I have written previously about the startling effect of a cinematic apparatus controlled by emotion, rather than convention. And just like in A Star Is Born (1954) where George Cukor allows for the inclusion of shots that have gone out of focus, John Cassavetes in Opening Night (1977) lets his camera go out of focus to retain the raw and unavoidable emotional involvement that his camera and his actors provoke.
The camera flashes out of focus in the opening few minutes of the film, but following this it remains very much in focus, barely allowing his audience a chance to look away from the faces of his actors. This reveals their beauty but also their imperfections, weaknesses, perhaps thoughts. This heavy use of the close-up creates an intimate frame for us as audience to view the characters, but also draws us into the experience of the film – noticably, rather than watching we are being taken along.
This also may help us to accept the characters, but not necessarily assist in understanding them. I am still struggling to get into the mind of Myrtle (Gena Rowlands), neurotic and confused and depressed.
But while we get all these close ups there is one characters who, significantly, we did not really get to see as we saw everyone else. That was, in a sense, the director’s other woman, his wife Dorothy (Zohra Lampert). For who is more important in a director’s life than his leading lady? – this showbiz ‘tradition’ is scrutinized and harshly criticized by Cassavetes. Manny Victor (Ben Gazzara) directs the play The Second Woman written by Sarah Goode (a beautifully aged Joan Blondell) with Myrtle in the title role. The ‘second woman’ being the older woman, one spent of youth and in the ‘second’ stage of life. Although the second woman is, really, Manny’s wife, in the shadows, not forgotten but – we’re not sure – not loved? Does he love Myrtle? – when he kisses her on the cheek and she says ‘be careful’ to him, is this because they had an affair the evening before? Or because she knows of the delicacy of his other, his ‘second’, relationship. Everyone knows, Cassavetes shows this. The actor, to the director, will never be the second woman.