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In ‘Opening Night,’ Nothing Is Scarier Than Getting Older

John Cassavetes improvisational directing style is at its most accessible in this ghost story about aging

With more and more movie streaming services popping up, it can feel impossible to keep track of what’s showing where. So to help, this October I’ll be recommending a different film every day from one such service that embodies the spooky spirit of the season. From classic Halloween movies to indie horror to campy dark comedies, this is 31 Days of a Very Chingy Halloween.

Today I’m looking at John Cassavetes’ haunting tale of aging and acting, Opening Night, which is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and Criterion Channel.

Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) is a famous, middle-aged actress who’s going through previews for a new play she’s starring in called The Second Woman. One night after rehearsal, Myrtle encounters an obsessive teenage fangirl who runs after her car and is struck dead by an incoming vehicle. Deeply rattled by the incident, Myrtle begins acting erratically and struggles to go on with the play, unable to connect to her character in any way beyond their similar ages. More troublingly, Myrtle has started seeing the ghost of Nancy, the young fan of hers.

Rowlands was 46 when she acted in this feature directed by (and acting opposite of) her husband, John Cassavetes (Shadows, A Woman Under The Influence). The story of both Opening Night and the play within it deals not only with aging, but aging as a woman. Myrtle can’t relate to her character Virginia because she feels static and hopeless to her. She doesn’t know how to be the woman she’s supposed to be, the role everyone else expects her to fill. When she first begins to unravel, it’s over her discomfort with a scene in which Virginia is supposed to be slapped by a lover. “Do you want to be a star, or do you want to be unsympathetic?” her director Manny (Ben Gazzara) asks her, asserting that female actors getting slapped is a tradition.

Both of Myrtle’s love interests assert at different points that they don’t even see her as a woman anymore, but simply as a performer. The ghost she sees connects to this. As the story goes deeper and the play begins to fall more and more apart, Myrtle becomes unsure whether this girl is actually the spirit of her fan or an apparition of her younger self — a spectre of her at the peak of her desirability and power as a woman, as well as the time when she was most easily able to connect to her emotions.

Beyond the themes of aging are the struggles of being an actor, director or any kind of artist. Unmarried and childless, Myrtle gets her joy and her thrills from performing and depends on the love of the audience for stability. In part, she’s terrified by aging because of how it affects her ability to perform in a youth-focused culture.

But as she asserts her difference from the spirit of Nancy more and more, the interactions between the two go from friendly to violent, driving Myrtle further into instability and putting greater strain on her ability to play her role. When opening night on Broadway arrives, the camera places us deep in the audience, helplessly watching this performance of a performance erupt into chaos, with no idea what will unfold.

Opening Night is Cassavetes at his most accessible with the themes of performance serving as the perfect vehicle for his improvisational directing style. As supernatural as its subject matter is, Opening Night has the feeling of real life, with spontaneous organic conversations occurring between individually created characters rather than through one filmmaker’s singular vision. In a similar vein, the film has no real solutions to Myrtle’s problems because they are too complex to be neatly resolved.

As always, the show must go on.

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