Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 19 March 2012
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
There’s this one episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine.” It stars Ida Lupino as a faded film star who spends her days watching her own old movies. She longs for dead leading men, or the younger versions of the leading men who are still alive, and eventually she disappears into a movie screen to live her 16mm fantasies forever. It has the makings of a fun supernatural riff on Sunset Boulevard, save for one extraordinarily distracting element. Lupino was just forty-one when the episode aired (a decade younger than Sunset Boulevard’s Gloria Swanson), and it seems slightly bizarre when the script implies that the majority of her character’s friends are dead. The cliché of the aging ingénue is one of Hollywood’s favorite tropes, and it is at times almost sadistically keen on trotting it out.
John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night, which follows the travails of a famous film actress as she attempts to take on the lead role in a Broadway play about a desperate, aging woman, displays a sharp awareness of the existence of what TV-Tropes.org calls the “White Dwarf Starlet” trope. (From the site: “the name is a reference to stars – the kind in the sky – that have ceased to burn and are now glowing only with residual heat from their younger days.”) Opening Night features Cassavetes’ real-life spouse Gena Rowlands as Myrtle Gordon, the actress whose stage role takes her to the brink.
The name of the play-within-the-film is The Second Woman, and its playwright, sixty-five-year-old Sarah Goode, explains that the title refers to the older woman who replaces each woman’s younger self. Myrtle articulates the double bind presented by her new role thusly: even if she succeeds in the part, she fears she will be dooming herself to being typecast and playing dissipated, menopausal women for the remainder of her career. “How old are you, Myrtle?” Sarah repeatedly, somewhat viciously asks her leading lady. Myrtle doesn’t answer, but my guess was that Rowlands was about thirty-seven in the film. IMDb confirms it. So Myrtle’s objections to the play make sense: she notes that her character is having hot flashes, even though she’s experiencing no such thing. Thirty-seven is not sixty-five, and Myrtle implicitly asks for a space – in the theater, in film, elsewhere – for women who are neither young ingénues nor approaching old age.
Sarah, played by Joan Blondell, herself a former silver screen ingénue, serves as a kind of older doppelgänger for Myrtle, and Myrtle’s other double is Nancy, a hyperactively dedicated teenage autograph seeker who is killed by a car shortly after an awkward meeting with her idol. In a positively extraordinary scene, Nancy appears in Myrtle’s dressing room, and we aren’t entirely sure if we’re seeing the ghost of the fan, or of Myrtle’s younger self. For all intents and purposes, she’s both. There’s a marvelous strangeness to the moment where Myrtle and Nancy press their hands together, with matching blue eyes and white smiles. That moment is interrupted by Sarah, who then stands in Myrtle’s doorway and proclaims, “There’s a hell of a lot of pressure one puts on oneself, by demanding to stay competitive.” In instances such as this, it’s clear that Myrtle’s battle is for the middle ground – between the past and future selves suggested by Nancy and Sarah.
Gender is, of course, a central issue. Throughout the film, Myrtle is hounded by voices telling her that she is not a woman, or asking her just what sort of woman she is. She is told that she is a “professional,” with the allusion to prostitution being seemingly intentional. She is routinely chided and patronized by her director Manny, played to the hilt by Ben Gazzara. After a particularly off-the-rails out of town preview Manny has this to say to Myrtle:
I mean, we all know you changed all the lines tonight. Doesn’t that tell you something? I mean, don’t you say to yourself, ‘Myrtle, maybe I’m not so smart. Maybe Sarah’s play has something to say. Maybe I haven’t loved anything in my life. Maybe I should have gotten married. Maybe I should have had children.’ That ever occur to you?
Manny is interested in a woman’s misgivings and unhappiness, but only insofar as they follow a script that he knows. That means alcoholism, depression, and regret over having lost her looks, over not having raised a family, over not following, essentially, the only other storyline that he does understand. And so Myrtle is pushed to the brink, forced to inhabit her onstage persona offstage as well, forced to fall apart.
That the tension between the personal and professional in the life of a female performer had already been unforgettably dramatized in Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 musical The Red Shoes, and would later be memorably revisited in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is telling. (The latter, like Opening Night, gives us a female protagonist whose identity is supernaturally splintered, and a world awash in doppelgängers seemingly pressed into existence because the protagonist’s identity gets too messy to belong to the limited role that the protagonist is expected to fit.) The pressures and fissures that threaten to destroy Myrtle are real, and though much of the film’s tension is internal, the origin of the trouble is external.
Opening Night is not about a withered old actress too vain to accept her fate. Not at all. It’s about a still-passionate woman distressed by the box she’s being forced into. And it’s well worth seeing, in no small part due to Rowlands’ tour-de-force performance. By the end of the film, a profoundly drunk Myrtle is literally reduced to crawling toward her big entrance on the eponymous opening night, all-but-wrecked. It’s stunning stuff, and the theater audience’s impressed, nay, delighted, faces, as they watch a woman unhinged provide what is perhaps the film’s cruelest and most haunting irony.