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Joan Blondell: The Fizz on the Soda

Sunday, June 29, 2008
6:30 p.m. Opening Night
John Cassavetes (U.S., 1978)

Opening Night returns Blondell to her backstage-drama roots, but it’s a far cry from Footlight Parade. Blondell plays the author of a play about a woman facing menopause and all it represents; Gena Rowlands is the play’s star, Myrtle, an actress fighting against the part and against the loss of her own youth. Falling apart both onstage and off, Myrtle takes the play and the film through a series of permutations, from melodrama to comedy, with strange forays into the supernatural. “I hate actresses,” the playwright groans, advising later, “All you have to do is say the lines clearly and with a degree of feeling.” In the film’s layering of reality and fiction, Blondell is a representative of another era, and she reportedly struggled with Cassavetes’s improvisational methods. But in the end, as always, her performance is sympathetic and canny, caustic and compassionate, transcending the director’s intentions—he’d originally wanted Bette Davis for the role.

—Juliet Clark

• Written by Cassavetes. Photographed by Al Ruban, Frederick Elmes, Michael Ferris. With Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Cassavetes, Joan Blondell. (144 mins, Color, 35mm, From Castle Hill Productions)