Opening Night

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Opening NightIn Opening night, Myrtle Gordon, a talented middle aged stage actress, spirals into a crises of confidence in her ability to act or relate to others when an adoring fan dies on the opening night of her latest play. Her plight is complicated by her life as an actor surrounded by other actors for whom the difference between real emotion and performance is often blurred. 1978 (144 m. Color) Stars Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes, and Ben Gazzara


Merci John et Gena pour ce film magnifique - Tourney

Opening Night. Just a note that for anyone who wants important background information about Opening Night and how it was made, I highly recommend Ray Carney's Cassavetes on Cassavetes book, which is available on at a great price. Carney has amazing behind-the-scenes information about how Cassavetes created all of his no-budget wonders completely outside the system.

Carney knew Cassavetes and had a series of conversations with him before his death about his philosophy of life and art. Carney also has a terrific web site with writing on Cassavetes and other indie filmmakers. Great movie and great supporting info. Both well worth owning. Buy the book and the DVD. You'll be consulting both many many times in the future for wisdom about life and art.

American film portraits of the aging actress are not characterized by their depth or generousity of spirit, from the high camp bitchines of All About Eve to the creepy misogyny of Sunset Boulevard,she has most often been perceived as both pitiable and dangerous, reflecting, perhaps, societal attitudes about aging women in general. In Opening Night, Cassavetes employs his ferocious sympathy in creating a character who refuses to conform to the definitions of others in her quest for the identity of, and her fight for the survival of, The Second Woman, the title of the play she is starring in. Battling he co-star (played with brilliant understatement by John Cassavetes) the director,the writer, and most of all, the younger self, personified by the ghost of a young fan who is killed. Myrtle refuses to play her part as written because the play doesn't have "Hope". When the writer, in one of Joan Blondell's last and best performances, tells her that if she "says the lines with a certain amount of feeling" the character will emerge, Myrtle rejects this facile solution in favor of her continued struggle for personal authenticity. All of Cassavetes characters are concerned with just this struggle, and like his earlier films, Opening Night explores the insterstices between the embattled self and others, the parallels between performance and life, and the triumph of go-for-broke-craziness over formulaic rationality. This is my favorite Cassavetes film, and also arguably his most difficult. - Yuri Hospodar
Hello I’m a kid from Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. I like Cassavetes films very much, buy i only had seen three of them. Opening night is one of those films I watched it on spanish TV same years ago. I remenber i like it very much but, in some ocasions, the stranges cameras movemente confuse me. I think is a film about self destruccion and i still don’t know how a drunk woman can act so well without not faint. Anyway, Geena Rowlands is wonderful on that film, and Cassavetes (he looked exactly as Bogart) and Gazzara. I love Cassavetes and hope i can watch more of his movies. Thanks for the opportunity and excuse me, for my english is not good.

Julio Herrera
Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

As a subtitler, this was probably the film that excited me most to work on. Such an experience is not work - it’s a pleasure.
Bernardo - Portugal

Opening Night is a beautiful, moving film. The acting, directing and writing is brilliant. The experience of watching such a film takes my breath a way. The way that Myrtle's imagination and self-doubts are blended into both the play and the film is wonderful. Gena Rowlands is once again at her best and the cast work wonderful together. I could never have a favorite Cassavetes film beause each one is such a different and unique experience in itself but this is definately one of my favorites.
Opening Night is one of the most profound films I have ever seen. Gena Rowlands' performance is beautiful. Her struggle, her despair, her moments of "hope" set against her pain and her doubt are umforgettable. Watching this movie gives one the same feeling as reading a novel that somehow manages to allow everything but the experience to drop away. It is a modern, brilliant, moving and most of all authentic look at a beautiful and talented, woman's need to "know." It should be required viewing for every studio exec who is rushing to make the next Adam Sandler or "teen romance" or mindless action movie. Perhaps just perhaps they will be moved enough to remember just how amazing and life-changing a brilliant movie can be.
Great movie, last scene (the end of the play) simply devastating.

Playing with Performance:
Directorial and Performance Style in John Cassavetes’s Opening Night
by Maria Viera

            Two elements are always in play when dealing with John Cassavetes’s work: the impression of improvisation, although we know his films are not improvised, and his “anti-filmic” technical elements, that do not “construct” a performance on the screen, but allow for one to take place before the camera.  Cassevetes prefers that the filmic tools used to construct a performance in a given scene, such as camera angles, lighting, and camera movement, be used sparingly, only when necessary, with the performance always given top priority.  It is not just a question of a long-take style that “records” a performance--Cassavetes does edit, although he rejects conventions such as the shot-reverse-shot regime--but that he views film technology as something he tries to keep out of the way of the performance.  Thus, the distinguishable performance style in his films emerges in the dynamic between his script, his shooting and editing style, and his work with his actors. 

