According to Madhur Bhandarkar’s limited world view, an actress who’s having a bad time can do one of three things. She can get hysterical, shatter glass and scatter furniture. She can take refuge in nicotine, alcohol or drugs (often all three together). She can debase herself by having sex with men—and, sometimes, even women, if a coy lesbian scene in Heroine is anything to go by.
Heroine hasn’t flopped, but it is in no danger of entering the Rs.100-crore club or breaking box-office records. Whenever you despair at the immaturity of Hindi filmmakers, spare a thought for the maturity of the ticket-buying public.
Bhandarkar is, however, not the only male filmmaker to depict actresses on the verge of nervous breakdowns. This is the first and last time Madhur Bhandarkar will be mentioned in the same sentence as Billy Wilder and John Cassavetes, but the fact remains that he isn’t the first filmmaker to have looked at emotionally brittle actresses who implode from within, often slowly, painfully and very, very visibly. The stereotype of the neurotic actress has, ironically, allowed women to do something other than play love interest or therapist’s couch to the male lead. Sometimes, this means acting in capital letters, as though the actress’s career depends on it, but often, it has led to indelible performances.
Male actors can be neurotic, too. Bengali star Uttam Kumar plays a version of himself—a handsome star who’s bedeviled by past memories and present-day anxieties—in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak. But men suffer differently from women. They either laugh at themselves and the world (the entire oeuvre of Woody Allen) or bottle up their experiences without embarrassing themselves and those around them (Jackie Shroff’s depressed movie star in Ram Gopal Varma’s Rangeela). Hysteria is a girl thing, and more than men, women succumb to the pressures of the movie business. That’s what happens when you leave the confines of the kitchen and the bedroom.
Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard , about a borderline insane silent cinema star, is a classic in the Actresses Gone Bonkers sub-genre alongside Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve , in which Bette Davis’s aging theatre star is threatened by Anne Baxter’s scheming upcoming actress. If you ever needed proof that a woman’s worst enemy is a woman, look no further than this black-and-white classic.
Women ached and hurt beautifully in Hollywood films—they may have been mean-spirited and manipulative, but they were always nicely lit and properly dressed. There are no such niceties in Cassavetes’s Opening Night . The American filmmaker’s minutely observed character studies, which were based on an improvisational and naturalistic acting style, are as intimate and disturbing as watching the neighbours fight. Working between the late 1950s and the mid-1980s, Cassavetes created memorable female characters for Gena Rowlands, his wife and frequent collaborator. Rowlands’s alcoholic actress in Opening Night confronts the usual problems that seem to plague members of the tribe (ageing, a badly judged romantic liaison, alcohol addiction). Rowlands’s actress is unsentimental and unsettling, tough and tragic—a great heroine in an unforgettable movie. Opening Night is referenced by Pedro Almodovar, the greatest worshipper of hysterical women ever, in his 1999 movie All About My Mother.
The theme of tortured actresses who are their own worst enemies (and who can’t handle their liquor) resurfaces in the Danish movie Applause . Paprika Steen plays an alcoholic actress who emerges from rehab and tries to forge new connections with her estranged family. Not coincidentally, she is acting in a stage production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The intimate shooting style adopted by director Martin Zandvliet means that Steen’s expressive, gutted face sometimes fills the entire frame. Fortunately for us, Steen is lovely in a heart-wrenching way—she makes us want to simultaneously look at and away from the screen whenever she is on it.
(This weekly series, which will appear on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.)