I cannot remember when I first saw Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1977), maybe before I got interested in the representation of old women in film. All I remember is that I came out of the cinema bewildered. I did not understand its style, its contradictions and ambiguities. I obviously could not cope with it as it did not even make my list of ‘to see later films’ about ageing women.
Recently when Lelio’s Gloria (2013) was released a friend mentioned Cassavetes’ Gloria. Paola, a French student commented on my blog with references to Opening Night. I have now seen both Cassavetes films and would like to comment on Opening Night.
There are many learned articles, essays and books on Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands his wife and their films. Over two hours running time, Opening Night seems to tackle diverse and contradictory aspects of the consciousness and experience of ageing by exposing in its multilayered structure the identity crisis of an ageing actor – Myrtle – played by Gena Rowlands. Myrtle plays Virginia, in the play within the film. Virginia has been discarded by her husband for the second wife of the title, a woman who gave him children. In a meeting with an adoring 17 years old fan and later when she has visions of her, Myrtle identifies with Nancy her adoring fan who was killed in an accident. It is also relevant to note that John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands’ husband acts as Maurice the photographer partner of Virginia in the play. Many aspects of ageing are explored in this complex structure and the no less complex psychological difficulties of some people of coming to term with this fact. These are very clearly enunciated both verbally and visually.
I would like to focus on the effect that Opening Night had on two bugbears that have bothered me over the years. I have never understood the reluctance of some women to openly and proudly declare their age and I have no patience with women well over 60 who say “inside I feel 18”. I have always been intolerant of these two attitudes and yet unable to discuss them for fear of hurting; and here they are, on film, for me to think and write about.
Before concentrating on these aspects I must mention the pre-titles sequences setting up the contradictions inherent in the representation of the ageing actor, the subject of the film. On a theatre set there are two big photos on the wall. One of which is a close up of a very wrinkled old woman with the exaggerated facial features of very old age. Maurice starts by saying “I have given up old people, I cannot photograph them without their clothes”. He continues with “I love old people” and talks about the meaning of wrinkles as history, as pain, wisdom etc.. and finishes up with ” … kindness. Now look at this kid ( he points to but we do not see the picture) she is not kind.”
The scene I would like to examine is 50 mins into the film and lasts just over 4 mins. A brief background to the scene: In rehearsal Myrtle has not been able to say the lines written by Sarah the playwright and substituted the final words, “after all we cannot forget it is only a play” to the consternation of her co-lead but the delight of the audience. After the final curtain the director, the producer and the writer deliberate over a drink. Sarah asks to talk privately to Myrtle.
Cut: through a gap in door we see a red carpeted room with red wall paper and period chairs. First Sarah passes briskly across and a rather hesitantly Myrtle follows slowly, dressed very casually, her hands in her pockets. A close-up of Sarah’s face nearly fills the screen: well-coiffeured grey curls hide her forehead, her face is made up and fine lines surround the eyes and mouth, two prominent beauty spot on the cheek add character to her face, a red pink rose on the collar of her black dress hides her neck and her blue eyes are unflinching. She offers food and drink to Myrtle who rejects them. They sit down and a close-up of Sarah’s face shows us an assured, confident, at ease woman who looks directly into Myrtle face and questions her very directly even aggressively in the manner of an investigating officer.
How old are you really? Close up of Myrtle’s face, showing mixed emotions, she moves her head but she does not answer. I am trying to be patient, how old? Counter shot of Myrtle taking her jacket off. I am 65. How old are you?. This is said with some kind of pride with a slight smile. If you cannot say your age then you cannot accept my play.
Myrtle still does not answer and reaches for a cigarette. Behind her we can see alcohol bottles. Then she addresses Sarah assertively and launches in an impassioned tirade about what it means for an actor to grow older. She first of all distances herself from Sarah by pointing coolly that writers write about themselves, that the play is about ageing, that she is not Sarah’s age. What is your age? replies Sarah in her challenging way, the fifth time she asks the same question. A more emotional Myrtle responds that she has no hot flushes and she is not menopausal as the part she is asked to play is. She is not ready to play grandmothers, that if she is good in the role, her career will be limited.
Limited to what? is Sarah’s persistent questioning. They accept you as that… Sarah carries on her investigation: “as what?” “Old ! that’s what , Old“. Myrtle is more animated and emotional. “I am trying to play this part as if age does not make any difference. Old is not interesting, age is depressing, age is dull, age does not have to do with anything” and self revealingly talks about the importance of acting in her life without a partner or children. Sarah carries on “You think that anybody who is old cannot be vulnerable”? “that is not what I am saying”. Sarah goes for the kill: “ :What are you saying?” “When I was young I could do anything, emotions so close to the surface, I would feel anything. But now years later…plays later years later… ” “So what is the answer?” asks Sarah. Myrtle becomes incoherent . “I have this dead girl. … she is so open… on top of everything… she reminds me of … She looks desperately at Sarah.
“You said you have this dead girl what does his mean? is she here now? in this room? quite agitated now Myrtle gets up and leaves.
For me this scene encapsulates and explains the problem of the sayings ‘age does not matter’, ‘age is only a number’, ‘inside I feel 18’. To me the number does matter since its concealment leads to the ignorance of what old age looks like, feels like. Concealment of ones age is unlikely to change ageist attitudes. This film exposes the crisis of an actor facing her own ageing but in the process the general fear of ageing of the under 50s is revealed.
In this scene an agitated woman, not yet 50, consumed with doubt and fear tells an assured, attractive, successful 65 years old woman, that old age is uninteresting, dull, depressing. Myrtle looks back with regret at her powerful, sensitive, young teenage self. It is interesting that when older women do not want to disclose their age, it is ageism towards youth seen as a golden age that operates. It is interesting that number does matter when it is 17 or 18, but not when it is over… let us say 40-50 when women start dyeing their hair? I have never heard an old woman say “inside me I feel 50, at the height of my career, when I first became grandmother, when divorce liberated me”. It is always the youth that is referred to, the youth we remember and yet we are constantly changing.
At the beginning of this scene the question is asked. Why can’t Myrtle, a competent and successful actor, play the part of a menopausal woman?. Why can’t she feel for her?. The relentless questioning of Sarah leads us to realise by the end of the scene that Myrtle just cannot cope with her own ageing. She identifies rather with her 17 years old fan who was killed in an accident early on in the film.
I will post this today as I have to prepare my husband’s 80th birthday celebrations. Yesterday, he sang his songs at an anti-cuts demonstration of thousands.
I will post again about Myrtle’s relationship with her 17 years old self.