“You don’t get to me. You want to get to me? You don’t get to me. There is no way for you to get to me.”
These are words John Cassavetes repeats to Gena Rowlands throughout his film Opening Night. But is it Cassavetes who utters them? He is in character: Cassavetes is Maurice Aarons, a stage actor with a small part in The Second Woman playing Marty, the husband of Virginia, the role of star actress Myrtle Gordon, who is Rowlands.
There is a blur of personhood that resonates throughout the film. Who is playing who, who is addressing whom, at what points are Cassavetes and Rowlands playing which characters? Are they having “a real dialogue”? Is such a thing even possible when set on a stage and in a film? Whether playing Marty and Virginia, or Maurice and Myrtle, there are moments of such profound intimacy you are certain you have this privileged glimpse into the marriage of Cassavetes and Rowlands. When Marty addresses Virginia, thanking her for coming home after an afternoon with her ex-husband, or when Maurice tells Myrtle “You’re not a woman to me anymore, you’re a professional,” you can’t help but sense there is an exchange taking place that runs deeper than the surface of the two characters.
And the dynamics of these roles are never stable. There are moments when Virginia, of The Second Woman, addresses Maurice of Opening Night. “We must never forget this is only a play,” she tells him.
The film is a play within a play within a play, a mise en abyme of personae.
Rowlands is magnificent: her sheer presence, her conviction, her will and fate to auto-obliterate. She is unafraid. No one can bring the curtain down on her. She stumbles into the unscripted, morphing through and into her various roles, embodying them, inhaling them. Her characters overtake her. Her self opens out. She is vast and ambiguous.
You can’t get to her, whoever she is. You want to get to her. You can’t get to her. There is no way to get to her.
“Come on, take a chance,” Myrtle begs Maurice late one night at his apartment, the night before The Second Woman is to premier on Broadway. “Let’s take this play, let’s dump it upside down and see if we can’t find something human in it. There has to be more when two people have cared for each other for a long time.”
Donned in silk and with a liquored bravado, unsatisfied with the singular confines of the role that has been written for her, Myrtle struggles onstage, backstage and off. With all the intensity of her emotions, she tries over and over again to channel her desires and confusions so that may be guided by them and emerge into some new way of being in the world.
“We are not we,” Marty declares to Virginia in their final performance onstage, bursting onto a new air. He has, at last, given up on the script and exists with his companion in the unrehearsed space she had been fighting to realize. “We are not we.” Here, all their characters hover in the words at once: Marty and Virginia, Maurice and Myrtle, John and Gena. “We are not we. We are…”
The sentence is left unfinished.
Originally published in Hobo magazine, no. 14, Summer 2012.
Photo from le Collection Cinématèque française.