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Blu-ray Review: 'Opening Night'

★★★★★
American director John Cassavetes was incomprehensibly undervalued in his own country despite single-handedly creating US independent film with his 1958 palate cleanser Shadows. When Opening Night (1977) was released on Christmas Day 1977, it played one cinema in Los Angeles to empty houses and was similarly ignored in New York. The film was only picked up by an American distributor in 1991. Opening Night is Cassavetes' last masterpiece; a poetic work of fiery urgency, it stands as one of the finest films about both the burden of artistry and the devastating toll of ageing in show business.

Cassavetes' wife and longtime collaborator Gena Rowlands plays Myrtle, a famous screen and stage actress rehearsing a play in preparation for a forthcoming Broadway run. After leaving the theatre one evening with director Manny (Ben Gazzara), playwright Sarah (Joan Blondell) and producer David (Paul Stewart, the Butler from Citizen Kane), she witnesses an obsessed young fan (Laura Johnson) being run over by a car moments after serenading her. While the rest of the passengers quickly forget the incident, it precipitates a personal crisis for alcoholic Myrtle, who becomes plagued with anxieties.

Many see Opening Night as a film about alcoholism, but to take such a narrow interpretation is to severely undersell this rich, complex work. While the picture does show the horrors of drink and the pandering of enablers catering to the afflicted's neuroses, the visible manifestations of Myrtle's problems are simply diversions from the heart of the matter. Like his European counterparts, Cassavetes does not offer solutions or explanations; he forces audiences to extrapolate from inference and allusion. Crucially, Rowlands and the director understood that self-destruction does not have the convenience of narrative; it's unwieldy, chaotic and impulsive, and the film uncompromisingly shows it as such.

Cassavetes' multiple-narrative structure is key to Opening Night's incisive treatise on the artistic process. The lengthy scenes of the play within the film are fundamental in showing both Myrtle's turmoil and her now-fleeting skills as an actress. Cassavetes himself plays the husband in the play. It's a sly duality on his part; the couple in the play are the creative force behind the film in which the play is created.

Opening Night is a film that's concerned with the limits of performance and the delineations of an artist's persona without offering up simple Freudian platitudes; Rowlands is plagued by visions of the dead fan who could be a projection of her younger self or even a visualisation of her mental fragmentation. Cassavetes was a master; if only America had noticed at the time.

Craig Williams
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