Color, 1977, 144m.
Directed by John Cassavetes
Starring Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, Paul Stewart, Zohra Lampert
BFI (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Criterion (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Optimum (UK R2 PAL), Pionieer (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Theater was always in the career blood of actor/director John Cassavetes and his wife and frequent leading actress, Gena Rowlands. Along with their acting workshop that led to the creation of their breakthrough 1968 film Faces, they had appeared together in a little-remembered but fascinating 1964 episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "Murder Case," in which Rowlands played a compromised stage star targeted by conniving fellow actor Cassavetes. They revisited that basic relationship again thirteen years later as fellow theater actors in their ultimate tribute to the stage, Opening Night, which was largely funded by their appearances in the mainstream actioner Two Minute Warning. The final film was largely ignored upon its release in America and many other countries, but it has since amassed a huge fan following as well as critical recognition for what is now regarded as one of Rowlands' best performances.
Increasingly affected by her latest role in tryout performances of The Second Woman as an aging middle class wife, Myrtle (Rowlands) follows her performances by exiting to the adulation of fans alongside her director, Manny, (Gazzara), leading man Maurice (Cassavetes), and esteemed playwright Sarah (Blondell), but she also has to rely increasingly on booze to get her through the day. One night a young female fan chasing after her for an autograph is struck down by a car and killed, an event that forces the alcoholic Myrtle into an emotional decline including ghostly visitations from the late admirer. Neither drink nor psychics seem to be the cure, and as the official big opening night approaches, she might not even be able to hold herself together enough to step out in front of the footlights.
A surprising stylistic departure from Cassavetes' two loose and rough previous films, A Woman Under the Influence and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, this more formal drama balances the usual improvisation with formal, often striking camerawork with the theater sequences partially shot from an audience's perspective. The effect was often unsettling with an audience in a movie theater, as the scenes with Rowlands and Cassavetes playing characters on a stage came complete with odd fluffed lines and ad libbed gestures contrasting with sudden breaks out of character backstage. The supporting cast is a bit more diverse and surprising than usual, with Pre-Code dynamo Blondell (who would appear in Grease the following year) making the most of her part and the always fascinating, fragile Zohra Lampert (Let's Scare Jessica to Death) stealing her few scenes as Gazzara's wife, including a standout bedroom scene. This may not be the best place to start for Cassavetes newcomers, but if you've seen at least a couple of his films, it's a rich and very rewarding experience.
One of the five films over which Cassavetes maintained creative and financial control, Opening Night was his last directorial effort of the 1970s and his last independently financed and released feature as well. The American DVDs consist of a bare bones and pretty cruddy full frame version from Pioneer and a much better disc in Criterion's Cassavetes set, with extras including a 22-minute video interview with Rowlands and Gazzara, an Al Ruban interview featurette, the theatrical trailer (which weirdly appears on no other release), and a half-hour Cassavetes audio interview. The first UK DVD culled from the same anamorphic master features a very dense and informative audio commentary (with Tom Charity, Mike Ferris, and Bo Harwood), plus a different Cassavetes audio Q&A after the film's release.
That same commentary appears again on both iterations in the dual-format 2013 BFI release, containing a Blu-Ray and DVD. The otherwise bare bones Blu-Ray wisely fills up the dual-layered disc to the max and looks spectacular; the wide shots of the theatrical performances in particular are much more vivid and impressive than ever before, with an often shocking clarity and richness of color lost in past transfers. It's a sterling presentation and likely the definitive A/V edition for a very long time to come. The DVD adds on two solid video extras: "Memories of John," a half-hour 1993 video chat with Falk and Ruban about life and work with the filmmaker, and the much briefer (13 minutes and clip heavy) "Falk on Cassavetes," in which the late actor recalls working with his frequent director, whom he felt regarded the role of love in humanity with a broader, unflinching perspective than most. Also included is a hefty insert booklet containing a chapter on the film originally written by Charity for the book John Cassavetes: Lifeworks, a Monthly Film Bulletin print interview with Cassavetes about the film, a brief Ruban remembrance about making the film and getting into a violent fight with Cassavetes during the production, an additional appreciative essay by Peter Bogdanovich, and a Charity bio of Cassavetes.