Hayworth, Rita (1918-1987)

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Hayworth, Rita (1918-1987)

The most glamorous Hollywood screen idol of the 1940s, it was Rita Hayworth for whom the press coined the phrase "love goddess." Expertly packaged and produced by various different men throughout her career, Rita Hayworth was transformed from a half-Spanish dancing girl into an "American classic" and the favorite pin-up to thousands of GIs. Best known for her role as the femme fatale Gilda in Charles Vidor's 1946 film of the same name, she embodied a dangerous brand of femininity.

She was born Margarita Carmen Cansino in Queens, New York, to an Irish mother and Spanish father. The Cansinos were a family of professional dancers. "They had me dancing almost as soon as I could walk," Hayworth later recalled. As a voluptuous thirteen-yearold Hayworth became her father's co-star and began captivating audiences with her sensual stage presence. It was in 1933 that Hayworth was spotted by executives from the Fox Studios and was given her first break as a dancer in the epic Dante's Inferno. After a string of second-rate movies, her contract at Fox was terminated when her mentor Winfield Sheehan was fired and she was subsequently dropped. She then met the middle-aged Edward Judson, a shrewd businessman who saw her as a marketable product. They married in 1937. Judson negotiated her contract at Columbia, where she was to work for the next twenty years for the tyrannical Harry Cohn, who treated her as a "combination daughter, slave and financial investment." Between them, Judson and Cohn created her new image, removing all traces of Latiness: her surname was changed to the Anglo "Hayworth," a new spelling of her mother's maiden name, her low hairline was lifted by electrolysis and her hair dyed auburn. These flowing auburn locks became Hayworth's trademark; directors would urge her to "act with her hair" which she does unforgettably on her entrance in Gilda.

At Columbia, Hayworth's break as a serious actress came with the film Only Angels Have Wings (1938) with Cary Grant. Her success in this picture and a subsequent photo shoot for Life magazine turned her into a real star. She starred in a couple of musicals with Fred Astaire, You'll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1944), and the couple caught the public's imagination. Astaire allegedly named her as his favorite dancing partner. Hayworth had her biggest success with the movie Cover Girl (1944) with Gene Kelly. Divorced from Judson since 1942, Hayworth announced she had married noted director and wunderkind Orson Welles during the shooting of Cover Girl.

Gossip columnists were puzzled by this match between Beauty and Brains, but the couple were famously smitten by each other. In 1944 Hayworth gave birth to a baby girl, Rebecca, but by 1946 the marriage had ended. That same year Hayworth starred in Gilda. The ad line announced, "There never was a woman like Gilda"; Hayworth was soon to learn that there was never a role like Gilda either. The film is a tale of a destructive love triangle, in the words of the leading man Glenn Ford, about "how hate can be as exciting an emotion as love." Hayworth's mesmerizing dance routine to the song "Put the Blame on Mame," in which she performs a partial strip tease, removing two long black satin gloves and throwing them to the crowd, is highly erotically charged. In a concession to the film censors, the script later reveals Gilda's virtue, she had only pretended to be a tramp to incense her lover. The film was a box-office smash.

In 1948 Harry Cohn assigned Hayworth to work with her estranged husband Orson Welles on The Lady from Shanghai. Hayworth played the "preying mantis" Elsa, a twisted version of Gilda upon whose fame Welles was hoping to cash in. Welles, in a characteristically maverick move, had Hayworth's hair cropped short and bleached blonde for the part. Hayworth's new hair was not a success with her fans nor with her boss at Columbia and the film flopped. Cohn rushed through Hayworth's next movie The Loves of Carmen for release that same year to soften the blow.

Later that year Hayworth went on a trip to Europe, where she met and fell in love with the international playboy Prince Aly Khan. Their subsequent marriage made Hayworth a princess. Aly had been entranced by the film Gilda, as was often the case with the men in her life. Hayworth remarked sadly to a friend, "Every man I've known has fallen in love with Gilda and woken up with me."

Hayworth's comeback movie Affair in Trinidad (1952), in which she starred with Glenn Ford again, was the last time she played the central sex symbol. Hayworth continued to work consistently throughout the 1950s while her personal life continued in its disastrous vein, with two more marriages that both ended in divorce. She began to suffer from alcoholism and later on from Alzheimer's; after a long struggle with the disease she died in 1987. Her last film was The Wrath of God at MGM in 1972.

Hayworth was a typical product of Hollywood, transformed from Margarita Cansino and relentlessly promoted by husbands, directors, and studio bosses. Adored by men but also admired by women, she was the symbol of American glamor and beauty of the time. Although she played a catalog of siren roles, including the legendary Carmen and Salome, in reality she was the exact reverse: unassuming, reserved, and eager to please. Ultimately Rita Hayworth was the hardest role for the reserved Margarita Cansino and playing it took its toll upon her life.

—Candida Taylor

Further Reading:

Friedrich, Otto. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s. London, Headline, 1987.

Kobal, John. Rita Hayworth: The Time, the Place and the Woman. London, W. H. Allen, 1977.

Leaming, Barbara. If This Was Happiness: The Life of Rita Hayworth. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989.

Morella, Joe, and Edward, Z. Epstein. Rita: The Life of Rita Hayworth. New York, Delacorte Press, 1983.

Ringgold, Gene. The Films of Rita Hayworth—The Legend and Career of a Love Goddess. New York, Citadel Press, 1974.

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Hayworth, Rita (1918-1987)

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