Theatre in Film Series: Opening Night (1977)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

July 28th, 2016

Though theatre was my first love, film has stolen my heart in recent years. In Part II of our ongoing Theatre in Film series, we explore the latter years of Classical Hollywood Cinema when Technicolor was new and movie musicals, filled with rich color and vibrant acting, lifted off the screen. For our fourth film in Part II, we celebrate the 1977 John Cassavetes film, Opening Night.

Opening Night (1977)

Director: John Cassavetes
Starring: Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, Paul Stewart, Zohra Lampert, and John Cassavetes

What happens:

Broadway actress, Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands), is in rehearsals for a play written by her old friend, Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell). Myrtle’s character, an aging unmarried woman, reflects her own life off the stage — a reality Myrtle refuses to confront, making her connection to the character nearly impossible. After a late rehearsal, Myrtle and other members of the company exit the theatre, and Myrtle is approached by a fan. As the company leaves, the girl runs into the street after them and is hit by a car. Myrtle, distraught by the girl’s death, descends in a downward spiral over the course of the show’s rehearsals: drinking, changing lines in the script, and having visions of the dead girl. It doesn’t help that Myrtle’s co-star, Maurice (John Cassavetes), and director, Manny (Ben Gazzara), continuously diminish her self-confidence, both as an actor and a woman. As the company bands together to support Myrtle on their opening night, their own limits are tested, and the show opens in New York to an expectant crowd…without a leading actress.

Why it matters:

When Opening Night first premiered, it showed to nearly empty theatres and was hardly reviewed by any newspapers in New York. However, Cassavetes’ film was received well in Europe, and it’s aged well since its initial release. (It currently holds a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.) Without a doubt one of the most serious pieces in our Theatre in Film series, Opening Night addresses multiple issues that go hand-in-hand with theatre: how aging affects the characters we play, the pressure to play a role we don’t identify with, and the oftentimes inability to distance our onstage life from our offstage ones.

Myrtle refuses to see the connection between herself and the woman she’s playing; to do so would be to admit she’s aging and that her “type” is changing. Actors run into this all the time, and the successful ones know how to market their new type to make sure that they aren’t forgotten about. Myrtle’s fear of aging manifests itself through an intense psychosis in which Myrtle envisions conversing with the dead girl — a symbol of her dying youth. Because Myrtle can’t come to terms with her age, she runs into the problem of being unable to connect to her character. She acts out and attempts to change the script to meet her vision of the show by changing blocking, lines, and fight choreography, and it illustrates Myrtle’s inability to compartmentalize her life into separate spheres. She drinks to forget the girl’s death and almost always comes to rehearsal drunk or hungover. She can’t function as a professional, which is all she has left after Manny and Maurice tell her that she’s “not a woman” and that she’s simply a “professional.” Ironically, when she’s playing a role that addresses gender, she’s only a genderless actor to the two most influential men in the company, no doubt causing her to feel powerless in the face of such criticism.

On the opening night performance, Myrtle is late to call, and the show must be held. When she finally walks in, she’s drunk, nearly unable to stand, but she works her way through the show until the last scene — where she forces Maurice to improvise everything. Her insistence on playing the character her way appears in full force, and it saves the show and her career, despite her and Maurice’s performances being far from what Sarah’s script originally had planned.

Below is a clip from the final moments of the film in which Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes (playing the film’s characters playing the play’s characters) improvise the last scene of the show.

This film is the first featured in Part II of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part II.


Want to start with Part I? Check out 42nd Street (1933).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from Opening Night. Copyright © 1977 Faces Distribution.