COTMC, pt. 5

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

This line, from John Cassavetes’ Maurice to Gena Rowlands’ Myrtle at the beginning of Opening Night, sets up the film’s fundamental conflict, though we go a hell of a distance with the characters before that really becomes clear. Maurice is a middle-aged actor who never really hit big, while Myrtle is a huge star, mobbed by fans when she leaves the theatre. In the past they’ve been in love, and now they’re working together on a play neither of them likes. Despite his accusation, though, it’s Maurice who’s all professional, who just wants to say his lines and get through the performance, while Myrtle has a complete emotional collapse trying to come to grips with a script she feels is fundamentally dishonest.

The film opens at what is presumably a preview performance of the play in New Haven, after which a young girl who seems to have some sort of mental or cognitive disturbance tries to push her way through the crowd of fans to reach Myrtle, seeking a moment of contact and recognition. She follows the actors to their limo, where Myrtle tells her, not unkindly, to get out of the rain and come see her tomorrow instead. The limo pulls away, but the girl follows it out into the street and is hit by another car.

Myrtle begins to fantasize about the dead girl and, simultaneously, to be unable to perform on stage. She flubs her lines, she has a fit about a scene in which Maurice is supposed to slap her, she quarrels with the playwright about whether aging is the central issue for her character. Offstage, on the other hand, she has a series of strange conversations with some sort of shade of the disturbed fan. But where in real life the girl wore odd clothes and had a speech impediment and seemingly palsied gestures, when she haunts Myrtle she is erect, articulate, and beautifully adorned.

As usual in Cassavetes’ writing, there are a hundred things to go through before these problems are resolved, and many of them are not directly related to the central conflict, and many are false leads on the road to resolving that central conflict. If in A Woman Under The Influence many of the characters come to believe that Mabel is crazy, for instance, here characters come to believe that Myrtle can’t face up to the diminishments of age, or that she needs an exorcism. Twice she goes to a psychic or a medium, though both times she insists that these visions of the young girl (which have increasingly violent and self-destructive consequences) are simply imagined, a kind of mental exercise for her. At the start she also insists that she’s in control of them, though she begins to doubt that for a while. She ultimately regains her power over the vision-girl, and it seems that she was right all along; like Mabel, she remains quite self-aware and true to herself while others misinterpret her drastically.

As with all the films in this series, there are endless wondrous little gifts along the way, both actorly — Zohra Lampert’s very funny attempts to seduce her husband, the show’s director (Ben Gazzara), while he tries to soothe an out-of-control Myrtle over the phone — and cinematic — Cassavetes’ dramatic use of color, especially the matching reds of the stage set and Myrtle’s implausibly vast penthouse bedroom (itself resembling a stage). But this is the first film that’s really tested my patience or my willingness to believe. Cassavetes, in one of the audio interviews included on the DVD, notes that he doesn’t like supernatural tales, and he makes it clear that he thinks the “haunting” Myrtle experiences is entirely a conscious imagining, and nothing supernatural or even subconscious. But it’s challenging to maintain empathy with the character, or even to believe that a person would behave this way. Of course, behavior in Cassavetes’ films is frequently extreme, hyperbolic. But such behavior is usually justified by extreme circumstances — the collapsing marriage in Faces, the tremendous class anxieties and emotional incompetence of the characters in Woman, the deadly cat-and-mouse games of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Here the precipitating problem is a lousy play, and that makes it a little harder for the audience to follow the character through her outlandish permutations, a little harder for us to sympathize with someone who’s clearly putting everyone around her through a great deal of trouble and concern.

This is a serious problem. Perhaps it’s the audience’s problem — perhaps part of what Cassavetes wants to point out to us here is that art is as important as marriage, as important as defending your life. And perhaps I succumb to the old American prejudices that art is not “real work,” and that artists are essentially playing at life. I admit that’s possible. But I find myself unable to get around my feeling that the drama is out of proportion to the root conflict. This is the first film in the series that I really had to force myself to watch again, and it’s the first one that I didn’t really feel like reviewing. And this despite the fact that I ultimately ended up enjoying it very much.

Most of that enjoyment comes from Myrtle’s appeal, late in the film, to Maurice to help her find “something human” in the play, and his sudden decision, in the middle of the climactic performance, to do just that. When the two actors go off script and start wilding it up on stage, the director, producer, and playwright quietly slip out of the theatre, certain that they’re ruined. But the odd performance, with its disjointed timing, its mugging to the audience, its fundamentally comedic and joyous approach, and its bizarrely uplifting ending, turns out to be a hit with the audience, and it works for us, too. There’s a pure pleasure and spontaneity to the way these two old pros go about tearing up a bad, cliched scene, something that frankly transcends the rest of the film, as indeed it’s surely intended to. The whole rest of the movie, the hysterics, the overwrought melodrama, becomes part of the method, part of what these artists needed to get to this wonderful place, where they can give us some delight and a small dose of hope. Cassavetes makes the argument, one I have a hard time accepting, that any amount of nuisance and bad behavior is worth a few moments of honesty. This feels a bit self-justifying, maybe a bit of giving the finger to “professional” art that doesn’t care about “human relationships.” After all, professional art is on time and under control, and Cassavetes chose to work mostly outside of that professional, controlled environment.

Some notes, culled from the excellent supplemental materials:

Cassavetes wrote the “bad” play within the film in pieces, finding himself unable to write the whole thing because he hated it so much. I found it interesting that he labels the play bad largely because it is not hopeful — it doesn’t offer the audience anything in return for their time. And he says this is from an actor’s perspective — the actor has to worry that if there is nothing for the audience in the play, they won’t go along with the acting.

In the final scene, Maurice and Myrtle bravely upend the script, playing it, as Cassavetes says in an interview, “at such a height that it becomes like a situation comedy.” He recounts that he and Gena Rowlands played the scene straight once, then did it again at a slightly higher pitch, then pulled out all the stops. (The third version ended up in the film.) The audience was composed of friends and friends of friends who were instructed to react to the play however they normally would. (Members of the audience provided their own costumes, and many chose to dress up for the occasion.) Cassavetes also says that all the “improvisation” was written ahead of time, although Rowlands in her (much later) video interview makes the process sound a bit more freewheeling.

Towards the end of his life, Cassavetes mounted several successful short-run stage productions, using the same family-style, let’s-put-on-a-show! approach that had served him so well in his film productions. One of these, a play written by Ted Allan and originally starring Jon Voight, became Love Streams, Cassavetes’ final masterwork. He received an offer to film the plays for a cable special, but turned it down, presumably on the basis of integrity. You have to admire his absolute determination to maintain control over his own work (the five films in the Criterion are the ones he distributed himself, and they are the only ones with satisfactory DVD distribution), but I wonder what we’re missing by not having access to those performances. Still, perhaps he was right. The way those involved in the plays talk about them, it seems they might have constituted a moment that wasn’t meant for history or posterity, and that was more precious because it was so brief and irretrievable.

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