Saturday, September 5, 2015

Two interpretations to the ending of Cassavetes' Opening Night

Angelic woman appearing to fall on stage
The following post is for those who have already seen the movie Opening Night by John Cassavetes and are either baffled by the ending, understood it and are able to shed light on it (and offer a better interpretation than the ones proposed here) or simply are curious about the Cassavetes phenomenon. Even renowned film critic Roger Ebert was confused about the ending of this movie, so much so that he felt inclined to ask the director himself, but, unfortunately, Cassavetes had already passed away by that time.

Being a novice to the John Cassavetes universe I do not claim to get it or to offer a final say on the matter. I am just sharing my thoughts and impressions on the movie and hope to provide food for thought and to elicit comments. Of the two interpretations I prefer the first one, but have provided the second one to give the whole thing a little bit of balance.

Interpretation One

This is the happier version of the two in which Myrtle has managed to exorcise her demons and has achieved success. Success comes not only in terms of fame and recognition, but more importantly includes acceptance of her age and self-identity.

What is Myrtle's problem anyway? There is some speculation on that and as usual Cassavetes keeps it vague. Is it a mental disorder, alcoholism or a devastating midlife crisis? It might be a combination of the three (with additional elements thrown in for good measure), but it is not alcohol alone, as some have suggested.

Myrtle, the famed and renowned actress has her doubts regarding the latest play. The doubts are manifold: First off, she may doubt her own abilities and /or she has concerns about fulfilling her audience's expectations.

Secondly, she has concerns regarding the role she is supposed to play. The play called Second Woman may be too close for comfort, meaning she may identify with the protagonist rather too closely.

Finally, she disagrees with the play's take on women. It seems that the woman in the play written by an aging female playwright is continuously humiliated, while the notorious slap in the face scene is the crown of all that.

Add to this the fact that Myrtle has just witnessed a fan of hers being hit and killed by a car. This fan who seems otherworldly and grotesque in the rain and whose face we do not see until she is dying on the street was rather obsessed with Myrtle. Myrtle may feel guilty about not only being the possible cause of her death, but she may agonize about the fact that the idealized person this fan was adoring was not her real self.

This may be part and parcel of the actors' world. We may fall in love with certain of them because of the roles they are playing but will fail to see them the way they are in reality and in their real lives. It is the image and reputation that they may project, whether intentionally or not, and we take it as the real thing.

So Myrtle might have realized that there is a great gap between how others see her and the way she is or rather the way she sees herself. Either way, not only was the young woman's death in vain but it happened for the wrong reasons. Myrtle was faking her way through it all whether on the stage or her own messy life.

The issue of aging looms large and is often referred to in the movie. Myrtle senses that her opportunities are becoming scarce and she is afraid that once she plays an older woman like in the Second Woman she will be typecast and never play a younger woman again.

At the same time, because of the play's content and the fanatic girl's premature and unnecessary death, she is evaluating her own life. Myrtle is not married, does not have a stable relationship and has no children. All of this suffocates her, and her spacious but sparsely furnished apartment does not help much in the matter.

Shot from Myrtle's apartment

She tries hard but fails miserably to rekindle passion in her ex-lover who is now happily (?) married and even Maurice, her co-actor (and most likely another ex-lover) coldly and cruelly rejects her, not once but twice!

His reason is that she has the big shot role, while his is a minor one, that is, in his view, a supporting actor cannot get involved and fall in love with the star of the show. This would screw up the dynamics. (I sense a certain touch of envy there). But he has no qualms about slapping this star's face on the stage.

In order to cope with her traumas, Myrtle imagines the existence and presence of the young fan Nancy. She looks remarkably like the younger version of Myrtle and in fact, they first “meet” as Myrtle is observing herself in the mirror. Suddenly, her wrinkles around her mouth disappear and she becomes young and desirable again.

Her surrounding friends and colleagues are worried about her decline as it is seriously affecting her acting skills and mental health. So the playwright offers a solution: To see her spiritualist in New York. 

When they get there, Myrtle feels that the life of her creation will be under attack and she still refuses to part with Nancy who provides her with at least some comfort in those turbulent times. Myrtle excuses herself from the spiritualist by stating that this young woman Nancy is her own creation and is fully under her control.

Yet in reality she feels more and more threatened by her presence. Perhaps it is the image of youth that terrifies her because she knows deep inside that it is forever and irretrievably gone. So she decides to see another spiritualist. In that session, she meets eye to eye with an angry version of Nancy and Myrtle finally kills her (under the shocked eyes of the spiritualist fearing both for Myrtle's sanity as well as her own safety).

In this way, I believe (at least in this interpretation) that Myrtle has indeed killed off one of her demons, the one of impossible youth. It aches, but she must have felt some relief. Nonetheless, the bigger demon was still waiting in the wings: the play itself with its misogynistic elements.

