Pros: cast, good setting for crackup. music, cinematography
Cons: too long; too sour for many
Except for “Gloria,” John Cassavetes films seem to me easier to admire than to like. This is certainly the case for another, 1977, vehicle for his wife, the great Gena Rowlands. She was 30 and her character, stage-star Myrtle Gordon, was not ready to play the lead role in the play about a menopausal woman grieving her lost sexual power in the play “A Second Woman” by the (decidedly postmenopausal) Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell shorn of her perkiness, channeling crusty Lillian Hellman). As in “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974), Myrtle is cracking up, but being the star of a Broadway-bound play (with out-of-town previews in New Haven), hers is far more public than housewife Mabel’s was.
Ben Gazzara (who died last week) plays the director, Manny, who tries to hold things and his star together with grudging acquiescence of his wife (Zohra Lampert). It seems that Manny and her costar played by Cassavetes have sexual histories with her, but she is very much alone… with fifths of J&B. And haunted by a young fan (Nancy Stein) who was killed running after the cast limousine in a driving rain (when is there ever a light rain in a movie?). The menacing fan (though dead) reminded me of Eve in “All About Eve,” though Margo Channing had a husband and a loyal friend, neither of which Myrtle has (but also not an acidic critic like Addison DeWitt…); the distressed lead will remind others of Natalie Portman’s “Black Swan” turn or Jessica Lange’s Frances Farmer.
Myrtle sees and feels menaced by the ghost, whom the viewer also sees (and Sarah intuits Myrtle is menaced by). The production is otherwise remarkably free of problems (contrast “Slings and Arrows”!), though a star who is too drunk to stand up is definitely a major one. To Sarah’s dismay, both in rehearsals and on opening night (1.5 hours into the film) omits lines and/or plays them for laughs (which they get from an audience eager to enjoy whatever Myrtle does).
Despite running 144 minutes, the film does not delve into the roots of Myrtle’s pathology beyond discomfort that if she does well she will be typecast as an older woman, no longer a romantic lead (not an irrational fear!). Cassavetes indubitably heeded the “Show, don’t tell!” injunction!
Rowlands and Blondell received Golden Globe nominations. Gazzara and John Tuell as one of the exes of Myrtle’s in the play are also outstanding, and, without being obtrusive, there are some impressive visual compositions, shot by the producer(!)Al Ruban, whose recollections provide an interesting bonus feature. Gazzara and Rowlands (ca. 2004) provide a charming additional one. There are also two trailers and a rambling late-70s interview of Cassavetes with very long “questions” by Henri Michel. The great-looking transfer and bonuses of the Criterion edition rate 5-stars (4 for the film itself, primarily for the performances, of which Cassavetes’s own is the least impressive).
Bo Harwood provided music that works well to this and other Cassavetes films.