Celebrating the 45th birthday of a film that immortalized the existential quandary of aging

People lie about age in two opposing directions—when they’re too young to go out for a drink, or old enough to feel nostalgia for their youth. I remember repeatedly reciting a fake address to a home I’d never been to in The Middle of Nowhere, Mississippi. I remember fumbling through my imagined birth date and zip code almost as viscerally as I do the sound that my freshly minted fake ID made as the bouncer snapped it (and my confidence) in half. When the lie worked, I felt unstoppable—immortal. To “be” older was a victory then. But as the years tick by, and the bouncers stop asking, the opposing ideology begins to rear its wrinkled head.

John Cassavetes’s ninth feature Opening Night—a film that wrestles with the complexities of aging—celebrates its 45th birthday today. It was a Christmas miracle, born into the world on December 25th, 1977 to the late director and screenwriter and his actress-wife, Gena Rowlands. With its birthday, it nears the ages of the iconic cinematic duo during its production: Rowlands was 47, Cassavetes was 48.

The very numbers that quantify one’s existence comprise the subject matter of Opening Night. The film tells the story of Broadway actress Myrtle Gordon (Rowlands) as she is tasked with a role that reflects herself: a döppelganger in all the worst ways, Virginia is a middle-aged woman realizing that she is getting “old.” Myrtle refuses to connect with this role—she fears that if she truly embodies this pitiful middle-aged character, if she’s too successful in her portrayal of a woman with hot flashes, going through menopause, her career will become severely limited.

This is an existential conundrum that most everyone experiences. “Age is just a number,” as the old adage goes—but if you address that you’re old, do you become old? What happened to respecting our elders? Once, the few people who lived to old age were esteemed as teachers and custodians of culture. But in a culture obsessed with youth, aging has turned from a natural process into a social problem to be “solved” by ointments and needles, pills, and potions. Medical advancement battles the “epidemic” of aging and with it, a negative attitude towards the aesthetics of growing older strengthens. The decades beyond 30 suddenly started to appear less enviable. The Beatles said it best: “Will you still need me / Will you still feed me / When I’m sixty-four?”

Simple math reveals Rowlands’s age during filming, but her fictional character’s age is—deliberately and methodically—never admitted throughout the film. Myrtle’s ambiguous age permits her to act in any which way. There is no number attached to her character as she drifts in and out of hysteria and professionality, maturity and immaturity. Her age can only be inferred from the wrinkles on her face or the cigarette dangling from her mouth, or the liquor she relies on.

“Cassavetes’s work expresses an honest emotional reality: It kind of sucks to grow up! But that isn’t to say there is beauty and truth to be found along the way.”

Cassavetes researched these attitudes and feelings of aging women for Opening Night with the wife of his producer, who was in her sixties, who he talked to for hours almost every night. He watched television talk shows and read women’s magazines. In an interview, he recalls, “I love spending the afternoon with these women! I never talk. I just sit and listen and smile. They tell me everything! They forget I’m a man! I might as well have a dress on.”

The mind of the aging woman is a recurring subject of Cassavetes’s films, according to Ray Carney, a scholar of the filmmaker. It’s portrayed in Florence and Maria in Faces, the Countess in Husbands, and Florence in Minnie and Moskowitz. But with Rowlands and Cassavetes in their late-40s, questions about aging were less nebulous, and the film became a testament to that which actors and non-actors alike are inevitably forced to confront: They can’t be everything they dreamed of in their youth.

Opening Night is inspired by real events and emotions in Cassavetes and Rowlands’ lives. Following the release of A Woman Under The Influence, the actor was swarmed in public by fans, tears streaming down their flushed faces, embracing her as they explained that she was them, she was their mother, and even their grandmother—just as the frenzied fan, Nancy Stein, says to Myrtle in Opening Night. The comparisons further enmeshed Rowlands’ actual self with her character.

Aging was a particularly sensitive topic for Rowlands when she was in the spotlight. She faked her age for years in interviews and press releases—a verbal inversion of the infamous fake ID. Of course, everyone would like to approach old age with grace and fortitude, but those whose careers hinge on their vitality struggle to cope as the years tick by. In show business you play younger roles until you age out: Blake Lively was 20 years old when she played 16-year-old Serena Vanderwoodsen; in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, high schooler Cameron Frye was played by Alan Ruck who was 13 years removed from high school; and in The Wolf of Wall Street, 39-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio plays 27-year-old stockbroker, Jordan Belfort. The industry pushes actors to fill these young shoes until they hit their expiration date. Once they’ve aged out, especially in the case of leading ladies, they’re cast away. Hollywood wasn’t (and maybe isn’t) interested in aging starlets.

In the opening credits of Opening Night, the sound of torrential rainfall is accompanied by muffled applause. As the decibels of applause decrease and the credits continue, Rowland’s voice fades in: “They want to be loved. They have to be loved.” The crowd laughs at this sentiment. Rowlands continues, “The whole world. Everybody wants to be loved.” The laughter continues as the credits fade into a still image of a crowd. The back of a woman in a wispy dress, arms flailing, fades atop the crowd as she goes on, “When I was 17, I could do anything. It was so easy. My emotions were so close to the surface. I’m finding it harder and harder to stay in touch.”

The real strength of Cassavetes’s oeuvre was that his films centered themselves around the drama generated from contradictions and confusions within characters, rather than the conflicts between characters. The standard Hollywood complex reveals an external opposition, a capitalistic urge to organize conflict so that, by the end of a movie, there is a tangible and clear resolution. Cassavetes’s work expresses an honest emotional reality: It kind of sucks to grow up! But that isn’t to say there is beauty and truth to be found along the way.

Ben Gazzara, who plays the role of the director, asked Cassavetes why he chose filmmaking over the theater. He replied, “Immortality.” When the film was released in 1977, it was panned by many critics and audiences. Now, on the 45th birthday of Opening Night, we can see how the film has aged like a fine wine—growing into itself. The film proves that with time, our lives accrue meaning. A life’s story cannot be complete until one reckons with the wrinkles on their face. In Opening Night, Cassavetes and Rowlands assert that just as the glory of youth can be immortalized on screen, so too can middle age.