Opening Night: John Cassavetes' unromantic ode to theatre is stunning

<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

One of many tantalising theatre shows cancelled last year by the pandemic was The Second Woman, a 24-hour-long production at the Young Vic, London, in which Ruth Wilson was to repeatedly perform the same scene with a succession of 100 actors. This exploration of gender and power was inspired by John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night, about a troubled star’s out-of-town tryouts for a Broadway-bound play called The Second Woman.

After months of watching stage productions on screen while venues are closed, from archive NT Lives to lockdown live streams, I returned to Opening Night to start a new series looking at the ways cinema has depicted the world of theatre. I’m avoiding some of the more obvious titles (Birdman, All About Eve, movies based on plays or musicals such as A Chorus Line) and will be including a range of international choices over the next few weeks to see how film-makers have depicted the theatrical experience.

Cassavetes is hailed for ushering in a new style of American independent movies with naturalistic classics including Shadows and Faces, but he was no stranger to ambitious theatre. Within a few years of Opening Night, he was staging a trilogy of plays in Los Angeles with the same lead actor, his wife Gena Rowlands.

When we first see Rowlands in Opening Night, she is waiting to go on stage, calming her nerves with a nip of booze and a last drag on a cigarette. Cassavetes captures the jittery energy behind the scenes as well as the intense sensation of simply being on stage: when the curtain goes up, we feel the glare, echo and volume of the experience, the sheer nowness of it all. This is immediately juxtaposed with a rather dreary perspective from the stalls, where a fixed camera shows the uninspiring drama in which Myrtle stars.

Intense sensation … Opening Night.
Intense sensation … Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes in Opening Night. Photograph: Alamy

What Cassavetes does brilliantly is present brief moments that exist somewhere between the private and public as we see the actor, Myrtle Gordon (the superb Rowlands), entering and leaving the stage, switching in and out of character, waiting for cues while hidden from an audience who loom in the background. This is what I’d love to see captured in more streams of theatre productions: multiple cameras used not just to shoot the drama but also showing actors immediately before and after their scenes.

Opening Night unfolds at a measured pace, dipping in and out of the play and the backstage dramas. When some scenes begin, you’re not quite sure which of the two worlds they belong to. In some of the stage sequences, you’re left wondering – like the audience in the playhouse – whether the actors have gone off script. Several times there is that electric sensation of unpredictability you get in the theatre when you suddenly realise something has been improvised or added and you’re not sure where it will lead.

The title of the play within Cassavetes’ film refers to the menopause but we come to understand Myrtle through her relationships with other “second women”: Virginia, the character she portrays in the play, and Nancy, a 17-year-old fan killed in a road accident outside the theatre. Myrtle conjures visions of Nancy after her death in a bid to connect with her own youth and, in so doing, bring to life Virginia whom she is struggling to portray. As a teenager, she tells us twice, she found it easier to access her emotions than she does as a mature woman – it is this youthful openness, and sense of confidence, that she needs to channel to overcome what is presented as a kind of actor’s, rather than writer’s, block. It is a surprising flip of the conventional wisdom that an actor’s greater experience makes them freer.

Myrtle’s relationships with these two women, neither of whom exist, feel strikingly more vivid than those with the men working on the play (Ben Gazzara as her bullying director, Cassavetes himself as her co-star and former lover, Paul Stewart as the producer and a prospective paramour). The film powerfully suggests the personal toll of performing the lives of others, night after night, their stories seeping into your own. When Virginia is slapped, Myrtle is left feeling humiliated. “He’s not hitting you for real,” sneers Gazzara as the director. “Actresses get slapped!” But replaying such scenes of toxic violence leaves Myrtle battling to find a method to reclaim a space on stage for herself, which she discovers in the film’s climax.

How can you bring a character alive if you don’t believe in them, asks Myrtle. To The Second Woman’s playwright, Sarah Goode (played by Joan Blondell), it’s simple: say the lines clearly with a degree of feeling. But Myrtle scratches away to find something more to this character who is defined so starkly by her age. Myrtle is suspicious of Virginia, not least because she is wary of playing an older woman for the first time: “Once you’re convincing in a part, the audience accepts you as that.” This is a part that could bring glory but could also limit future roles. There are further contradictions: she resents the character yet feels a pure sense of commitment, as an actor, to bring her alive for those women in the audience whose life Virginia’s may mirror.

If Myrtle is frustrated by the character she plays, then the rest of the actors are ambivalent at best about the play they are presenting. This sense of theatrical camaraderie, however dysfunctional the stage family, runs alongside the loneliness and tedium of an actor’s life. Opening Night, unlike many films about theatre, is defiantly unromantic. The play’s tryouts in New Haven bring the creative excitement of experimentation that comes with getting a new show on its feet, but the clock is ticking towards the Broadway opening, with all its pressures.

Whatever they make of the product they are selling, the cast and crew of The Second Woman are in service to the show. “Going on” becomes a refrain in the film, not just referring to making an entrance but to more of a Beckettian sense of endurance. When, towards the film’s climax, Myrtle arrives blind drunk before the big night the decision to hand her a black coffee and push her on stage is open to interpretation: a cruel act of misogynistic revenge, a chance for her to achieve salvation and avoid the sack, or quite simply a troupe’s compulsion to get the show on whatever the cost.