Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Double Actress Profile, Or: How Diane Was De-throned, For All of Ninety Minutes

There was a moment yesterday, while I was watching John Cassavetes' Opening Night (a film about a famous Broadway Actress who undergoes heavy emotional turmoil after the death of one of her fans), where Gena Rowlands' performance moves from excellent to extraordinary. The role is certainly very showy, but Cassavetes is so keen to make us step back from this woman, align us with her peers and bosses, wonder what on earth she's going to say and do next, and his complete confidence in Rowlands' ability to make this woman as enthralling, confused, and necessary of your attention is thoroughly rewarded. To his credit he doesn't give her any real streams of sympathy to pursue, and Opening Night's production-inside-a-production setup, while a tad gimmicky, offers up Rowlands to such intense scrutiny that it's incredible how much she manages to confound meagre judgement, and collate her character's inconsistencies into a rich, whole, and fascinating portrayal.

Rowland's performance won her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Leading Actress in a drama, which she lost to Jane Fonda. The recipient of the equivalent comedy prize, Diane Keaton, went on to win the Oscar for Annie Hall. I hold Keaton's performance in incredibly high regard, and was so enamoured with Rowlands that I found it difficult to judge the two. So, a third viewing of Annie Hall was called for, and an opportunity to judge Diane and Gena's comparative worth fairly.

Annie Hall is a film I've loved for a long time. I love how Allen reduces love, ridicules heartbreak, but can't help sentimentalising both. And how romance and relationships are ultimately shown as expansive, promising, and worthwhile, even though the characters don't end the film in a blaze of glory.

Diane Keaton's trademark goofy nature is evident most in the early scenes of Annie and Alvy's relationship, but that is not how we first see her. Keaton's first scene is getting out of a taxi, complaining to Alvie that she missed her therapy session, and frustrated that he won't walk into a screening of Liv Ullman's Face To Face two minutes late. The element of Keaton's performance I find most interesting is how she makes Annie seem so eager to promote the idea of herself as fleety and free-loving in the early stages. How she flirts by making her ticks so outlandish and yet totally adorable to Alvy, and how she eventually becomes so resentful of her decision to become an 'appealing' romantic option. It's refreshing to see a romance occur between two people that are so ego-centric and often selfishly undevoted to each other, and in the same way as Rowlands it is Keaton's job to confound ours (and Alvy's) expectations of the dynamic of their relationship and how it unfolds.

Film Verdict: Annie Hall: A+ Opening Night: A-
Actress Verdict:
Keaton wins by a whisker or two.


Alex in Movieland said...

maybe you've noticed that I did get to write about the 1977 Best Actress line-up. And the reason I did 77 was because I had just seen Opening Night and wanted to confirm to myself that Gena Rowlands could've easily fitted in.

I didn't enjoy Opening Night. I though Cassavetes (or however it's spelled) had a great idea & concept, but the execution was tooo slow. (Almodovar did it better).
But Gena was magic! And she sure as hell would've deserved the nom, but it's probable that Academy members had the same problem as I did with the film. However, acting 4 eternity!

from the 5, I was most charmed by Marsha Mason (but Fonda and Diane were also very very very good). I think Jane Fonda doesn't get enough credit from bloggers for her performance in Julia. To me, she was magnificent. Especially starting with the train scene and continuing with the famous Redgrave scene and the tragic ending!

Cal said...

Wow. I hadn't actually seen your Rowlands post and '77 analysis, but it's good to know that I'm not alone. It's also great that her performance made us both revisit other women from that year. I have Kathleen Quinlan to watch from that Rose Garden film that was on the youtube channel you linked to. Thanks! I saw Snodgress yesterday and really liked her.

I haven't actually seen Fonda. She's next on my list. I love her in China Syndrome but not in Coming Home so I'm thinking she went down that familiar path of being overdue and winning for the wrong performance. Marsha Mason is excellent, and I love The Goodbye Girl immensely.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Yes Jane Fonda is a boss. Hmmm, seriously can't remember loving Marsha as much as I did in Only When I Laugh. And Diane is great. Haven't seen Opening Night though.

Alex in Movieland said...

Marsha in Only When I Laugh... classic!

Anonymous said...

Gena Rowlands has shown time and again that she is not afraid to drop the glamour and really get ugly for a performance. "Opening Night" is certainly no exception. There are points in this film where she looks gorgeous and others where she looks like she's been sleeping in a gutter for a couple days which works for a character who is trying to maintain some semblence of star power and prestige as she is crumbling inside. It's probably some of Rowlands' best work and, at times, feels far more real than just a movie.

What I haven't heard mentioned in several reviews for "Opening Night" is that the play-within-the-film entitled, 'The Second Woman' is uniformly AWFUL! It makes no sense, has very little through-line, has an opening scene that seems as if it should come somewhere near the end and closes on perhaps one of the dumbest lines/gestures I've ever seen on stage or in a film. If Joan Blondell's character (Sarah Goode, the playwright) were a little less confident about this supposedly brilliant play she's written, I would've bought things a bit more, but they all acted like it was fucking Chekhov. With that said, however, Blondell's supporting performance is excellent.

Watch out for the Peter Falk/Peter Bogdonavich cameos towards the end. This would be a great companion piece with "Another Woman" (1988) in which Gena Rowlands' character has come to a similar crossroads, questioning her life choices.

Cal said...

Thanks for your comments! I really want to see Another Woman as I hear she's just as captivating in that, if not more!

Yeah, I agree that she treads the line between smouldering siren and alcoholic wreck very well, and even when she is a wreck she's sometimes attractive.

I didn't think the play was that awful because I don't think we're ever encouraged to read into it. She can't penetrate the character, even though she's such a generous performer, and so I felt it became more of a spectacle than anything else.