.

Director Manny Victor and producer David Samuels use their avuncular manner, their male poise, irony, and humor to hold emotions at arm's length. Former boyfriend Maurice withdraws from emotional vulnerability into cynicism and disillusionment. Writer Sarah Goode makes another kind of compromise. She urges resignation and acceptance of old age. Her advice to Myrtle as an actress – "All you have to do is say the lines clearly and with a degree of feeling" (which represents the diametrical opposite of everything Cassavetes believed about acting) – is all-too-clearly her own defeatist strategy for mindlessly gliding through work and personal relationships. She has quit living and begun dying. (Cassavetes subtly metaphorizes Sarah's state of emotional guardedness and withdrawal by having her hide behind the brim of a feathered cloche in most of her scenes. Note the difference in the emotional coloring of the few scenes in which Sarah is not wearing it.) Nancy Stein, the young fan who precipitates Myrtle's breakdown, has an equally stunted sense of her identity. She uses her physical beauty and the promise of sex as a way of manipulating others, rather than opening herself to them in intimacy and vulnerability.

Dorothy Victor is, in a sense, the most interesting of Myrtle's imaginative alter egos. Dorothy reminds a viewer of no one more than Maria Forst, the shy housewife of Faces, who sold her identity out to her husband only to wake up one day and realize that she had nothing left of herself. Silently, passively identifying with Myrtle's on-stage struggle (like a reincarnation of Nancy), Dorothy seems to undergo her own "opening night" in the course of the film, but even so, it is telling that (like Myrtle's fans) she lets Myrtle do the struggling for her, living vicariously through Myrtle the way she previously lived vicariously through Manny.

Cassavetes surprised me once by saying how much he admired Meet John Doe. Capra's darkest and most problematic work seemed a peculiar choice until I considered how much its title character anticipated some of Cassavetes' imaginatively fragmented figures. Myrtle Gordon's problem, if one can call it that, is that she wants to hold onto the fantasy that she can be anything, even as she is continuously being reminded of imaginative destinies which time and life deny her. As an actress and a woman, she wants to keep all her imaginative doors open, even as her past choices have shut them on her.

Though audiences may not want to accept it, one of the points of the film is that you can't be everything – that Myrtle has to let go of some possible destinies in order to embrace others. She must "kill" Nancy in order herself to live. She must come to grips with what she isn't and can never again be, in order to be what she is. Myrtle fights that recognition. She wants to think of herself as still sexy and attractive, but she is, after all, a woman of a certain age. She wants to feel that she has not closed off possibilities, that she can still be anything, but she can't. Cassavetes goes against everything our culture tells us. He reminds us that we can't be everything if we would be something. We must incur real losses, real pains, real failures, to gain anything at all.

Yet at the same time, even to struggle with these questions, to fight and resist them, is to prove that your life is not over, and all of the fundamental issues are not resolved. Myrtle's triumph is that, no matter what price in pain and suffering, no matter how many times she is berated, humiliated, or rejected (as she is even on the next to last night of the film – in the insulting encounter between her and Maurice in his apartment building), she won't give up. Her desperation, her excesses, her stubborn refusal to meet people half-way, to accept their limiting points of view, make her "impossible," but also make her growth possible. Myrtle bets her life, which is the only thing that can allow her to save it. She refuses to exorcise her demons and wash her hands of them (as the sèance scene metaphorically invites her to) until she has wrestled them to the death. Cassavetes shows us that it is only in taking our lives in our hands, in risking absolutely everything – our careers, our friendships, and our loves – that life-saving truth can ever be attained....

Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.