John Cassavetes Season

By Robert Chilcott

opening-night-john-cassavetes.jpgOpening Night, 1977

Following critical and commercial success of the self-financed, self-distributed, Oscar nominated A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes attempted likewise with two subsequent movies, though they did not achieve quite the same reception until after his death.

Despite having been since hailed as a masterpiece of modern neo-noir, at the time of its release no-one was ready for its genre defying anti-narrative and unsympathetic protagonist, least of all its star Ben Gazarra. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) Cosmo Vitelli, owner of a shambolic LA strip joint, is ordered by the mob to murder one of their competitors as repayment of a debt. Gazarra has revealed that for much of the filming he found the character not much fun and was unable to get a focus on him until very late in the day, though it is easier in hindsight to read his dilemma as an ironic self portrait, a parallel of Cassavetes position as maverick individual, the price he pays for his independence, and the interference and double-crossing of the studio executives that plagued him throughout his career.

Just as Cassavetes repeatedly took acting roles in movies that were clearly beneath him in order to finance his own work, likewise, to preserve his position, Gazarra is forced to put his morals aside and shoot the Chinaman. Lit by mostly available neon street signs and flares of sunshine in the lens, Bookie indulges little of the familiar trappings of the gangster film. Vitelli is a law unto himself, much like Cassavetes, and it is his dedication to the minutiae of his craft that is afforded the most screen time. His contempt for anything resembling a movie ‘event’ is particularly evident in a key scene where the hoods tell Vitelli how to carry out the killing being shot in almost complete darkness.

killing-of-a-chinese-bookie-john-cassavetes.jpgThe Killing of a Chinese Bookie, 1976

The gangsters go about their business with administrative precision and corporate zeal, and ultimately do not honour their part of the agreement. Yet despite his injury, and in the immediate aftermath of the gunfire, Vitelli still has the time and energy to attend to his cabaret troupe, giving a morale-rousing speech to his loyal audience, and the film ends before we know whether his gunshot wound will prove fatal. In a typically defiant stance after an early preview screening Cassavetes felt the audience liked the film too much so he recut it.

“You’re not a woman to me anymore. You’re a professional. You don’t care about anything. You don’t care about personal relationships - love, sex, affection”

Cassavetes has always loathed professionalism, seeing it as the enemy of humanity, negating vulnerability, slowly destroying the soul. Unlike the samizdat aesthetic of Bookie, Opening Night (1977) ironically looks, at least on the surface, a more professional film than his earlier hand-held masterworks, the camera more composed, less ramshackle, with an original, haunting and sometimes melodramatic soundtrack, though there is still plenty of the directors ambiguity and no easy explanations. A dreamy, Dorian Gray-esque character study of another woman on the verge, Gena Rowlands plays Myrtle, a forty-something theatre star drinking herself through a series of out of town previews in search of some verisimilitude.

opening-night-john-cassavetes-2.jpgOpening Night, 1977

Following the death of a young autograph hunter, Rowlands is haunted by the beauty of this 17 year old girl, a mirror image of her own (lost) youth, though her colleagues care more about getting the last dinner table before all the restaurants close. Myrtle is trapped on a pedestal, her profession having robbed her of her identity. Her work has consumed her, ruling her and her co-stars. Following a kiss, her fellow actor, played by Cassavetes, turns her away, telling her “I have a small part, it’s unsympathetic, the audience doesn’t like me. I can’t afford to be in love with you”.

Outside the stage, some scenes play out as though they’re still on it, as if the fictional cast and crew cannot distinguish between the reality of their own lives and the written text of their work, though Cassavetes is little concerned with the play within the film, an over-earnest psychodrama with shallow and depressing dialogue. Afraid of playing the part of an older woman too well “If I’m good at this part, my career is severely limited”, Myrtle starts improvising, changing the lines, addressing the audience, breaking the wall, much to the dismay of her peers. By the time of the Broadway first night she appears to have totally rewritten it in her quest for vulnerability and truth. Much like the earlier Husbands and the later Love Streams, Opening Night is a film about aging and the problems of retaining emotion and beauty in spite of experience.

Opening Night is re-released by the BFI this month, and accompanied by a mini retrospective, including The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.