            Cassavetes is considered to be one of the few, major independent American directors able to work outside the Hollywood system.  Although he directed several films with traditional studio funding, the money he made as an actor allowed him to make eight films that were solely under his control.1  His rejection of Hollywood and the “realism” it offered fits into the more modernist trajectory of Italian neorealism--with which he was familiar and with which he was impressed--and the European art film.2  Cassavetes’s films were always much more appreciated in Europe.  Simultaneously, Cassavetes shares certain modernist characteristics with the French New Wave directors--self-reflexivity, for example.  However, unlike Jean-Luc Godard’s ideologically motivated intervention, Cassavetes took on the task of exposing Hollywood production processes in order to get to the characters, their situations, and the kind of performance style that personally interested him.  Cassavetes wanted to make art.

            Throughout his career, Cassavetes always emphasized that his films were not made to be easily understood.   As in the modernist tradition, he created a body of work that requires an active spectator working through innovative, complex, and original material.  To use Bertolt Brecht’s neologism, Cassavetes was not interested in “culinary” drama.  Cassavetes concurred with Robert Altman’s statement: “I don’t know how to make a film for 14 -year-olds”  (Gritten 73).

            At the same time, Cassavetes’s work, with its radical departure from more  pictorially oriented styles, comes out of a strong artistic sensibility that aligns itself with naturalism.  Although his characters are quirky and often on the edge, if not “under the influence,” they come from everyday life.  They live in specific social environments and their actions are a consequence of personal history and environmental forces.  As with other tendencies associated with naturalism, Cassavetes’s characters, as performed by his actors, often cannot express or even understand the situation in which they find themselves.  Like real people, they improvise as they go. 3

            Often shooting in his own house over a long period of time, Cassavetes created a working environment of which Konstantin Stanislavsky would have approved.  Stanislavsky insisted that at the Moscow Art Theater, where he directed, the set and lighting should be used for their effects on the actors rather than for impressing audiences.  Likewise, Cassavetes was not distracted by concerns with how the film looked pictorially or with elaborate set or lighting design.  His focus, as that of the tradition of naturalism, was the characters and how they might behave in the situations in which he placed them.

            At first glance, Opening Night (1977), may seem a strange choice to use to exemplify and illustrate Cassavetes’s naturalistic tendencies and to use as an example of how he is part of a re-emerging naturalism in mid-Twentieth Century cinema.  The reason is that there are two very “non-realistic” elements in Opening Night that are major deviations from the usual Cassavetes’s style. 

            After the prologue of the play in tryout in New Haven, the title sequence shows the main character, Myrtle Gordon (or is the actress Gena Rowlands?) from behind, in a flowing evening gown with large sleeves of pleated nylon producing a wing-like effect, superimposed over an applauding audience.  It is a visual metaphor for Myrtle’s (and by implication, all actors’) most basic desire: to be loved.  The second “non-realistic” element is the “vision” of Nancy (the ghost, the other woman, the younger Myrtle) whom we actually see in shots with Myrtle, although none of the other characters see her.  A ghost is not a standard element in naturalism.  However, Cassavetes did not intend the “ghost” to be taken as a possible apparition.  He said: “This is a figment of her [Myrtle’s] imagination, it’s not a fantasy, it’s something that’s controllable by her” (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 410).

            In other ways  though, Opening Night  is the film par excellence to use to discuss Cassavetes’s naturalistic tendencies because it is a film about theatricality, about acting, about “putting on a performance,” both literally and figuratively.  As Raymond Williams explains: “In high naturalism the lives of the characters have soaked into their environment... moreover, the environment has soaked into the lives” (Innes 5).  Opening Night is a film about a play with players who are playing with their performances in life, as well as on the stage.


            Ray Carney’s excavatory work in his book, Cassavetes on Cassavetes,4 outlines the determinants at play in the genesis of the Opening Night script: Cassavetes’s continued interest in doing a “backstage drama” because of his admiration for All About Eve and through discussions with Barbara Streisand about possibly directing A Star is Born; his interest in material from his and Rowlands’s lives especially in terms of what their lives would have been like if they had never met (she, like Myrtle, devoting her life to the theatre without marriage or family; he, perhaps, the cynical, but charming user, Maurice);  plus both Cassavetes and Rowlands were now in their late forties and although he had dealt with the theme of woman and aging in earlier films, this theme had become more immediate.  Cassavetes said the script for Opening Night began with the idea of exploring “people’s reactions when they start getting old; how to win when you’re not as desirable as you were, when you don’t have as much confidence in yourself, in your capacities” (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 409).

