Favorites: Opening Night

Opening Night (1977)
Directed and written by John Cassavetes
Produced by Sam Shaw, Al Ruban, Michael Lally
Starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, John Cassavetes, Paul Stewart, Laura Johnson, Zohra Lampert
The sudden death of an especially frantic fan (Johnson) following a theatrical performance is the catalyst that triggers its famous, jaded leading lady’s (Rowlands) inevitable midlife crisis, prompting increasingly aberrant dysfunction, oppugnance to her role of a woman suffering the wane of her allure and all its associated power, and delusive encounters with the deceased as a reflection of her teenage self: initially affectionate visitations that lapse by realization to violent confrontations. Even as the volatile actress struggles by rationalization to deny all affinity to her wholly apposite persona during a succession of ebullitions and collapses, she’s perforce the precessing lynchpin around which everyone in her compass revolves: the veteran playwright (Blondell) torn between fascination and frustration in observance of this tempest and equanimous producer (Stewart) who patiently weathers it, a former lover and co-star (Cassavetes) wisely distanced to sustain their professional relationship, her rock of a director (Gazzara) scarcely at amorous arm’s length from the star he adores, and his quietly long-suffering wife (Lampert), whose envy of her is tempered by respect. Cassavetes’ sixth collaboration with his spouse and most disastrous flop is one of his very finest films, shot in Pasadena with moderate experiment to maximize its evocation of shock, intimacy and the disquiet thrill of dramaturgy. By relegating himself to an imperative yet fittingly unflattering character, the independent icon situated himself optimally to work his experient cast to their utmost, substantiating both his trademark verisimilitude — essentially a motional still-life in close-up — and the veneer of staged artifice as parts parallel personalities. More indisposed than incapable of tackling her role’s rigors, the frailties of Rowlands’ lead dissolve the fourth wall to her attendees’ mixed disdain and ovation — indulgences culminating at the contemporaneity of her drunken prostration and the play’s premiere in New York as an extemporary episode of unexpectedly triumphal compliance to her production’s burden and audience’s appetites. Regrettably, this feature’s transient, overlooked theatrical runs in L.A. and NYC didn’t mirror the eclat of its conclusion.

Palatable: Big Trouble

Big Trouble (1986)
Directed by Andrew Bergman, John Cassavetes
Written by Andrew Bergman
Produced by Mike Lobell
Starring Alan Arkin, Peter Falk, Beverly D’Angelo, Charles Durning, Paul Dooley, Robert Stack
Last and least ambitious of all Cassavetes’ features is this amusing farce in which the stars of The In-Laws are reunited as a squirrelly insurance agent (Arkin) desperate to pay his musical triplets’ prohibitive tuition and a charming, chronically fraudulent optimist (Falk) of putatively ailing health whose foxy wife (D’Angelo) solicits the former’s abetment of her mariticide to bilk his firm for their mutual benefit. From a slow start, progressively outrageous contretemps and felonies throughout yield some priceless moments cunningly interpreted by seasoned players precisely apt for their respective roles. One of but a few movies helmed for hire by Cassavetes, it still bears many of his trademark conceits: oblique composition, detached wide shots, overhead close-ups, twain L cuts. The institutional modesty of this picture may portend its independent luminary’s lapsing directorial fortunes, but his flair for exploiting the inelegance and quirk of a fair script in his last years is irrefutable.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Illegally Yours.