And with that, our mini-retrospective of Cassavetes’ films comes to an end. I thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to present some of my favourite movies in my favourite movie house. Here is the last intro I prepared, this one for my personal favourite from the Cassavetes canon: Opening Night.
Hello again, and thank you for being here. My name is Dylan Rhys Howard. I’m an independent filmmaker here in Edmonton and I’m also on the Programming Committee here at Metro Cinema. I’m an unabashed Cassavetes enthusiast, so I was asked by Pete, the head programmer, to curate this mini-retrospective of three films and to do a bit of an introduction for each. First of all: is anyone completing the hat trick tonight? Has anyone been to all three films? Nice job outta you.
I’d just like to thank you all for coming out to see a movie at Metro Cinema. We’re a not-for-profit organization; by coming out tonight, you’re helping to ensure that we can continue to bring weird and wonderful movies to Edmonton, and also that we can continue to experience them together in the dark, on the big screen. As much as we all love watching “Arrested Development” from bed on an early 2013 MacBook Air, I think a collective artistic experience like we’re about to have tonight is something is worth cherishing in this digital day and age. So thank you.
Opening Night. Our final film of the series and my personal favourite. The film once again stars Cassavetes’ wife, the inimitable Gena Rowlands, this time as an aging actress named Myrtle Gordon who’s making a return to the stage after many years of quite successfully starring in movies. In 1974, believe it or not, Cassavetes was actually asked by Barbara Streisand if he would consider directing her remake of A Star Is Born after Streisand was moved by a screening of A Woman Under The Influence. He ultimately turned her down, of course, but nevertheless the original Star Is Born and All About Eve, these classic Hollywood movies about show business, were two of John’s favourite films. And so he started working on his own story about the same subject. Like A Woman Under The Influence, Opening Night was originally conceived as a play but evolved into the movie we’ll see tonight.
I love this movie because I love any movie about the inner workings of theatrical people. I like the idea of actors wrestling with how to get a handle on a character as an extended and very direct metaphor for how we all spend our lives trying to figure out how to relate to ourselves and to other people. In this film, Gena Rowlands’ character struggles with her relationship to getting older. While this might seem like a bit of a trope — the aging actress — I think this film manages to transcend representing this simply from the perspective of the character’s vanity. Rowlands’ character seems to struggle not so much with how she looks, but with how she feels: she doesn’t know how to relate to the world as an older woman and, more directly in her daily work, she doesn’t know how to relate to the character she’s trying to play. She’s holding onto an abstract, idealized idea of youth that even becomes personified by this mysterious young woman who keeps appearing before her like Banquo’s ghost; perhaps this Shakespearean aspect of the apparition is another nod to the intersection of life and art for someone as dedicated to their craft as Myrtle Gordon (or John Cassavetes or Gena Rowlands).
If the central question of A Woman Under The Influence was: who is really crazy here?, I think the central question of Opening Night is: what is theatre and what is life?, which again echoes Shakespeare. This movie argues that ultimately there is —- or should be — no difference, no separation, and the only way for Gena Rowlands’ character to find peace is for her to surrender her life completely over to art and do away with the “craft” of acting that is keeping her tied to a sense of duality. If you haven’t seen the film, you’ll see what I mean by the way the film ends. What might seem absurd, ridiculous, and an outright betrayal of the playwright during the performance of this play we’ve seen the characters rehearsing throughout the film is ultimately met with reverence from an audience that in John’s words has seen “something utterly beautiful and inspiring.”
Once again, I messaged my favourite film critic, A S Hamrah and he had this to say about Opening Night: “Greatest film about an actress, also best film about aging. Its dream/nightmare quality embedded within Cassavetes usual ultra-realism is truly unsettling. The cameos are funnier than in [Scorsese’s] The King of Comedy.”
I want to leave you with some words from Cassavetes on the nature of being an artist vs. being a professional, which I think inform the film we’re about to watch and also provide me with a tremendous boost whenever I’m feeling exhausted by what I do for a living:
“Actors come into the business and have great enthusiasm because they think they’re going to make it. They think they’re going to be great. Then people tell them they’re not so great, and they feel they’re not so great. And the one thing they’ve always wanted in their lives — to be great — they realize they’re not going to be. Their own vision is crossed out and replaced by the vision of the way other people see them. They have no dream anymore; they only have a profession. They are businessmen. They are looking to make a dollar; looking to enjoy themselves the best way they can; looking not to make too many enemies in meeting people because then they won’t be working. They are looking to please the public, please the writer, the director, everybody — so that they are not concentrated, they’re not contained. Working for money and working under pressure they can no longer spin the dream for an audience…
…An actor must really believe what [they’re] doing, and [they] mustn’t care whether [they’re] good or bad at the moment, it’s only the creative effort that counts. And you can’t have that if you have some ulterior motive, like making money, pleasing people, enjoying yourself at a cocktail party that may lead to a bigger job. The great danger for actors is this success drive…
…Actors keep on driving for that big opportunity, selling everything in their past just for that one big opportunity. That opportunity comes again, but by that time they’ve sacrificed all the things in which they really believed and they feel like hypocrites. They get in a group of people that haven’t done quite as much, and they talk a creative game. They talk about ethics and creativity — but they’ve perjured themselves all through their careers. It’s not their fault. It’s just the society in which we live and the nature of the business and the nature of the need to express yourself.”
This will be the first film of the series in which we get to see Cassavetes himself act; he plays Myrtle Gordon’s co-star in the play-within-the-film. In addition, I hope you enjoy Ben Gazzara, with potentially the greatest baritone in the history of movies, and cameos at the end by actors we’ve seen along the way in our series here at The Metro: Seymour Cassel from Faces and Peter Falk from A Woman Under The Influence. Thank you again for being here. It’s been an absolute thrill for me to present these movies to you. I hope you’ve enjoyed them. Please send me an email — firstname.lastname@example.org — if you have any thoughts you’d like to share at all. And now: it’s showtime!
Once again: thank you to everyone who came to see these movies. I hope they’re still percolating in some way. I hope you feel a bit changed. I hope you come back to Metro Cinema many more times. I’ll see you there.
Until next time.
Dylan – Edmonton, AB