            In developing the script, Cassavetes followed a naturalistic stratagem-- the “scientific observation” of external physical existence--looking at people in their environment.  According to Carney,  Cassavetes did his “research” by speaking with Sam Shaw’s wife on the phone almost every night for a year.  He spent time with Rowlands, her mother, and his mother absorbing their conversations.   Cassavetes’s working method was to become his characters as he wrote his script.  Carney reveals through an interview with Bo Harwood, that Cassavetes became his characters while creating them.  He would “come into the office ‘as Myrtle’--trying out her lines for the script, doing her tones, experimenting with gestures to see what they felt like” (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 408).  Cassavetes said: “You can’t do this kind of exploration through film techniques.  You have to write and write and write.  Without writing, I don’t think that filmmakers could do as well because techniques--well, you’ve seen all of them!” (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 408).

            The second driving force Cassavetes identified as part of the ideation of Opening Night is “to show the life of an artist, of a creator” (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 409).  Cassavetes’s characters are “theater people” in their specialized environment--a theater company putting on a play.  Cassavetes’s many years in the theatrical environment provided endless material from which to create his script. 5

            Cassavetes extends the idea of theatricality beyond those who work in the theater.  He explains a further theme of his film: “So, Opening Night was about the sense of theatricality in all of us and how it can take us over, how we can appear to be totally wrong on some little point, and never know what little point we’re going to fight for” (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 415).

            The script of Opening Night exhibits a defining aspect of naturalism--the primacy of character, characters in a situation, characters in a specific environment.  The film is not plotted in the conventional sense.  It does not follow a three-act structure with mandatory plot points.  There is barely a climax in the Aristotelian sense.  Myrtle does arrive just in time to the opening night performance with the rest of the company thinking they will have to cancel the show.  She is drunk and struggles to make her way through the scenes.  However, it is unclear why she got drunk in the first place.  Cassavetes explains: “In the end, she doesn’t even get anything.  She only gets what makes her happy” (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 413).

            Cassavetes purposely works against classical Hollywood narrative structure.  He says: “Now, all my leanings are anti-plot point.  I hate plot point!  I don’t like focusing on plot because I think the audiences don’t consist of only thirteen-year-old kids and also that each person you see in life has more to them than would meet the eye” (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 419).

            The scenes in Opening Night can almost be seen as a series of “improv exercises,” not in the sense that the actors are improvising the dialogue, but in that Cassavetes, as screenwriter, works by structuring the script into a series of “improv situations.”  Improvisations used, for example, in acting classes are structured by putting a character into a specific situation or environment to explore how that character will react.

            For example, two actors are assigned the parts of an older husband with a younger wife.  They are told:

A husband and wife are having an intimate conversation (plus drinking) at 4:30 in the morning.  He is a theater director.  She is his younger, totally dependent, stay-at-home wife.  The phone rings and it is his leading actress desperately in need of reassurance.  He must declare his love and admiration to her while being sensitive to his wife’s presence.  His wife tries to playfully distract him from the conversation but she knows his livelihood, as well as hers, depends on his ability to deal with the actress.

            A second example: two actors are assigned the part of parents grieving the loss of their 17-year-old daughter; a third is an actress who visits their home.

The actors are instructed:

The actress arrives at the home of a young girl who was hit by a car and killed.  The actress is not invited but wants to express her condolences.  The family knows that it was she the young girl was trying to see when the car struck her.  The parents reject the actress and want her to leave.

            These are, of course, examples of “character in situation” from Opening Night, but they could just as easily be improvisation exercises in an acting class.  The idea in the acting exercise would be to see how that character would react in that given situation.

            In the scripting process, Cassavestes seems to have developed his characters as he placed them in environments that would help explicate his themes, themes which are based on “character in situation,” not action.  Cassavetes himself struggled with the complexity of the human condition--in fact,  he seems to have taken great pleasure in exploring the struggle and finding a way to portray that daily life and the concerns we all share.  He seems to have worked from the premise that the situations, problems, and issues with which he struggled were of interest to all of us because of the humanity we share.

            Cassavetes’s films are never reducible to one theme--to what Stanislavsky terms the spine of the play--nor are his characters reducible to one character spine, one goal or desire for each character that moves the action forward.  Instead, Opening Night works through a complex problematic of related themes.  For example, the film explores the various ways to be loved.  Myrtle is loved by the public.  Myrtle is loved (often falsely) by the theatrical company.  The film also deals with the nature of physical love with the question of how can one be loved when one no longer possesses sexual appeal.  How can an older career woman without children and without a husband be loved?  Both Maurice and Marty tell her she “doesn’t turn them on anymore.”   This theme is picked up by Maurice, David, and Manny who at various times throughout the film all mention that affairs with young women don’t work anymore.


            What is unique to John Cassavetes’s directing style is his rejection of standard Hollywood filmmaking techniques and procedures in order to free his actors from the constraints which, he, as a professional television and film actor, felt worked against the type of performance style which interested him.  The combination of his shooting methods and his screenwriting lead to a performance style that is not only consistent among his various actors, but is the defining characteristic of a Cassavetes’s film.

