Early in 1977, John Cassavetes called me, both of us living in Los Angeles. He was shooting a picture in some legitimate theater down on Wilshire; it was supposed to be a Broadway opening night, and he needed a few celebrity faces, so Peter Falk was going to come down as an extra—-could I? “Anything for you, John,” I said and meant it, because in a town of artists of all sorts, Cassavetes was the rare real thing. The picture, he said, was about theater people bringing a new play to New York, and was called Opening Night (available on DVD). John financed it entirely from his own pocket, starring his brilliant wife and partner, Gena Rowlands, as the play’s star on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and Ben Gazzara as the director, Joan Blondell as the playwright, Paul Stewart as the producer, Zohra Lampert as the director’s wife, and Cassavetes himself as a totally self-absorbed actor.
A Broadway opening meant probably winter in New York, so I brought an overcoat. When Peter Falk spotted it, he said, “Where’d you get the coat?” I told him my thinking. Peter immediately called John over to say that I had a coat, and so he needed one. John whirled away, calling to an assistant to get Peter a coat. For my big shot backstage behind the curtain, John told me to go over to Gena, give her a kiss and tell her how great she was in the play. Then he did a little yelling to get everyone on their toes, pointing out that all screw ups were costing him personally. There was no rehearsal. Once he called out, “Action!” everything went quickly, in a kind of blur, a lot of people moving and talking at once. While I was having my intimate moment of praise for Gena, suddenly—-without anyone having prepared me—-Gazzara’s character was introducing Ms. Lampert’s character to me. “You know Peter Bogdanovich…?” The joke is that Ms. Lampert is so stoked by Ms. Rowlands’ opening-night performance that she is totally uninterested in meeting me; essentially she ignores the introduction and turns to gush at Gena. And that’s how the picture ends.
Cassavetes has said, “I won’t make shorthand films, because I don’t want to manipulate audiences into assuming quick, manufactured truths.” Opening Night, one of the filmmaker’s least known pictures—-made between the financial failure of The Killing of A Chinese Bookie and before the box-office success of Gloria—-is a perfect example of this credo. There are certainly neither quick nor manipulated truths, and what dominates is the mystery of personality, and the often unfathomably complex motivations of artists. The struggle to open the play depends on these intangibles.
This could be called Cassavetes’ anti-All About Eve. The adoring fan who becomes a threat in that picture, shrewdly calculating her way to stardom, here turns into a weirdly disturbing, clearly disturbed fanatic accidentally killed in an auto accident on a rainy night while trying to maintain contact with Ms. Rowlands. This tragic encounter haunts the actress throughout the rest of the movie, the young woman’s troubled ghost appearing to her, fighting with her. Yet this is only one of numerous obstacles Gena’s star has to overcome to make it through opening night. Others include her fear of aging, discomfort with the role, even active dislike of the playwright’s creation, conflicts with the director and her co-star. The terrible whirlpool of emotions that swirl around a theatrical production are superbly evoked. The main obstacle, of course, is fear, and Opening Night eloquently dramatizes Cassavetes’ comment: “You can defeat fear through humor, through pain, through honesty, bravery, intuition, and through love in the truest sense.”
All of the performances are not so much acted as caught. Everyone feels absolutely real, but Gena Rowlands is magnificent in an extremely challenging role, her characterization as naked and memorable as her amazing work in such other Cassavetes’ masterworks as Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, and Love Streams. If any other picture maker and actress have together repeatedly achieved such emotional depths, I don’t know about them. That John cast himself as the least understanding or sensitive character in the picture—-and that he plays it so convincingly—-is probably the biggest inside joke in this singular, distinctive look at show business people by a transcendent artist who single- handedly began the modern independent film movement, and was the most uncompromising and poetic American filmmaker of our time.