John Cassavetes, Opening Night, 1977, 35 mm, color, sound, 144 minutes.

“I SEEM TO HAVE LOST the reality of the reality,” says mercurial stage actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) to her increasingly exasperated director, Manny (Ben Gazzara), during yet another mutinous rehearsal in John Cassavetes’s magnificent backstager Opening Night (1977). The ninth of the writer-director’s twelve films, Opening Night profoundly plumbs this disorientation, foregrounding the porous boundaries between performing and being, acting and acting out.

Myrtle’s unraveling is rooted in both a traumatic incident—an adoring, seemingly unstable teenage girl is struck down by a car just moments after the actress gives her an autograph—and a professional crisis. The play she is starring in, currently in tryouts in New Haven, is titled The Second Woman, an even more patronizing way of describing “a woman of a certain age.” Myrtle’s unruly behavior onstage—performing drunk, changing her lines, directly addressing the audience—is her act of self-destructive protest against the limits of her role. “If I play this character the way everybody wants me to play her, my career is over.” A strategy simultaneously desperate and heroic, her outrageous insurgency will forestall professional, if not actual, death.

In her artistic defiance (and prodigious tippling), Myrtle may be thought of as an analogue for the iconoclastic Cassavetes—not only Rowlands’s spouse and frequent director but also her costar, in a doubled sense, here. (They would act opposite each other twice more, playing an unhappy couple in Paul Mazursky’s Shakespeare adaptation Tempest from 1982 and brother and sister in Cassavetes’s penultimate movie, 1984’s Love Streams.) Cassavetes’s Maurice in Opening Night is both Myrtle’s ex-lover offstage and her husband on-; in the latter capacity, he is the performer in The Second Woman most frequently at the mercy of her capricious behavior.

In this heady multiplication of actual and fictional roles—husband and wife offscreen and onstage in the play within the film—viewers, too, might lose their grip on “the reality of the reality.” This exquisite delirium is only heightened by Myrtle’s escalating unpredictability; watching her miraculously make it through The Second Woman’s first night on Broadway after showing up at the last possible second, so intoxicated she can barely walk, is a more terrifying—but ultimately exhilarating—experience than the worst performance-anxiety dream.

“Manny, I’m in trouble—I’m not acting,” Myrtle confesses to her director a day before the show’s Broadway debut, further scrambling our perception of reality and fantasy, sanity and insanity. Haunted by visions of that dead young fan (and youth itself) and enraged by the irony (and implicit sexism) that her above-the-title role as a “second woman” will circumscribe rather than expand her career options, Myrtle becomes the consummate dramaturge of chaos. “I’ll do anything to make my character more authentic—I always have,” this impossible, brilliant performer avows as the cries for her dismissal from the play grow louder. Myrtle’s credo points to the genius of Cassavetes’s oeuvre: high-wire, triumphant acts that excavate unbearable truths.

Melissa Anderson

Opening Night screens at BAMcinématek July 6 as part of the series “Cassavetes,” which runs July 6–31.