            Opening Night was shot over a five-month period from November 1976, to March 1977, and completely financed by Cassavetes himself.  He had to take time off in February for an acting job in a TV pilot to make money to complete the film.  He used three main locations: the Lindy Opera House, the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, and the Green Hotel.  He believed in shooting on location for artistic reasons, but he also could not afford to build sets in a studio for the films he financed himself.  The three main locations for Opening Night were quite extravagant compared to locations used in his earlier self-financed films.   He did shoot the seance scene in Opening Night in his own home, which he had used in earlier films such as A Woman Under the InfluenceOpening Night  was a much larger production with a larger budget (about $1.5 million) than that of his previously self-financed films (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 413-416).  Perhaps reflecting the budget, it has higher production values than his earlier films and more sophisticated camera work in many scenes.  Cassavetes does, however, continue to use the hand-held camera in various scenes, such as  the one between Myrtle and Melva Drake, the psychic, in which Myrtle “kills” her vision of the young girl. 

            The working methods for directing actors Cassavetes developed over his years of filmmaking were unorthodox compared to those of most mainstream directors.   He purposely kept his interpretation of the script  from the actors.  He refused to dictate line readings.  He felt that if the actors were given a complete interpretation of the entire narrative in advance it might “simplify” their performance (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 424).   Joan Blondell said that Cassavetes did not tell her what her character’s reaction to the final Maurice-Myrtle improvisation on the stage was to be.  She was left to work it out herself (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 424).  The ambiguity at the end of Opening Night is so strong that, as Carney points out, even Rowlands and Cassavetes did not concur about whether the final play-within-a-play showed Myrtle’s defeat or victory (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 424).

            Cassavetes shot a tremendous amount of footage to capture his unorthodox and complex performances--such as those small subtle moments that sweep for a split second over Rowlands’s face as she moves from subtext to subtext.  He shot much more coverage than those working with him thought necessary.  This would, of course, afford him the possibility of re-scripting and re-working the film during post-production, which he did extensively (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 421).

            Cassavetes thus aligns himself with other unconventional directors who use directing methods designed  to keep actors off-balance in order to produce fresh, off-beat performances and avoid over-rehearsed or “canned” scenes.    Cassavetes used shooting methods that he, among other directors such as Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, have found work to keep a performance edgy and unpredictable.  He did not approach directing by working to “perfect” line readings.  He sometimes kept the camera running between takes, shooting several takes one after another, a procedure that puts pressure on the actor, a sort of driving force which keeps him or her insecure and off-balance. He introduced last-minute changes, either in dialogue or in action, from that which was rehearsed.  In a two-person dialogue scene, he would give instructions or line changes to one of the actors without telling the other (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 418-424, 436).   All these methods helped him to capture a more spontaneous, un-rehearsed quality in the performances which increased the sense of naturalism found in his films.

Performance Style

            In the script for Opening Night, Cassavetes has written highly individualized characters who become completely realized people through his directing.  They will also be “modern characters” as Strindberg defined them in his preface to Miss Julie (Jacobus 762-3).  They will exhibit the “ambiguity of motive” that Strindberg describes.  It was Stanislavsky who discovered the methods for both actor training and working on performance that provided the acting style which fit these “modern characters.”  Cassavetes shares the premises of the Stanislavsky method:  to play truthfully; to create the life of a human soul; to live your part internally, and then to give that experience an external embodiment.  He shares many of the objectives Stanislavsky lays out in An Actor Prepares: “An actor must learn to recognize quality, to avoid the useless, and to choose essentially right objectives.”  These objectives should, for example, “be real, live and human, not dead, conventional or theatrical” (Innes 57).  Stanislavsky’s methods were adapted to various American schools of acting such as the Group Theater and Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio and eventually had a major impact on film acting.

            Stanislavsky lays out his explanation of the super-objective (the “through line” of action) explaining that “all the minor lines are headed toward the same goal and fuse into one main current” ( 261).  He then explains what happens when the actor has not established his ultimate purpose and illustrates what the line looks like if the smaller lines lead in various directions.  “If all the minor objectives in a part are aimed in different directions it is, of course, impossible to form a solid, unbroken line.  Consequently the action is fragmentary, uncoordinated, unrelated to any whole” (261).  This seems an uncannily accurate description of a Cassavetes actor playing a Cassavetes character.

            Cassavetes gets his style of performance from his actors by creating double, and sometimes triple, subtexts played out simultaneously.  In theatrical practice, the term subtext is used for what is not being said, what lies under the dialogue.  As Robert Benedetti explains: “when there is an obstacle to direct action, the character may choose an indirect action; we call these hidden intentions subtext” (152).  For example, there are many variations on a line reading depending on which subtext the actor is working.  One of the goals in rehearsal is to find the subtext that best works for the scene.  The character may hide the subtext beneath the dialogue either for external or internal reasons and the character may be either conscious or unconscious of the subtext.  The actor is not supposed to play the subtext, i.e. the audience should not be aware of it, but, rather, be able to deduce it (Benedetti 149).  Stanislavsky says: “The whole stream of individual, minor objectives, all the imaginative thoughts, feelings, and actions of an actor, should converge to carry out the super-objective of the plot” (256).  Standard stage and screen acting practice is for the actor to play one specific subtext at a time in order to achieve the clarity of intention that Stanislavsky proposes.

