John Cassavetes was a pioneer of American independent cinema, using improvisation and verite style to create a renowned body of work including the likes of Shadows, Faces and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. He was also an actor of repute, and used his big Hollywood fees to fund his directorial efforts. He was in Rosemary's Baby, was one of the Dirty Dozen, and even starred as a murderer in an episode of Columbo (one of my favourite programmes as a kid!)
Opening Night centres on adored Broadway star Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands), who is rehearsing a new play that she finds problematic. It deals with ageing, and Myrtle says that 'age is depressing, age is dull'. It might be a subject too close to her as she struggles to come to terms with ageing herself. Her issues are exacerbated by witnessing the death of a young female fan outside the theatre. Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic: she has visions of the young girl and fantasises about the life she could have led, the decisions she could have made and the children she could have had. Her onstage performances become increasingly unpredictable as she refuses to speak the lines of the play, takes to excessive drinking and addresses the audience directly.
Cassavetes went straight from filming The Killing of a Chinese Bookie to shooting this film, using most of the same crew and funding it primarily himself. It was certainly a passion project as he was even going to remortgage his house at one point. It may have been too close to him though as while the film deals with some interesting issues and themes it really is self indulgent, interminable and for the most part dull. There is no reason for it to be over 90 minutes and the extended 'real time' performance at the end is not the bravura denouement that it thinks it is, but rather the underwhelming one the film probably deserves. Questions like 'why is there no understudy?' occur as the company panic about Myrtle's no show, but the histrionics become so tiresome the overriding question is 'when will the curtain fall?'
Opening Night is released on Blu Ray for the first time in the UK by the BFI. Cassavetes aficionados will no doubt lap it up, but I can't imagine it would convert agnostics or non Cassavetes fans.
Review by Damien Beedham