Gena Rowlands plays the role of Myrtle Gordon, a Broadway actress who rehearses for the part of “The Second Woman”, a play about an aging woman, witnessing the death of a young fan makes her realize her own vulnerability. She is more and more left alone in trying to find herself in a role that does not make sense to her.
The director and her co-star often come over more patronizing than sympathetic towards Myrtle; and any compassion they do show towards her is more in sake of the play; which after having worked in theatre for years I can well understand; the play has to come first and no matter what happens “The Show must go on”. However this does not justify the cruelty and lack of understanding. I’d even go as far as to suggest, that both the Director (Ben Gazzara) and her co-star Maurice (Cassavetes) initially take pleasure in setting her up as a victim and become harsher towards her as the story progresses.
In a way every character is only playing a role and the play that is “Myrtle’s break down”. The catastrophe for an actor or actress is to be completely absorbed and transform into the character he or she plays and the death of the girl triggers something that vanishes the border between reality and acting (which is why she didn’t want to be slapped on stage. The pain and the humiliation are real, even if the hand didn’t strike her)
Myrtle also cannot accept that she has aged and that her career will be more limited if the audience accepts her in the part of an older woman. Myrtle beautifully explains the play’s message being about the “gradual lessening of my powers as woman as I mature” the reality is that there is nothing gradual about this transformation, it hit Myrtle as hard an unexpected as the car that killed the girl. Myrtle is being told twice early on in the film that she is not a woman, first by Maurice when he tells her “You’re not a woman, you are a professional” and only moments later Gazzara echoes this sentiment to her over the phone. It is not age alone that takes away her femininity, but those men in her life who lesson her powers (especially since both played a part in her personal life and know her weaknesses).
Sara the author of the play is even worse when she implies that her time has passed and later in the dressing booth continues to patronize her and assaults her with underlined cruelty and lines such as ‘It made me realize that you are not completely stupid’. Rarely have I despised a character as much as I did that old crone of a writer at first; but was surprised by her later on when she understood that there was something with the dead girl.
Myrtle continues to lose the ground under her feet and seeks refuge in the dead girl who becomes her alter ego and eventually turns against her. The only characters who seem to understand and show true compassion towards Myrtle are Wardrobe Lady Kelly and partially the Producer.
Rowlands is truly explosive (as always). There are those moments of pure tenderness in a kiss or an embrace that only Cassavetes can do so well, but I still think that “Opening Night” is in many ways one of his harshest films. (4.5/5)