            Cassavetes does not seek this clarity of intention either through his dialogue or through the performances he elicits from his actors.   The basic actions and reactions of his characters come from multiple and often divergent subtexts that play out simultaneously. 

            For example, early on in Opening Night,  Myrtle leaves the theater and is mobbed by fans.  A young woman in particular pursues her and runs alongside the limousine as it takes the theater group to a restaurant.  The young woman is hit by another car.  Myrtle is upset and has the limo stop at her hotel.  Maurice escorts her up to her apartment as the others wait in the limo.  She is rattled and fixes herself a drink.

Myrtle: Don’t be distant, Maurice.  Come on and have a drink.

Maurice: I’m hungry.  There are people waiting downstairs in the car.

Myrtle: What’s the matter with us?  We lose sight of everything.  There’s a girl killed tonight.  All we can think about is dinner.

Maurice: I gotta go.

Myrtle walks over to him and--in a way that suggests past intimacies and present passion--kisses him.  Maurice pulls back.

Maurice: (shaking his head no) You’re not a woman to me anymore.  You’re a professional.  You don’t care about anything.  You don’t care about personal relationships, love, sex, affection.

Myrtle: Okay.

Maurice: I have a small part.  It’s unsympathetic.  The audience doesn’t like me.  I can’t afford to be in love with you.

Myrtle: Good night.

Maurice: Yeah, good night.

He leaves.  Myrtle pours herself a drink and with a cigarette jutting out of her mouth walks with what is presumably her script into the bedroom.  She almost breaks into tears for a moment.

Myrtle’s character spine for this scene is to get away from the others, to sort out her feelings about the girl hit by the car, and to test her ability, as presumably she has in the past, to seduce Maurice.  Her double subtext is to get Maurice to want her so as to ease the pain of the death of the young girl and to test her sexual powers to see if she can still seduce Maurice--two very complex subtexts to be performed at the same time.   When he doesn’t respond, she gives up with a meek “okay,” but with a double subtext: I want to save face and I just wanted to try, but she really does not care much anyway.   A superficial reading of the scene would be to see Myrtle as an eccentric (or crazy) woman “under the influence” because her behavior is so erratic and strange.  If her intentions were diagrammed as per Stanislavsky’s through line, the small lines making up the super-objective would be leading in varying directions.  It is not simply the case of a character with internal contradictions or a character who is undecided.  Rowlands’s creation of Myrtle comes out of the difficult, complex, and varying subtexts that she must play at the same time.  As with the character, Rowlands may not be aware of them all, but the performance approved by Cassavetes as director contains them.

            All of the main players in Opening Night have to deal with this multiplicity of subtexts.  The performances in the following two-person scene reveal the highly complex subtextual work going on.6  This scene follows closely after the preceding scene between Myrtle and Maurice and is, in a way, even more complex and enigmatic than their scene.

Manny and Dorothy are together in their hotel room.  It’s 4:30 in the morning.

Manny: I need your help...[unintelligible]... But I’m going to go crazy if you don’t tell me what it’s like to be alone as a woman.  What do you do?  Okay, that’s it.  Will you make me another drink, please?

Dorothy: Sure.

Manny:   I’m going to get drunk.

Dorothy: Ah...

Manny:   Eh, if you want to get hostile, you go ahead.  My goddamn life depends on this play.  And you should go to all the rehearsals.  You should watch everything.  You should sit with Myrtle.  Fill her in on yourself and be part of it.

Dorothy: Do I get paid for this?

Manny:   If you understudy, I’ll pay you.

The irony of the word “understudy“ sinks in.  Dorothy fools around as if she is considering the offer.  They laugh.

Manny:  That’s right.  ‘Cause, I tell you, my life is getting boring.  I’m getting somber.  My own tricks bore me.

Dorothy: Do you want ice?

Manny:   Yeah.  There’s no humor anymore and all the glamour’s dead.  You notice that?  I can’t even stand how they come to rehearsal.  They come to rehearsal dressed in terrible clothes. 

Dorothy: Manny, I’m dying.  I’m dying.  I know I’m dying because I’m getting tired.  It’s always the same.  You talk.  I sleep.  If I’d known what a boring man you were when I married you, I wouldn’t have gone through all those emotional crises.

She means it, but she doesn’t mean it, but she really does mean it.

He pours her a drink.  They awkwardly try to embrace.  Just as they get it right, the phone rings.  He leaves to answer it.