Myrtle tries to escape it. She gets completely wasted but realizes that she cannot simply ignore it. Something must be done and in her stupor she shows up at the premiere. She is not able to walk or even stand, but with the help of the cast, she manages to pull through.

Towards the end of the play, something magical happens. She changes the lines. She escapes the fate of her character. In fact, she transcends those written tragic lines set in stone by its unhappy playwright and turns them into comedy.

In fact, Myrtle gives dignity to her character and regains her own in the process. She evades the humiliation and takes control of her own fate disregarding everything around her. At last, she is in control of her own life by transcending her character. The tragic outcome has been lifted; there is no humiliating slap; she is the creator of her own universe and she creates a happy ending.

To show this, Cassavetes gives us the reaction afterwards of not only the enthused audience, but also most of the cast behind the stage (I cannot see the playwright being very happy about having her play butchered though). In fact, even Peter Falk, her husband from Woman under the Influence and the real-life director Peter Bogdanovich in a cameo praise her and give her a kiss on the cheek.

Then there is a still of her face and we still hear the praises telling us how wonderful she is and we feel that she has made it indeed. She did not only excel at the opening night but found true and lasting peace and happiness within herself. You may see why I prefer this interpretation. Now let us move onto

Interpretation TWO

In this second scenario, everything is grimmer. First off, the ending is not seen as a reaffirmation of life, but as a hopeless hallucination. The success that Myrtle supposedly experiences is as “real” as Nancy is. Her fears and insecurities have buried her under her growing and relentless alcoholism.

In fact, when she arrived at the theater drunk, she signed her own seal of death. It is the deplorable end of her once illustrious career. She made a complete fool of herself; she did not surpass the limitations of gender set upon by the play itself: She augmented them. She may not have been physically slapped on the stage, but the metaphorical slaps will hurt and haunt her for the rest of her life.

In this case, she has not killed off or exorcised her demons, but only made them all-encompassing and immune against any help or intervention. The ending was mere fantasy and make believe. The exuberance around her was staged and artificial, and all those people pitied her and wanted to spare her the tragic consequences of her pitiful performance, or it may have been partially or mostly imagined by her fragile (and still inebriated) mind.

The still at the end with the continuous voices of praise playing in the background like a loop only demonstrate the fantastic aspects of her illusory success. Here we have a woman who cannot accept the fact that she is aging, and she will face death with a tormented and restless soul. She has been caught in an endless cycle of misery until her dying day.

Now you can see why I prefer the first version. Which one (if any!) Cassavetes would agree with is debatable. Yet one thing is for sure. This is an enigmatic work that has a lot to say about a number of issues in our lives. It touches upon age and gender, as well as theater and film-making.

The last bit of improvised lines on the stage may have shown the art of film-making à la Cassavetes. Or as many have claimed and which I second, it is also part of the make believe of spontaneity since it is rather a carefully scripted craft.

Truffaut whose films often have an air of improvisation once admitted that it was all carefully planned ahead. Rohmer, who is the epitome of improvisation in cinema, had also tightly conceived and very deliberately structured his works. In fact, improvisation is often more difficult to do than it may seem.

To conclude, Opening Night may be difficult to get through and I found it less moving and emotionally engaging than Cassavetes' masterpiece Woman Under the Influence (1974), but it is an idiosyncratic work that is densely layered, challenging, and profound. 

The fact that I cannot get it out of my head and it still puzzles me and as we have seen has led to head-scratching among famous film critics (minus Pauline Kael who simply is not a Cassavetes fan, period) is to me proof that this is a work to be reckoned with.


Unknown said...

Hi, I just read another interpretation before, that said Cassavettes was, in this ending, contrary to his ways, praising improvisation.

Then II've read yours and I agree with the first version but I want to add something that I see nobody considers:

I think the ending is about not taking yourself seriously. If you think about it, all of our aguish is based on our image, how we are been perceived by others, etc. All in our heads, made up drama, not real. I think is clear in this ending that turned to comedy, J.C. suggests lightness, irony, humor, are the way to get out of the neurotic cycle. And I think he so right, btw.

Also, if you think of other endings like in Minnie & Moskovitch, A woman under the influence, Husbands, they tend to say, "Life goes on, domesticities take over reminding you to live in the present, don't take yourself seriously and move on"
Just consider the ending of Love streams: Cassavettes himself leaving free course to a contagious laughter.

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thank you, Marianne, for your insightful comment! It explains to me the ending of Woman under the Influence since the couple, after exposing their worst sides, accept each other, warts and all, and I was always wondering about the uplifting (bordering on silly) soundtrack chosen for the scene.

It could be to underscore the importance of taking it all with a grain of salt and not so seriously, as you say. In contrast, Faces ended on a similar but much more sour note.

The roaring laughter at the end of Love Streams is priceless and easily the best scene of the film in my view. It shows an almost stoic defiance in the face of one's mortality.

Thanks again for helping me clarify some of these points!