John Cassavetes’ film Opening Night is not surreal in the conventional context of film. But in many ways comes closer to surrealism than most American films that claim to do so. Opening Night lacks any dream-like environment or set, and does not present any superficial fantastic personas. However, fantastic personas do exist for Cassavetes within the careful character constructs of Opening Night.
What becomes surreal in Cassavetes’ theater drama is the multitude of personalities each character posses. This phenomenon does not appear wholly surreal because the occupation of these characters is that of acting. One can thus make the case that acting, as an occupation is an entirely surreal exercise. As Cassavetes always does, revealing layer after layer of a character in his films, in Opening Night he must maneuver through his principal’s repertoire of personalities. To do this, Cassavetes takes an unprecedented approach when he introduces the supernatural element of a ghost. The ghost appears only to the lead character Myrtle [Gena Rowlands], a ghost of a fan who is struck dead by a car trying to reach Myrtle’s limousine after a performance. Cassavetes is tedious in assuring his audience that the ghost is a mental projection of Myrtle’s, but it none-the-less exists within the film with irreversible effects upon the lead.
What Cassavetes has done is create a plane of consciousness that physically manifests itself within the film in two crucial sequences in which Myrtle attempts to exorcise her ghost. First, she attacks a mirror in her hotel room with Manny [Ben Gazzara] as witness. The significance of Manny is that he does not share this vision, which cues the audience into the fact that Myrtle is being privileged psychologically as a character. This sort of privileging stems directly from the early European surrealist tradition but was quickly adopted by American filmmakers with the German migration to Hollywood during World War II.
Myrtle’s fruitless attempt at a physical confrontation with her ghost is a metaphor in Cassavetes’ film for the actor. To Cassavetes, acting was the pivotal cornerstone in the cinema, and the actors and technicians were all equally necessary in producing a film. To dramatize an actor preparing for a role with the melo-dramatic infiltration of a ghost story creates a surreal environment. It must be noted that the experience for the audience is much more surreal than that of the characters on screen.
The non-dramaticized, and perhaps surrealized transitions for the Maurice [John Cassavetes] character from stage persona to actor appear effortless, and easy. Yet, his experience is equally surreal to that of Myrtle, though the audience does not become so privy to his process. What Cassavetes is possibly arguing is that the psychology of an actor is just as dependent on the true self as it is in the roles the actor plays. Take into account the scenes in which Myrtle judges her own likeability and attractiveness on the roles she is getting, look at how she adjusts her interpretations of her characters to enhance her self image. That sort of multiple persona rotaries is exactly what Opening Night is about. How can this woman live with so much of the unreal and so much of the hyper real constantly over lapping with one informing the other.
Just as Cassavetes proposes this with the script and his stars, so does Freddie Elmes’ photography. The camera is constantly cutting from the seat of the auditorium to Point Of View shots from the actors. If the scene isn’t at the theater, Elmes is photography in and out of mirrored environments; there is no set and single mode of perception in Opening Night.
What may even set Opening Night up higher in the surrealist cannon is where it stands in Cassavetes’ filmography. Of all his films dealing with the human condition and soul, Opening Night is unique in the privilege it allows the Myrtle character. In Husbands and Woman Under The Influence for example, such privileged knowledge is only available through long dialogue exchanges, and hidden in intricate well-rehearsed performances. Cassavetes introduction of the ghost character almost contradicts his aesthetic.
Another divergence is allowed at the film’s resolution, when, like Hopper’s The Last Movie, Cassavetes lets the fourth wall fall down a little. Peter Falk and Peter Bogdanovich guest star at Myrtle’s after show party as themselves. What’s interesting is that an audience familiar with Cassavetes work knows both men had very much to do with previous projects and even Opening Night. But Cassavetes is exposing both the sacred intricacies of the theater as well as the cinema.
The surreal subtly manifests itself in Cassavetes film as an expose’, concerned primarily with the effects of artistic achievement and aesthetic realization on the human spirit in the world of performance. Opening Night stands apart in Cassavetes history as a filmmaker, and in the surreal cannon. For never before or since has the surreal of the everyday been so perfectly captured and made perfectly tangible and real to the cinema’s audience.