The immortal Rita Hayworth

Pamela Hutchinson

Pamela Hutchinson on the bold screen idol who was born 100 years ago

17 October 2018 11:02

‘Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me.’ Rita Hayworth, who was born 100 years ago today, always felt overshadowed by the femme fatale she played in Charles Vidor’s electric 1946 film noir, but who wouldn’t? And, then again, was there ever a star as self-conscious about her image as Hayworth? The ‘shy siren’ was as famous, even notorious, as a pinup as she ever was as a star – and not simply because she was so beautiful.

Who could forget the poverty-stricken hero of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), labouring to smooth out the wrinkles in a poster of Hayworth moments before his own personal tragedy? Then, in 1982, Stephen King used a Hayworth pinup as the cover for a prison escape in a short story that was made into massively popular film just over a decade later, The Shawshank Redemption. But it was back in 1946, at the height of her post-Gilda fame, that a Hayworth poster found its most sinister use. As her then-husband Orson Welles bragged on the radio, a magazine picture of Hayworth was pasted on to the nose of the Able atom bomb, which was exploded at Bikini Atoll. Welles may have taken pride in the fact (‘I want my daughter to be able to tell her daughter that grandmother’s picture was on the last atom bomb ever to explode’), but Hayworth was horrified. She was so enraged that the famously reserved actress wanted to hold a press conference dissociating herself from the test, but her studio boss, Harry Cohn, refused to allow that.

It’s impossible to talk about Hayworth without also talking about Cohn, the Columbia executive who signed in 1937 after she was dropped by Fox. She wasn’t called Hayworth then – she was billed as Rita Cansino, and played exotic bit-parts that exploited her dance training. She had been born Marguerite Carmen Cansino to a Spanish father and an Irish-American mother in Brooklyn, New York. Cohn thought her ‘Mediterranean’ appearance was limiting her career, so suggested he adopt her mother’s maiden name instead. He also instigated a classic Hollywood makeover, which involved a diet, bleaching her hair from dark brown to red and electrolysing her hairline. Thus, she was reborn as an all-American redhead with a heart-shaped face. But she never dropped her old identity and the public were well aware of the transformation. ‘I’m a Cansino,’ she proudly told reporters, who called her the ‘Californian Carmen’. In films from You Were Never Lovelier (William A. Seiter, 1942) through to An Affair in Trinidad (Vincent Sherman, 1952), and Gilda, she was placed in a Latin-American setting that reminded audiences of her authentic ethnic identity.

‘Blood and Sand’ (Rouben Mamoulian, 1942)

Cohn presented the new Rita in a small but vital role in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Howard Hawks’s aviation drama, and capitalized on her immediate popularity with a series of supporting roles. It was after she had starred in Blood and Sand (Rouben Mamoulian, 1942), on loan to her old studio, Fox, that Columbia gave her a lead – she made two gossamer musical pictures with Fred Astaire (You’ll Never Get Rich [Sidney Lanfield, 1941] and You Were Never Lovelier), and he later named her his favourite dance partner. Perhaps because her image was later dominated by the siren beauties she played, and because the dubbing of her singing voice was an open secret, her dance skills are often underrated. She’s a terrific dancer: elegant, long-limbed and versatile, and as brilliant opposite Gene Kelly in the effervescent Technicolor musical Cover Girl (Charles Vidor, 1944), which made her the studio’s top star, as she was tapdancing with Astaire, but her most famous dances are rather more static.

As Gilda, Hayworth gave a performance that was provocatively sexual, and fierce. She plays the beautiful, dissatisfied wife of a rich man played by George Macready who one day introduces her to his thuggish young employee Glenn Ford – the man who broke her heart years before. Their toxic reunion turns violent and destructive. In the film’s most memorable scene, Hayworth breathily sings ‘Put the Blame on Mame’, with lyrics that are equal parts feminist rhetoric and red-hot innuendo, while shimmying through the beginnings of a striptease. The censors took exception, but audiences lapped it up – and that pinup on the atom bomb was labelled ‘Gilda’.

‘Cover Girl’ (Charles Vidor, 1944)

Hayworth was every bit as dissatisfied as Gilda, in her own way. She chafed at Columbia, under Cohn’s excessive control. ‘I was under exclusive contract, like they owned me… I think he had my dressing room bugged,’ she later said. ‘He was very possessive of me as a person, he didn’t want me to go out with anybody, have any friends. No one can live that way. So I fought him… You want to know what I think of Harry Cohn? He was a monster.’ Her appearance in her husband Welles’s caustic noir The Lady From Shanghai (1947) with cropped platinum blonde hair can be read as a rejection of the identity he had imposed on her. It was also a vicious portrayal of a doomed relationship, as their marriage was on the rocks too. A year later, Hayworth met Prince Aly Khan, and broke her contract to move to France and marry him, becoming a Princess.

After that marriage broke down, Hayworth returned to Columbia and 1952’s Affair in Trinidad, opposite Ford again, was her Hollywood comeback. Darker, more adult roles followed, including Miss Sadie Thompson (Curtis Bernhardt, 1953), an admittedly sanitised musical version of Somerset Maugham’s gritty novel about a sex worker and the missionary determined to save her soul – in 3D. By 1957, she was performing a striptease again, in the musical Pal Joey (George Sidney). It’s a creepy echo of her Gilda routine, which climaxes with a plea to the audience to undress her (‘I’m not very good at zippers, but maybe if I had some help’). Her Pal Joey character, a wealthy socialite, performs a number from her vaudeville days, under duress from Frank Sinatra’s loutish chancer.  In ‘Zip’, Hayworth repeats the distracted thoughts of a stripper performing a tease: ‘Zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night/ Zip! and I think that Schopenhauer was right’. Although, by this point, Hayworth is playing the older woman, competing with Kim Novak’s ingénue, her role is explicitly sexualized – not least when she stumbles around her boudoir singing ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ the morning after a night with Sinatra. The carefree innocence of Cover Girl is long gone.

It’s for this casual sexuality that Hayworth is best remembered. She could inject a pound of sex appeal into one seemingly innocent blink, years before Marilyn Monroe came on the scene. She is also misremembered as something of a tragic figure, manipulated by a studio boss, scarred by a total of five failed marriages, and finally suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease (which was undiagnosed for several years) before her death in 1987. That’s not the full story though – Hayworth may have been shy in private, but on screen she was a remarkably talented, and bold, performer, and far more fascinating than a cheesecake poster. She wanted to be a star and by hard work she made it. Gilda is immortal, but so is the remarkable woman who played her.