Alcoholism is tough subject to capture accurately. Slurring words, stumbling, sudden bursts of violence, and emotional instability are things that a true alcoholic hides very well. However when you see alcoholism on-screen these are the only markers of the problem (with the addition of course of always having a drink). These depictions always leave something wanted, because the desperation is only on the surface level. True alcoholics ooze desperation from the very core of their being. They are using drinking to function in the life they are forced into, not solely to be cool. They are always trying to save face, to keep as level a head as possible in order to not embarrass themselves. It is hard to portray this in any convincing way. However there are some films that portray it with such subtlety that it is almost beautiful to see the person descend into his or her personal hell. Almost. Opening Night is definitely one of these films.
Gena Rowlands plays a fairly famous actress forced into roles because of her age that are sometimes less than flattering. In the one she depicts in this film, she is a menopausal woman going through a midlife crisis. In order to get through her performance, she uses sips and nips at several different bottles during the show. She hates the character, because she is so like herself, but she is complacent in her role because it provides money to support her habit. At least she is complacent until one of her fans, a young woman who hounds her for an autograph after a performance, gets run over by a car and dies. This event is the inciting incident for her to spiral down even further into her personal hell. Her drinking becomes more pronounced, she refuses to say certain lines and even at a rehearsal refuses to act right in a scene where her husband slaps her. Each person that surrounds her including the playwright (played by Joan Blondell), her fellow actors, and her director (here is Ben Gazzara again… what a wonder he is.) force her to sort of man up and play the role as written. Then the hallucinations start appearing. She sees this young woman who is dead as her alter ego and her muse for this second woman performance. She becomes completely useless on stage, but there is so much riding on her performance that the people in control try to find a quick cure for insanity. They talk to her, take her to spiritualists, and threaten her, but nothing seems to work. She resents the playwright’s words, the director’s dictatorship over her life and most importantly not doing anything important creatively. When the film finally opens in New York, she shows up absurdly late and so drunk she can’t stand or say any lines. Trying to recoup his embarrassment and his finances, the director forces her on stage anyway and the ensuing scenes play out like a tragic comedy. The audience buys the story and believes nothing is wrong behind stage. They pulled off the rouse, but will they be able to continue the show after that fateful night? Only time will tell.
Alcoholism is just one of Myrtle’s many problems. She actively struggles through the course of the film with idea of herself versus the actress self. She is told several times that she is not a woman, but a professional. She is no longer attractive, no longer vital, and no longer able to put the same heart into a role she did when she was younger. All of these problems come to a head at various times in the film, but they all combine to showcase a complete character who needs someone to take her aside and tell her that she has a problem. I know this might be mean to say, but it was kind of beautiful to watch Myrtle descend into alcohol hell. I never lost sympathy for her, but rather came to love her in the way the director and her admirers seem to love her. She is tragic, she is beautiful, she is desperate, and she is a great actress.