Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Figuring The Ageing "Second Woman" in John Cassavetes' Opening Night (1977)

Gena Rowlands' character in Opening Night, Myrtle Gordon, is playing "Virginia" the lead role in a play about women and age called "The Second Woman". The secondness here is very much is the way of Simone de Beauvoir's "Second Sex", where woman is the second, the lesser, the other to man's Firstness. Cassavetes provides here another othering distinction within the category of "women" and that is the older women as second to the more culturally and visibly valued younger women.

The film problematises the socially compulsory shifting of being seen as woman to the experience of not-being-seen as an older woman. The crisis of the film is Myrtle's inability and refusal to see herself as the other or second woman, her extravagant, aggressive and witty displays of her own sense of selfhood demand attention, reclaiming her slipping visibility. The character "Virginia" is a woman in the process of disappearing. Throughout fragments shown of the play, we see her revisiting memories, sites of love affairs and a marriage, relationships that have moved on without her. Dropping in unannounced on an ex-husband who is now remarried with three children, Virginia is confused, disorientated by the visible passing of time. The new wife confirms Virginia's status again as the "second woman" questioning her "what kind of woman does that?", this is the point, Virginia has found herself in the "no man's land" of middle-age and does not know what and who she is and where she fits. Her sense of self is so dependant on the way she is seen by the men in her life that when their view of her changes, her self perception is called into question and she begins to unravel.

This simultaneously is also happening to Myrtle, throughout the fiilm she leans on her colleagues, who during the film it becomes apparent are also her ex-lovers, questioning if they still love her, want her, think highly of her, she needs their validation. She is often met with such telling replies as "you're not a woman, you're a professional" as if these were opposing states. The producer, writer and her fellow actors see her fitting the role of Virginia, a woman in her late forties, unmarried and without children, but Myrtle cannot identify with a character she feels is "without hope", past the point of being able to make it work. The phrase "too late for love" is spoken by Joan Blondell's character "Sarah" who is the playwright of The Second Woman. Feeling that Sarah wrote this play about herself, who is sixty five, Myrtle argues that "But I'm not your age" while refusing to divulge her own.

Myrtle is in-between feminine roles, an identity neverplace of being neither an old woman nor a young woman. She cannot situate herself in the hopeless realm of being "too late for love" that Sarah finds herself to be quietly fading into. It is then that the third part of the female triad appears. Eighteen year old Nancy, a fan who during a desperate clinging attempt to get close to her idol Myrtle, is hit by a car and killed. The trauma and guilt of the accident along with an implicit identification with this emotionally raw vulnerable young woman causes Myrtle to refigure her image as a phantom of desiring youth. This however is not quite a return of the repressed, of being haunted by the fantasy of her own youth. The phantom Nancy appears so as to enable Myrtle to work through her conflict between the notion of her self as a women with also being middle-aged, Nancy as rival, or enemy allows Myrtle to separate herself from the memory of what she once was - she is no longer a young women and in performing both roles, and finally killing Nancy is she able to distance herself from that which she is not.

Myrtle's immersive performance of combative role-play between younger and older, interferes with her ability to perform as "Virginia". Struggling with this crisis of identity and refusal to perform the older second woman, Myrtle almost deliberately chooses to come undone. Summoning the emotional vulnerability of her youth when "everything was so close to the surface" Myrtle knocks back glass after glass of Scotch, chain smokes, and stays up all night, leaving herself raw, spiky and brilliantly cantankerous! During one performance, she stops the play halfway through, breaking the third wall she tells John Cassavetes' character "Maurice" that he's "really a great actor" and that it is "not a great play". The audience laughs, assuming it's an intended part of the play and the curtain comes down to raucous applause. This is one of the ways that Myrtle can rebel against feminine inscribed roles of behaviour and existence that priveledge youth: she refuses to "perform" as the second woman, her defiance denies her fellow actors, writers and the producer control over her, making them hostages to her choice as to whether she will 'tow the line' or not. Her wilfully destructive behaviour is perhaps paradoxically, a form of defensive strategy; her breakdown stops action, intervenes and freezes the inevitable acceptance of her being sidelined as an actress and as a woman, permanently into a state of enforced obscurity.

In the essay "Performing Age/ Performing Crisis" Jodi Brooks comments on Myrtle's situation: "Her dilemma, then, is to find a way of producing an image of women and ageing in which she can locate herself - and which doesn't send the middle-aged woman to the wings. She is, in short, in an impossible place. On the one hand she is being incorporated into a narrative of women's ageing in which she is marked as fading. On the other hand, she is experiencing her life as a collection of random, fragmentary, shock-like events. Both experiences of time threaten to annihilate her. It is by bringing the force of shock of the rupturing instant up against this narrative of ageing that she can both rupture and produce an image of gendered experience of growing older."

The last section of the film, coming after over two hours of running time culminates in a spectacular scene of disobedience, defiance, and revolt. It provides a massive and messy "fuck you" to the patronising epithet of growing old gracefully, that dictates that women who no longer fit the oppressive beauty ideals, who can no longer pass as possessing the mad idealisations of youth, must go quietly and not make a scene: you're too old, kindly leave. Myrtle does not go quietly, slope off into middle-aged obscurity: no, instead she arrives at the theatre for the opening night of the New York show extremely late and steaming drunk. She is helped into the dressing room, propped up, dressed and fed hot black coffee. She is then helped onto the set, the door opens and she just about manages to stand up for her first scene - one of the stage hands tells her "I've seen people on drugs, I've seen people on drink, but I've never seen anyone as drunk as you are and still able to stand!"

In a strange way this is Myrtle's greatest moment: even when she is bad and dead drunk, she is terrific. The crew rally around her as each time she comes off stage she collapses, being propped up to stop her sliding down the walls. But she gets into her stride, and by the end the film slows down, allowing us to see the last scene of the play acted out in full: Myrtle and Maurice on stage, wittily fast-talking banter, play-fighting, clearly enjoying performing together. In this scene Myrtle's previous question to the producer about her character Virginia, asking "does she win or does she lose?", is in part answered for the character as well as for Myrtle herself. One of her major conflicts with the play had been her refusal to let her character get slapped: the producer tells her, "actresses get slapped", but she refuses - in all the rehearsals Myrtle violently baulks at the moment of the slap. Then we notice in this last performance that Myrtle has erased the moment when she is meant to be hit, the violence of the scene has been dissolved by her skilful subversion of playing a shadow boxer to deflect Maurice's attack. By making visible the battles faced by her character, she also succeeds in deflecting the blow away from herself.

(Opening Night finishes its short run at The ICA tonight)