            If given this text to direct one could come up with plausible intentions for the actors.  Manny wants to get drunk, wants to share his pain with his wife, or wants to communicate with her.  Dorothy wants to get along with her husband or wants to connect to ease her loneliness.  The point is there are very workable intentions in the text for these two characters and these intentions or similar ones may have been used in the development of this part of the scene by Zohra Lambert and Ben Gazzara. 

            One can, of course, never know what process Cassavetes used to develop the performances in this scene, but the result is totally unexpected from what the text indicates.  The result appears to violate all conventional wisdom on performance.  The actors do not give the characters a clear intention.  We don’t know what they want.  They seem needy, but we don’t know what they need.  There is not a clear goal that moves the action forward.  One cannot deduce the subtext of these two characters.   Much of the multiplicity or ambiguity of motivation is carried in their gesture and physicality.

            Whatever the subtext is the actors are playing, which we cannot tell from the scene, it does not seem to match the text.  By playing what appear to be multiple subtexts at all times, although we do not know exactly what these subtexts are, we get two highly original, deeply complex performances which show two human beings in some kind of state of pain, boredom, and passivity who are unable to communicate.  She means it, but she doesn’t mean it, but she really does mean it, but she doesn’t care anyway.  This is all conveyed in the strangely graceful way Lambert’s body goes “in all directions at once.”  Some of the complexity in performance style or Strindberg’s “ambiguity of motive” one finds in a Cassavetes’s film may come from his choice to have the actors play a subtext or, more likely, several subtexts that do not correspond in the expected way to his written text.  What is clear is that this is exactly the style of performance Cassavetes was trying to achieve because he thought it closer to how people “really” act. 

The scene continues.   Manny picks up the phone in the bedroom.

Manny:  Hello. Oh, Myrtle.  No, Sweetheart, I’m still up.  I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.  You have a fever?  What?  What girl?  The young girl got killed in front of the theater tonight.  Alright, Sweetheart.

Dorothy: It’s 4:30 in the morning.

Manny: Yes, I know it’s lonely.  I hate out of town, too.  Of course, I love you.  Hold it, will you please.  It’s nothing.  It’s just my wife.  Right.  Of course, I’ll leave the phone on.  Yeah.  She doesn’t mind at all.

Dorothy: Tell her you’ll talk to her in the morning.

Manny:   I don’t sleep anyway.

Dorothy: You’ll see her in the morning.

Manny:   (to Myrtle) Right.

Dorothy:  Right.

Manny:    Right. There’s no one I love more than you this moment.  You know I love you.  (to Dorothy)  What?  (to Myrtle) Yes, Sweetheart.  Okay.  Well, what’s wrong with being slapped.  (to Dorothy who distracts him) Cut it out.  (to Myrtle)  Just a second.  (to Dorothy) Cut it out, will you please?  There is nothing humiliating about it.  You’re on the stage for crissake.  He’s not slapping you for real.  Myrtle.  Ah, Myrtle.  Myrtle.  It has nothing to do with being a woman.  Now, you’re not a woman, anyway.    No, no, you’re a beautiful woman.  I was kidding.  And you see, you have no sense of humor.  I told you that.  I don’t want to argue with it, darling.  We’ll rehearse it.  Well, how...  If we don’t rehearse it, we won’t get it.  But it’s not humiliating.  It’s a tradition.  Actresses get slapped.  It’s a tradition.  You want to be a star.  You want to be unsympathetic?  It’s mandatory you get hit.  That’s it.  Now go to sleep.

He hangs up the phone.

Manny:   A young girl got killed by the theater tonight.

We cut to the rehearsal scene where Myrtle gets slapped.

During Manny’s phone conversation, Dorothy dances into the room daintily holding her robe out as if it were a ball gown.  She bourees to him as he sits at the top of the bed.  She jumps on the bed and pretends to swim on her back.  She goes into a pretend boxing match, catches one of her blows on her chin and falls back rolling off the bed onto the floor.  She leaves the room.

            In this part of the scene, Manny has three goals: (1) he wants to soothe and comfort Myrtle so she’ll behave at the rehearsal the next day; (2) he wants to assure his wife that he loves her; and (3) he wants to test his ability to control Myrtle.  Along with these three subtexts, which he plays simultaneously, he is also testing his sexual powers and past attraction to Myrtle with whom he presumably has had an affair.  He wants to really assure her so she’ll continue in the role but at the same time that he reassures her of his “undying devotion,” he is playing with her and even making fun of himself to himself.  In addition to all this, Ben Gazzara’s performance adds to the main theme of boredom and ennui.  This theme is carried by the dialogue but also we see it in his posture, his unvoiced sighs, and his face.  Manny has done it all before. 

