At the peak of her career, Brazilian singer Carmen Miranda (1909–1955) was the highest paid woman in Hollywood. Known for her colorful outfits and fruit-bedecked headgear, Miranda was one of the first ambassadors of Latin American popular culture. She appeared in more than a dozen movies, often along-side the era's top stars, but was usually typecast as the exotic songstress in the plots. "Many of her compatriots never forgave her for the pastiche of mischief and malaprops that became not only Miranda's trademark Hollywood act but also synonymous with Latin America itself," Mac Margolis wrote in Newsweek International.
Miranda was born in Portugal in February of 1909, and christened Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha. Her parents, Jose and Maria, left the town of Marco de Canaveses, near Oporto, when she was still an infant; they settled in Brazil, home to many Portuguese immigrants. They lived in central Rio de Janeiro and her father worked as a salesperson and a barber. The nick-name "Carmen" dated to Miranda's childhood, when her family reportedly dubbed her that after the Georges Bizet opera by that name.
Sang for Co-Workers
Miranda was raised in a strict Roman Catholic household. Nuns schooled her at the Santa Teresinha convent academy for girls, but her education ended at age 14, when she had to take a job to help support her family. She worked in a Rio department store as a model and millinery sales-woman, and during her breaks she often performed popular Brazilian hit songs to entertain co-workers. When a guitarist overheard one of her impromptu performances, he invited her to sing with him on a local radio show. Soon Miranda was offered a nightclub singing job, but her conservative father strongly opposed the opportunity at first. Reportedly, he changed his mind when he learned of the generous offer and agreed to let her perform, provided he serve as her manager and she not be billed under her family name. Thus, she became "Carmen Miranda."
Miranda recorded a few albums with composer and violinist Josue de Barros, but these failed to catch on with Brazilian listeners. Her breakthrough came in 1930, when she made "Prá Você Gostar de Mim," a traditional Brazilian marcha tune by composer Joubert de Carvalho. The record was a massive hit, propelling Miranda to a string of top-sellers that turned her into one of her country's biggest stars of the 1930s. While not a particularly gifted vocalist, her style was appealing, and she was sometimes billed as "The Singer With The 'It' On Her Voice."
The movie A voz do carnaval, a musical comedy made in Brazil and released in 1933, marked Miranda's big-screen debut. She made several more films, in between a heavy touring schedule that took her across South America several times. She was usually backed by her own five-man band, called Banda da Luna (Band of the Moon). During one of her shows at a casino in the Rio district of Urca, well-known American theater manager Lee Shubert spotted her and offered her a role on Broadway.
Succeeded on Broadway
Miranda arrived in New York in 1939 to perform one song in The Streets of Paris, a musical review at the Broadhurst Theater that ran from June of 1939 until the following February. She sang it in Portuguese, and spoke very little English when she came to New York, but she was game enough to give an interview to promote the show. Her limited vocabulary became a long-running joke in that and subsequent stories in the press about her. She enthusiastically repeated a few words, including "yes," "no," "money," and "hot dog." Though her treatment in the press seemed to reinforce stereotypes about Latin Americans, Miranda's Streets of Paris number was a hit with audiences, and led to an engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. She also made her first film for a Hollywood studio, the musical romance Down Argentine Way, starring Don Ameche and Betty Grable. Miranda was cast as herself in the 1940 release, which was one of the first musicals filmed entirely on location, in both Buenos Aires and New York, due to her still appearing nightly in The Streets of Paris.
Miranda returned to Brazil after the Broadway show closed, but found she was viewed as a traitor. Brazilians asserted she had turned their beloved culture into a joke, and she was ridiculed in the press for selling out. Riots erupted when Down Argentine Way was released in Buenos Aires for its depiction of Argentine customs. Her response was the song "Disseram Que Eu Voltei Americanizada" (They Say I've Become Americanized), which did little to help her land new performances. Hoping to continue her career, she returned to the United States when the Hollywood powerhouse studio 20th Century Fox offered her an exclusive contract.
Miranda was promoted as the "Brazilian Bombshell" by 20th Century Fox and she began appearing in its films as a featured performer. Some were set in South America, and sometimes representatives from the film division of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, a government agency that worked to promote U.S. foreign policy initiatives, offered suggestions on the script or other aspects. The interference was linked to the "Good Neighbor Policy," which had been in effect since the mid-1930s. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to forge better diplomatic relations with Brazil and other South American nations, and pledged to refrain from further military intervention, which had sometimes been done to protect U.S. business interests in industries such as mining or agriculture. Hollywood was asked to help out with the Good Neighbor Policy, and both Walt Disney Studios and 20th Century Fox participated. Miranda was considered the goodwill ambassador and promoter of intercontinental culture.
Inspired Fashion Trends
Miranda became a household name in the United States, thanks to her films and singing engagements. She sang in Portuguese, often accompanied by frenzied gesturing that was widely caricatured as a hallmark of the exotic Latina songstress. She had brought from Brazil her trademark look, which was known as bahiana in her country. The term was taken from Bahia, Brazil, home to many African-Brazilians, and was characterized by many layers of bright fabrics, often with ruffles or rick-rack, along with a turban-style hat. Miranda's look usually featured a long skirt, midriff-baring halter, lots of jewelry, and headgear topped by flowers or fruit. The elaborate banana headdress became her Hollywood trademark, and soon more subdued styles of hats embellished with fake fruit were turning up in millinery collections in department stores. The singer also received credit for starting a trend for platform shoes, which she wore because she was just five feet, three inches tall.
In 1943, Miranda appeared in an extravaganza from noted director Busby Berkeley called The Gang's All Here. Berkeley's musicals were known for their lavish production, and Miranda's role as Dorita featured her number "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat." An optical trick from the set behind her made the fruit-bedecked hat she was wearing appear even larger than humanly possible. By then, Miranda seemed to be locked into such roles as the exotic songstress, and her studio contract even forced her to appear at events in her trademark film costumes, which grew even more outlandish. One song she recorded, "Bananas Is My Business" seemed to pay somewhat ironic tribute to her typecasting.
Miranda became the highest-paid female performer in the United States during World War II. She sang regularly at New York's Copacabana nightclub, where her turban even became part of its logo. She led a subdued personal life, befitting her conservative Roman Catholic background, and did not marry until age 38. Her marriage to David Sebastian, a minor Hollywood producer, was said to have been problematic. Some reports hint that Sebastian was physically abusive, and conspired with the studios to check any ambitions of hers to move beyond her "Brazilian Bombshell" persona. Only once was she ever cast as the romantic lead in a movie, which came in 1947 with Copacabana. She played opposite comedian Groucho Marx, and had a dual role as a spicy Latina performer and blonde French cabaret singer.
Miranda's final film appearance came in 1953 with Scared Stiff, which starred the comedy duo Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Her stage persona had deteriorated by then, with Lewis grotesquely mimicking her style in one scene in the film. By this time, she was a frequent guest on variety shows that were broadcast on a new medium, television. Her last performance came on one early series, The Jimmy Durante Show, in August of 1955. After she finished her song, the show's host came out to applaud her, and Miranda appeared to come close to fainting, but Durante quickly moved to catch her. She smiled, waved, and exited the soundstage, but she died the following day at her home in Beverly Hills, California. Her death was officially reported as a heart attack, but it was later revealed that the 44-year-old star was pregnant, and died of pre-eclampsia, a pregnancy-related condition characterized by high blood pressure and kidney malfunction.
The Brazilian government sent a plane to California to retrieve Miranda's coffin, and a crowd estimated at well above half a million lined the streets of Rio de Janeiro when her funeral cortege made its way to São João Batista cemetery. For a later generation, Miranda was viewed as a contemptible example of Hispanic stereotyping in American popular culture. The subject was explored in a 1995 documentary Carmen Miranda: Bananas is My Business, made by Brazilian filmmaker Helena Solberg. A decade later, Miranda's posthumous reputation seemed to have under-gone rehabilitation, with several events taking place in 2005 that marked the fiftieth anniversary of her death. These included a film and costume retrospective, "Carmen Miranda Forever," at Rio's Museum of Modern Art, and a serious biography written by Ruy Castro, author of several books on Brazilian culture. Brazilians "tend to forget," Castro told Margolis in Newsweek International, that "no Brazilian woman has ever been as popular as Carmen Miranda—in Brazil or anywhere."
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 5: 1951–1955, American Council of Learned Societies, 1977.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses, 4th edition, St. James Press, 2000.
Americas, January-February 1996.
Newsweek International, January 23, 2006.
"Brazilian Bombshell," Palma Louca, http://palmalouca.com/0,,0,33,00.html (January 20, 2006).
Brazilian pop vocalist Bebel Gilberto has bossa in her blood, and boasts a family tree that reads like a Who's Who of Brazilian music. She is the daughter of the bossa nova legend João Gilberto and the singer Miúcha. Her maternal uncle, Chico Buarque de Holanda, is one of Brazil's most revered singer-songwriters. Her stepmother, Astrud Gilberto, put the voice to the quintessential bossa nova song The Girl From Ipanema. After years of lurking musically in the shadow of her elders, Bebel Gilberto seduced international audiences with a bilingual blend of bossa nova and electronica, and firmly carved her own name into the musical family tree.
Bebel Gilberto was born on May 12, 1966, in New York City. Quick to carry on the family tradition, she took singing lessons from her mother and was soon performing in children's choirs as well as in the musicals Pirlimpimpim and Saltimbancos. At age nine, reportedly because her father didn't want to appear, she joined Miúcha onstage with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz in a performance at Carnegie Hall, where many in the audience no doubt recognized the young singer from her appearance on her mother's album two years earlier.
In Brazil Gilberto had some early success as a singer, first appearing on the album Um Certo Geraldo Pereira with Pedrinho Rodrigues in 1983. She also composed songs with the Brazilian pop-rock artist Cazuza. Despite her early musical activity, Gilberto did not make her solo debut until the release of Bebel Gilberto in 1986.
"I like to think I was more of a cult success," Gilberto told the Independent years later. "A lot of my songs, such as Preciso Dizer Que Te Amo, were re-recorded by other artists and were hits, so I knew I was a good songwriter." Escaping the weight of her family name, Gilberto left Rio de Janeiro for New York in 1991, where her musical reputation was unknown and her knowledge of the English language was slight. While working as model, babysitter, and waitress, she continued to dedicate time and energy to her music, quickly landing singing gigs at area bars. Her smooth and sultry voice soon caught the ear of established artists like David Byrne, Arto Lindsay, and Thievery Corporation. In 1991 Gilberto joined Lindsay, Gal Costa, Naná Vasconcelos and Laurie Anderson in an homage to the late performer and Brazilian cultural icon Carmen Miranda. Her abilities as a songwriter became known when the song Technova, co-written with Deee-Lite producer Towa Tei, became a global hit. Other collaborations included vocals on 1994 David Byrne and on a 1996 compilation album Red Hot + Rio.
Despite reported on-again-off-again father-daughter disputes, Bebel and João Gilberto appeared on stage together at her father's Carnegie Hall performance in 1998. The younger Gilberto often noted that her father's fans would show up at her performances expecting more of the same bossa nova sound that he pioneered. What they got was usually quite different.
Gilberto released her first international solo album, Tanto Tempo, in 2000. The album, which the Washington Post later referred to as "a pastel-toned, electronica-inflected update of bossa nova," was arranged by Suba (Mitar Subotic, a Serbian producer based in Brazil), who died in 1999. In addition to previously unreleased songs, Tanto Tempo featured covers of classic bossa nova tunes such as Chico Buarque's "Samba e Amor" and "Samba da Bên&etilde;ão" by Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes. "It's a quiet triumph, a very modern marriage of classic styles and new technology," read a review for the BBC. "No clattering drum machines here, but rather cunningly arranged samples and collages take you even further into a uniquely relaxed state of mind."
Its success in world music circles made Tanto Tempo the third-best-selling Brazilian album ever in North America. It also brought Gilberto two Latin Grammy nominations in 2001 for Best New Artist and Best Música Popular Brasileira Album. An accompanying album, Tanto Tempo (remixes), was released in 2001. Despite the expatriate singer's notable commercial success internationally (Tanto Tempo sold more than 700,000 copies in the United States, Europe, and Japan from 2000-02), she saw more modest sales in Brazil, where the album sold roughly 40,000 copies over the same period.
If some detractors have dismissed Gilberto's sound as little more than "background music," others have been less than enamored of her stage presence. "To be honest, she tries a little too hard," read a Guardian review of one London concert. "She does a lot of rock-star claps, hands above her head, as if she were in a midwestern stadium. She thrusts her mic towards the crowd, who will cheer between numbers but won't chip in on the chorus."
For the recording of her second international album, she had the help of Marius de Vries, a producer known for his work with high-profile female artists like Bjork, Madonna, and Annie Lennox. Gilberto said her choice of a European producer was a partly a means of avoiding an album that was too "Americanized." Appropriately for a Brazilian who had spent much of her adult life living between New York and the United Kingdom, Gilberto recorded her second "autobiographical" album in four cities: New York, London, Rio de Janeiro, and Salvador (Bahia). Compositions by Carlinhos Brown, