October 17, 1918 – Rita Hayworth was born in Brooklyn 101 years ago today as Margarita Carmen Cansino. The press used the term “The Love Goddess” to describe Hayworth when she had become the most glamorous star of the 1940s. She was the top pin-up girl during World War II. A photo of the gorgeous Hayworth kneeling on a bed in a negligee with a saucy expression on her face certainly helped to win the war, maybe even more than Betty Grable‘s famous pin-up in a bathing suit. Hayworth’s pin-up serves a major plot twist in the film The Shawshank Redemption (1994). But, her iconography has a darker side.
Hayworth was furious when she was told that her image was being put on an atomic bomb that was being tested in the Pacific in 1946. Her second husband, Orson Wells wrote:
“Rita almost went insane, she was so angry.”
Hayworth wanted to hold a press conference and get her image off the bomb, but nasty Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn told her it would seem unpatriotic, and Welles tried to convince her that it was a sincere tribute from the flight crew.
Hayworth’s lack of control over her own image drove her crazy. In her movie Gilda (1946), she plays a femme fatale who finds hatred exciting, but Hayworth’s most famous quote says it all:
“Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me.”
The image that had been created for Hayworth was one that she felt she could never live up to.
Hayworth’s Irish mother had been a Ziegfeld girl; her father was a Spanish dancer. Hayworth began dance class when she was three-years-old. When she was 12 years old, her father started a dance act with her, and he exerted control over every aspect of her life. He also sexually abused her, and the sexuality displayed in her dancing was expected of her as a young teenager.
She signed a contract to Fox studios when she was 17. She was given a very sexually charged dance in Dante’s Inferno (1935). At one point, she lifts her skirt and looks to the heavens. In her films, when she is dancing, there are always moments when she takes power for herself. In Dante’s Inferno, she looks young and innocent until her hair comes down, an effect so incendiary that the nightclub she’s dancing in catches on fire.
Hayworth’s first husband, Edward Judson, was an older man who molded her into a commodity and treated her with cruelty. Judson ordered her to sleep with men who could help her career. One of these was the ruthless Roy Cohn, who expected sex from his female stars as part of the deal. But even though she had become the mistress of Howard Hughes, Rita courageously drew the line at Cohn. Between them, Cohn and Judson completed the transformation from Latina dancer to America’s Love Goddess. She lost 20 pounds, dyed her luxurious hair, and, most extremely, had her hairline raised by electrolysis, a painful procedure that took many months. She also took acting lessons, something she had always wanted to do.
In her first major role, in Howard Hawks‘ Only Angels Have Wings (1939), starring today’s born this day figure, Jean Arthur, her character is talked about for almost an hour before she finally appears looking very elegant, soft-spoken and cautious, a quality she has on screen that mixes vulnerability and wantonness.
Her voice was artificial, breathy and complete created. She had audiences asking what is going on with her? Who is she? Is she real? She was best as a vamp, as in the Technicolor Blood And Sand (1941), where she is simply tantalizingly.
Her most important collaborator was Jack Cole, the foul-mouthed, tough-talking gay choreographer who understood and liked Hayworth and staged her musical numbers, just as he later did for Marilyn Monroe. She tried to be sweet in her musicals with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but she was so much better in Gilda, a distinctly unwholesome picture, where she taunts the camera and her costar, Glenn Ford.
Gilda is all sexy long red hair and innuendo. Her character is an appreciator of pretty men. She gloats over her own allure and physically swaggers, and she is both a powerful woman and Cole’s gay male projection of female sexual power. Put The Blame On Mame, the musical number where she slowly takes off her black gloves, is now iconic, but equally stirring is her singing Amado Mio in a white dress with a bare midriff. Hayworth was always dubbed for musical numbers. This was one more way for Cohn to control and embarrass her. Still, when she is onscreen, she seems to be saying:
“My body is mine and my pleasure is mine, go ahead, have a look.”
Welles puts her front and center in The Lady From Shanghai (1948), where she wears short blonde hair and reveals some existential angst. It is her best performance, especially in the scenes where she allows herself to be bored and crabby.
She is at her most animated in the underrated The Loves Of Carmen (1948), one of the most beautiful Technicolor movies ever made, where she is proactive and in charge.
There was a slow decline after that, which involved a marriage to Prince Aly Khan and then a return to films in Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), where she is exuberantly physical singing The Heat Is On for a bunch of sweaty, horny soldiers. Hayworth continued to work in films after that, but you can see she is tired. Her beautiful face started to look very grim and severe.
She married twice more, to singer Dick Haymes and producer James Hill. She turned to booze, and she began showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease by the early 1960s, but it would not be diagnosed until 1980. In her last difficult years before her passing in 1987, Hayworth was cared for by her daughter Yasmin Aga Khan, who still works for her mother’s Alzheimer charity.
I think Margarita Cansino probably never wanted to be Rita Hayworth. Cole wrote that she worked very impersonally, obediently. But hopefully, there were times when she enjoyed being Rita Hayworth as much as her fans enjoyed watching her.