            During this scene, Zohra Lambert, as Dorothy,  plays various objectives: (1) to get Manny’s attention, (2) to show she has a place in the world (she matters), and (3) to do this without really demanding his attention since his livelihood (and hers) depends on his ability to handle Myrtle.  She also contributes to the larger theme of the film, boredom, as well as a theme specific to her character as someone who stands outside the emotional machinations of life.  She lives on the perimeter. When Lambert dances, pantomimes, and horses around falling off the bed, she is not only revealing Dorothy’s character as a meek, non-participant--as an observer outside the main action of her husband’s life--but she also reveals her need to hold Manny’s attention as he soothes the extravagant Myrtle.  She cares, but she really doesn’t care.  Her ambiguity of motive is carried only through her physicality, not by the dialogue.

            In a later scene, when Myrtle storms out of the theater with Sarah chasing her, Dorothy stands  in the background, against the wall, out of the situation, unobserved, unnoticed, withdrawn from the sturm und drang of Myrtle’s emotional roller-coaster ride.  Dorothy has the traits of the non-participant,  a recurring minor character found in many Cassavetes’s films.   She is one of several characters throughout his films who insulate themselves from “the perils of emotional exploration.” 7 

            Many of Cassavetes’s characters are also inarticulate, only able to express themselves in fits and starts.  Cassavetes finds way and opportunities for these characters, such as Dorothy, to be revealed through physicality because the very nature of their character makes words less appropriate.  However, just as the dialogue of the characters has various subtexts at work under it, so does the movement and gesture.  The physicality of his actors can be as expressive, and complex, as what they say.  For example, when Myrtle sits at the table at the seance her body movement and gesture, especially the way she smokes her cigarette in defiance, tell us that she will not participate.  She is cornered, trapped, and ready “to jump out of her skin.”  Cassavetes strategy of using multiple subtexts simultaneously works with and without words.

Playing with Performance

            At the end of the film, Myrtle arrives at the theater falling-down drunk and proceeds to work her way through the opening-night performance.  Gradually sobering up, she gains control of herself by the final scene of the play.  As Maurice passes by her backstage to make his entrance, she says  “I’ll bury him” and when she goes on stage, she forces the scene into an improvisation he must pick up on.  Rowlands and Cassavetes thus perform two actors in a play performing an improv in a “theatrical” acting style--rather hammy and playing to the audience.  We are very aware of the skill Rowlands and Cassavetes have to move from a naturalistic performance style to a theatrical one.   In addition, the improv reiterates one of the major themes of the film and answers one of the major dramatic questions (a Cassavetes work is never limited to one major dramatic question)--what gives meaning to life?  The answer is: all there is, is love, or said another way, love may be all there is.   In addition, the scene sets itself up against the notion that the lines are not all that important (we see the various reactions Sarah, David, and Manny have to the improv as they sit in the audience).  The scene implies that the best (and perhaps the only) way to get through life is to improvise as we make the best of what we can.

            The last scene in the film is shot in a documentary-style with people coming backstage for the opening night reception.  Here the “real” and “filmic real” break down entirely.  We see Seymour Cassel and Peter Falk, long time associates of Cassavetes.  The last line of the film is Manny introducing Peter Bogdanovich, as himself, to Dorothy: “Do you know Peter Bogdanovich?”  She brushes past him to approach Myrtle.

            Cassavetes is again playing here as he has throughout the film.  As Carney points out, Cassavetes set himself up against the working methods of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio calling their process “organized introversion” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes 52)   Like Brecht, who at the end of his career moved away from his didactic “epic” theater to a freer, more playful approach, Cassavetes believed acting should be fun and playful, not the serious, laborious work he attributed to the Actors Studio.   As Carney says, “In Strasberg’s vision, the theater was a church; in Cassavetes’ it was a playground” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes 53).


            Modernist tendencies bear on the whole of Cassavetes’s enterprise.  His films, though highly idiosyncratic, nevertheless present characters that belong to the modernist tradition.  He creates centered, individualized, and unique characters who struggle with basic human problems and emotions.   The performance style he develops with his actors is a reaction to and a departure from performance styles that belong to classic Hollywood “realist” films.  By breaking with the conventions of “realistic” movie dialogue, he compels his actors to create a performance style that works against the conventions of cinematic “realistic” performances.8

            His directorial choices in terms of the technical aspects of his films are marked by a self-consciousness and by a simplicity and functionalism designed to disrupt the “realist” conventions of Hollywood films.  It was not only that he could not afford the Hollywood methods of filmmaking (and he couldn’t), but that he saw the studio process as an obstacle to the kind of performances in which he was interested.  He describes the Hollywood set from the point of view of the actor and then adds: “And a different kind of acting is born of that, and that is a professionalism, a professional, theatrical kind of acting, which all actors have done” (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 44).  He wanted to find another way of making films and to do that he had to eliminate the “pictorially perfected” shot and the “auditorally perfected” soundtrack and the shooting techniques used to create them.9 However, the self-reflexive aspects of his filmmaking techniques arise from issues of functionality, not a political agenda.

