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
Merci John et Gena pour
ce film magnifique - Tourney
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 Amazon.com 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.
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
by Maria Viera
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Influence. Opening 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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
be distant, Maurice. Come on and have a drink.
hungry. There are people waiting downstairs in the car.
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
over to him and--in a way that suggests past intimacies and present
passion--kisses him. Maurice pulls back.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
going to get drunk.
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.
right. ‘Cause, I tell you, my life is getting boring. I’m getting
somber. My own tricks bore me.
Dorothy: Do you
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
her you’ll talk to her in the morning.
Manny: I don’t
see her in the morning.
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
Manny: A young
girl got killed by the theater tonight.
We cut to the
rehearsal scene where Myrtle gets slapped.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
The Actor at Work. 8th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001.
“Hollywood Movie Dialogue and the ‘Real Realism’ of John Cassavetes.” Film Quarterly 52:3 (Spring 1999): 2-16.
American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the
American Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
on Cassavetes. London: Farber and Faber, 2001.
___. The Films
of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
London: British film Institute, 2001.
“Names Upstairs and Down.” Los
4 Nov. 2001: Calendar, 73.
A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theater. London: Routledge, 2000.
A. The Bedford
Introduction to Drama. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.
ed. A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism
in the United
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Konstantin. An Actor Prepares. Trans. Elizabeth Hapgood.
Theater Arts Books, 1936.
Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana, 1976.
Drama, Forms and Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
actor Gena Rowlands
actor John Cassavetes
director Ben Gazzara
his wife Zohra Lampert
playwright Joan Blondell
producer Paul Stewart
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.
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.
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 www.Cassavetes.com.
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
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,
Carney provides a longer discussion of Cassavetes’s relation
to the Method in his book Shadows (London: British film Institute, 2001).