Gena Rowlands’ performance is so powerful, so breathtaking, so immersive, that it’s easy to overlook that this film is perhaps the most amazing film ever made about the theater, about acting, about aging, about celebrity, about role-playing in life and on the stage. And if you mix up the two, it’s a long way back.
Rowlands plays Myrtle Gordon, an actress in the first fading moments of her bloom, insecure about her future and her ability to continue to play the roles of beautiful people. An abuser of alcohol. When one of her adoring fans chases after her in the rain and is killed after being hit by a car, Myrtle, can’t shake the image of the beautiful young girl who was killed. When she eventually turns her into a younger version of herself, we know that Myrtle has gone a bit too far. But it’s not as simple as all that. That’s the narrative story, the “script”. Has she turned the dead girl into a muse for the role she’s playing?
There’s an exhilarating feeling that we’re watching a play within a movie within a play. It’s positively, mind expanding. This is all aided by some brilliant improvisation, which reaches its peak in a curtain lowering scene between the drunk Rowlands and her leading man in the play, John Cassavetes. This is improv about improv. See what I mean? This is a film, I am certain, that I could watch a dozen times, and see it differently each time. As such, a ‘review’ of the film after one viewing, is just futile. An interesting exercise perhaps, but futile nonetheless.
And the acting! Rowlands was a national treasure that went underappreciated in her time. The big screen was too small for her. John Cassavetes, the director of the film, also plays the role of Maurice, the lead opposite Myrtle. Cassavetes fixture Ben Gazarra is the director of the play, and I’ll say the same thing about him that I said about Rowlands: underappreciated. Joan Blondell is daringly and wonderfully cast cast as the playwright who has written the play about aging that Myrtle fears will have her typecast as the over the hill actress forever. In a minor role, Zohra Lampert is terrific as the put upon wife of Gazarra’s Manny. The scene with Manny on the phone with the neurotic (and most likely drunk) Myrtle, which has her cavorting on the bed is priceless. A great, and natural comic sense. Look at her IMDB bio. She’s been in the business for nearly 50 years.
I had never seen this Cassavetes – I think the only one I hadn’t. It may be his best.