            Christopher Innes argues that naturalism, as a historical style in theater, introduced “a quintessentially modern approach, and defined the qualities of modern drama”  (1).   Since the terms “naturalism” and “realism” are particularly ambiguous, he suggests that both terms need to be understood as applying to the historical movement as a whole (6).10  However, Innes locates a “subtle distinction” that he believes adds to a “greater critical precision.”   He argues that, “it would be logical to use ‘Naturalism’ to refer to the theoretical basis shared by all the dramatists who formed the movement, and their approach to representing the world.  ‘Realism’ could then apply to the intended effect, and the stage techniques associated with it” (6).  His distinction allows both terms to be used for the same play, “with each term describing a different aspect of the work” (6).  Applying this distinction to film, we see that John Cassavetes’s films are “realistic” in terms of their intended effect, but they do no follow the techniques and conventions that comprise classical “Hollywood realism.”  Cassavetes shares the “theoretical basis” of theatrical naturalism because his defining characteristic is “character in situation.”   He is not interested in the emotions of a character, but how a character acts and reacts to a given situation.

            Burt Lane, who formed an actors’ workshop with Cassavetes in the late 1950s, differentiates their approach from that of the Actors Studio: “In focusing on core emotions, it [the Method] removed the masks of the characters and deprived them of personalities.  In real life, we rarely act directly from our emotions.  Feeling is simply the first link in a chain.  It is followed by an adjustment of the individual to the situation and to the other people involved in it, and this in turn leads to the projection of an attitude which initiates the involvement with other persons” (Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes 53).11  What is uniquely original about the performance style in a Cassavetes film and what makes watching a Cassavetes film a consistently demanding, but exhilarating, experience is the sense that we are in the presence of an artist who is completely non-compromising.

Works Cited

Benedetti, Robert. The Actor at Work. 8th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001.

Berliner, Todd. “Hollywood Movie Dialogue and the ‘Real Realism’ of John Cassavetes.” Film Quarterly 52:3 (Spring 1999): 2-16.

Carney, Ray. American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

___. Cassavetes on Cassavetes. London: Farber and Faber,  2001.

___. The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

___. Shadows. London: British film Institute, 2001.

Gritten, David. “Names Upstairs and Down.” Los Angeles Times, 4 Nov. 2001: Calendar, 73.

Innes, Christopher. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theater. London: Routledge, 2000.

Jacobus, Lee A.  The Bedford Introduction to Drama. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.

Ludington, Townsend, ed.  A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism in the United StatesChapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Stanislavsky, Konstantin. An Actor Prepares. Trans. Elizabeth Hapgood. Theater Arts Books, 1936.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana, 1976.

___. English Drama, Forms and Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Cast List:

Character                                                                   Player

Myrtle Gordon             actor                                      Gena Rowlands

Maurice Adams         actor                                      John Cassavetes

Manny Victor              director                                   Ben Gazzara

Dorothy Victor           his wife                                   Zohra Lampert

Sarah Goode           playwright                                Joan Blondell

David Samuels          producer                                 Paul Stewart

Nancy Stein               fan                                           Laura Johnson


1. I use the term “Cassavetes films,” as a group, to refer only to the eight films over which he had complete control.

2. Ray Carney presents an extensive discussion of the connection of Cassavetes with the Modernist movement and Italian neorealism in A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism in the United States, edited by Townsend Ludington (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

3. This is a major theme in Ray Carney’s extensive work on Cassavetes and appears in various places such as Carney’s  American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

4. In Cassavetes on Cassavetes (London: Farber and Faber, 2001), Ray Carney reiternates numerous examples of material in Opening Night that comes directly from Cassavetes’s and Rowlands’s professional experiences.

5. Ray Carney spent 11 years compiling all possible material from interviews with Cassavetes.  He then edited, structured, and wrote invaluable explanations making sense of this extensive amount of material which culminated in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, a book Carney calls the autobiography Cassavetes would have written.  Carney once and for all clears up innumerable questions and ambiguities about Cassavetes which Cassavetes himself had propagated. The book provides deeply rich insights into Cassavetes as a person and as an artist.  For more information see Carney’s web site which can be accessed through    

6. Quotations from Opening Night are my transcriptions.

7.  Ray Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 240.  Carney cites examples of this recurring character type in other Cassavetes films within his discussion of Love Streams.

8. See Todd Berliner’s “Hollywood Movie Dialogue and the ‘Real Realism’ of John Cassavetes” (Film Quarterly 52:3 (Spring 1999): 2-16) for an interesting analysis of Cassavetes’s dialogue.

9. It would have been interesting to see John Cassavetes’s reaction to Mike Leigh’s work as well as the films of Dogma 95.  One also wonders what he might have done with the now-available digital video systems.

10. Raymond Williams, among many others, has tackled the ambiguity between naturalism and realism.  See Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana, 1976) and English Drama, Forms and Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

11. Ray Carney provides a longer discussion of Cassavetes’s relation to the Method in his book Shadows (London: British film Institute, 2001).

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