“Theater is the same as life, life is the same as theater,” said the American writer, director, and actor John Cassavetes about his 1977 film Opening Night. “The rituals may be slightly different. The problems are the same. They are always life problems.” The world of Opening Night—a 24-hour theater with people struggling together as they realize a show—mirrored the environment Cassavetes made for himself, in which artistic creation was part of life’s long, continuous stream. His own home served as a shooting location in several of his films, with regular actors that included his wife, mother, mother-in-law, and best friends. The problems his characters faced, both onscreen and off, demanded testing the limits of their capacity to love.
Their struggles can be seen throughout “Cassavetes,” the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 20-work, all-35mm retrospective presenting the films he directed (discounting early television dramas) as well as an additional eight in which he acted. Cassavetes began as a charismatic 1950s New York actor in movies like Martin Ritt’s heavy social drama Edge of the City (1957) until his dissatisfaction with how others directed him led him to become a director himself. He saw traditional dramatic modes squeezing the life out of actors to fit them into contrived characters, and believed it should work differently: Conflicts between characters should come from within the people playing them.
Shadows (1959), the first film he directed, emerged from a three-year workshop with a group of acting students. He called the final result “an improvisation” because the script grew out of improvisations between the actors, all of whose characters bore their first names. Shadows‘s plot strands involving a light-skinned black woman (played by Lelia Goldoni) who faces prejudice from her white boyfriend (Anthony Ray) and her brothers (Ben Carruthers and Hugh Hurd) showed how Cassavetes’s rebellion against impersonal film production standards served a greater battle with a society that refused to love people for themselves.
Subsequent films urged compassion for people otherwise deemed outsiders. His Hollywood drama A Child Is Waiting (1963) argues that developmentally challenged children can be valuable contributors to society, despite his producer’s efforts to edit the film to say otherwise. Other movies show people chafing at social norms, such as Faces (1968) and Husbands (1970), in which both women and men break the roles they’ve been assigned in bourgeois married life. Cassavetes’s protagonists fight against being compartmentalized. They seek to love others on unconditional terms, even as they fear losing love, or else losing themselves within it.
The Broadway star Myrtle Gordon (played by Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’s longtime wife and creative partner) grapples with this fear throughout Opening Night. Myrtle sees a young woman killed in a car accident at the film’s outset, then breaks down while rehearsing a play about an aging woman. She dreads the thought of being typecast as someone she doesn’t believe herself to be, afraid that she might then stop being the person that she and others love.
She’s supported by the only people who can see her for herself—her family. In Cassavetes’s films, family extends beyond blood relations. Its members include all who pour their hopes into a communal space, whether the nightclub performers acting out their boss’s dreams in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), the working-class men and women filling a house in support of a beleaguered couple in A Woman Under the Influence (1978), or anyone involved in realizing Opening Night‘s show. Myrtle’s family includes her director, Manny (Cassavetes regular Ben Gazzara), as well as his quiet housewife, Dorothy (Zohra Lampert), who attends rehearsals and grows complicit with Myrtle in overcoming their mutual crisis.
Cassavetes himself plays Myrtle’s defensive former lover and current co-star, Maurice, who keeps himself at a safe emotional distance from all surrounding him. So do most of the corrosive antiheroes that Cassavetes the actor tended to play in other directors’ movies—the bulk of which, high-profile Hollywood films including The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), he did to finance his own–as well as in the four in which he cast himself. But even Cassavetes’s self-made brutes act in love’s name. His seedy adulterers in Husbands (1970) and Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) cease their follies by returning to reckon with their wives, and Maurice ends Opening Night by joining Myrtle in playacting the fantasy of a happy home.
Robert, played by Cassavetes in Love Streams (1984), does this with his sister, Sarah (Rowlands), who unexpectedly comes to live with him. Sarah’s husband has divorced her and their daughter has chosen to stay with her father, but Sarah holds on to them both because of her belief that “love is a stream, it’s continuous, it does not stop.” By contrast, Robert has closed the door to almost everyone in his life, even his own young son. Both he and Sarah have failed as parents by being sincere about what they can offer, and are ultimately sincere with each other. They embrace each other, then let go once their love shows them it’s time. Robert clumsily tries to protect his sister before being left alone, while Sarah leaves him to continue her life.