Who’s got Bette Davis eyes?

Bollywood’s Margo Channings are far less sympathetically drawn

Published - April 28, 2018 04:16 pm IST

A poster of All About Eve.

A poster of All About Eve.

If there’s one movie part that’s indelibly etched on my mind — despite it being years since I watched the film where it was featured — it’s of Bette Davis as the Broadway diva Margo Channing in All About Eve , the sumptuous 1950 melodrama written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Davis’ Margo is gorgeously imperious as a stage mega-star who is just coming into her prime (as women actors in their 40s invariably are), but because of the diktats of an industry that feeds off nubile youth and its superficialities, she is also on the verge of being prematurely declared over the hill.

Her self-styled protégée Eve (Anne Baxter) is eagerly waiting in the wings to take over the mantle of stage siren that Margo isn’t quite ready to relinquish just yet, and the clinical precision with which Eve fulfils her ambition is spine-tinglingly Machiavellian. Both actresses were Best Actress nominees at the 1951 Academy Awards, but lost out to a brazen comedic turn by Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday . Another iconic part, that of an actress being slowly extinguished, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard , was also in the reckoning that year.

Cheery veneer

It’s interesting how Eve, as the butter-won’t-melt-in-her-mouth dilettante, is depicted as the unsympathetic character, while Margo, for all her brusqueness and impetuousness, possesses a humanism and integrity of character that is never belied from the first frame to the last. She fights for her turf but knows when to give up the good fight, and let Eve discover first-hand exactly how cut-throat show business is, even for those who have their claws out (as Eve most certainly does). Those in love with her feistiness and aplomb are ready to forgive Margo her eccentricities, but Eve leaves them cold. Behind her cheery veneer of an upcoming heartthrob is a lonely and bitter heart, already embittered by the demands of fame-seeking.

In Indian cinema, in films where young actresses are on the ascendant, the older women they must climb over willy-nilly are depicted much more shabbily, as delusional also-rans holding on pathetically to the last vestiges of a fragile stardom. These include Kirron Kher in Darmiyaan , Sonya Jehan in Khoya Khoya Chand or, in a parallel industry with similar intrigue, Fashion ’s Kangana Ranaut, still impossibly young but already past her sell-by date.

The ingénues are almost always fresh-faced and deserving, and incapable of guile, like Urmila Matondkar in Rangeela or Zarina Wahab in Sitara . Priyanka Chopra’s grey shades in Fashion , in fact, owe much to the film’s myriad Hollywood inspirations (which includes the 1988 cautionary tale, Gia ).

A diva like Margo, with her Bette Davis eyes (but of course) and smoky aura, would find herself out of favour in our industry, both on and off screen. They are good for tantalising item numbers (Rekha in Parineeta ) but we can never follow them home.

The other woman

The only actress that one might imagine could have been cast in the Davis mould was the temptress Nadira with her high cheek bones and bewitching eyes. Not as an actress of calibre of course, her debut in Mehboob Khan’s Aan was eye-poppingly melodramatic, but as another kind of woman, who wasn’t doe-eyed or perennially wistful, and who knew what she wanted and how to get it. Nadira was soon to be showcased as the illusory ‘other woman’ ( Shree 420 ) who can never ensnare the man, and must be driven off the cliff ( Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai ) to be redeemed.

Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother was a tribute, in part, to the spirit of Margo Channing. The title is a riff on the Mankiewicz film, but here, an understudy (Cecilia Roth) who waits in the wings having learnt all the lines does it not to dislodge a diva, but for the love of a part (Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire ) that holds deep personal resonance. The resident prima donna (Marisa Paredes) calls herself Huma Rojo or ‘red smoke’. Her smoking is her own private homage to the incandescent spirit of Davis.

The writer sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him, even as a child. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.

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