Being Rita Hayworth: Labor, Identity And Hollywood Stardom by Adrienne L. McLean is not a typical celebrity biography. Indeed, McLean suggests that our concept of what it was like to ‘be’ Rita Hayworth is a notional one, based on the image Hayworth created for herself, and ever-changing perceptions of what her image means to us. This book is not an attempt to reveal the events of Hayworth’s life or her offscreen personality, though inevitably both will impact on our understanding of her, and her enduring cultural relevance.
Born Margerita Carmen Cansino in Brooklyn, 1918, she was a professional dancer from an early age. After embarking on a Hollywood career, she decided to anglicise her name in order to escape typecasting as a ‘Spanish dancer’. This new identity, and her stunning beauty, helped to make her one of Hollywood’s biggest stars through World War II and beyond. With her dancing background, Hayworth was well-equipped to star in musicals such as Cover Girl and You Were Never Lovelier, alongside leading men such as Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.
In 1947, Hayworth was crowned by Life magazine as America’s ‘love goddess’. It was a title she loathed. Unlike Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis or Mae West, Rita Hayworth has largely been dismissed by film critics as a passive beauty, performing a merely decorative role in the history of mainstream cinema. Her success has been largely credited to a series of male mentors, including her father (also her first manager and dancing partner), head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, and her second husband, the actor/director Orson Welles.
Hayworth’s private life is often described as unhappy, verging on tragic. In person she was the antithesis of her public image – modest and insecure, but also good-natured and a consummate professional. Nonetheless she rebelled against the tyranny of her studio bosses, and became one of the first actresses to establish her own production company. In recent years, rumours of an abusive childhood have surfaced. Hayworth’s five marriages all ended in divorce, and her career was curtailed in the 1970s when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
By scrutinizing vintage magazine articles, McLean argues that the idea of Hayworth as a working mother torn between love and career, was one that resonated with many women of the postwar era. Hayworth may not have been a ‘feminist’ in the modern sense, but her struggle to find meaning in her own life was empowering to her female fans. This contradicts the stereotype of the vapid sex symbol, manufactured and controlled by men.
When academics refer to Rita Hayworth, it is usually because of her appearance in Orson Welles’ film noir, The Lady From Shanghai. For the role of the femme fatale, Elsa Bannister, Hayworth’s glorious red hair was bleached and cropped. The film was made as the Welles-Hayworth romance collapsed, and her appearance seems to be almost an attack on her star image, which paradoxically seemed to be the epitome of everything Welles despised about Hollywood. Though an interesting curiosity for Welles fans, The Lady From Shanghai was not a fitting showcase for Hayworth’s extraordinary charisma.
Far more interesting is her role as the legendary Gilda. Hayworth’s performance of ‘Put The Blame On Mame’, where she slowly strips off a black glove, is one of the most erotic moments captured on film. Her Gilda may be a temptress, and revels in her own sensuality – but underneath she is fundamentally good, subverting the norm of the wicked woman who leads men astray.
McLean also considers Hayworth’s embodiment of the goddess Terpsichore (and her mortal alter-ego, a showgirl) in the musical fantasy, Down To Earth, and the effect of her dancing in the non-musical thriller, Affair In Trinidad (devised by Valerie Bettis, then one of Hollywood’s few female choreographers.) Hayworth’s vivacious charm transcends the predictable scripts she was given, and films such as these deserve to be reassessed, as McLean has done.
The book ends with the termination of Hayworth’s Columbia contract, making her a free agent and no longer a puppet of the studios. This era led to some of her most critically-acclaimed dramatic performances, in Separate Tables, They Came To Cordura and The Story On Page One, before her illness made it impossible for her to continue working. It is disappointing that McLean does not cover this final phase in more detail, but perhaps she decided not to because it lies outside the borders of the studio system, and therefore the heyday of Hayworth as a movie star.
Overall, this is a groundbreaking study of the career of Rita Hayworth, someone whose name still conjures up the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood even to those who have never seen her films. It is also a reminder of how the male-centred perspective of film criticism tends to underestimate the contribution of women like Hayworth, whose true legacy may be much more than surface glamour.