If Bergman had ever been asked to make an MGM musical, one imagines that ‘Opening Night’ wouldn’t have been far off the result. It stands as Cassavetes’ least self-consciously organic piece of work, with an improvisational tone that doesn’t just quietly fold itself around the narrative but ricochets off the film’s main themes. As in 1974’s ‘A Woman Under the Influence’, Gena Rowlands offers a devastatingly tactile performance in the lead role, this time as Myrtle Gordon, a grande dame of American theatre whose total immersion methodology backfires when she unwittingly accepts the part of an aging inamorata in the suggestively titled ‘The Second Woman’. Dogged by an instinctive fear of playing ‘the older woman’, she is loathe to acknowledge publicly an emotional overlap between herself and her character, but when the ghost of a young autograph collector begins to haunt her private life, her body becomes the battleground for a conflict between youth and maturity. Self-reflexive to an almost infinite degree, Myrtle is regularly forced to re-position her emotions from the context of her life, her sub-conscious and her role within the play.
And if that isn’t enough, Cassavetes builds upon the illusion by rarely indicating whether the actors are acting, improvising, on the stage, behind the stage, rehearsing, relaxing or, in one extremely painful and protracted late scene, totally drunk. At once a lament to the ravages of age and an examination of those tiny foibles which separate reality from dramatic artifice, it’s a baffling and intricate film which, although light on conventional pleasures, still manages to provoke and beguile.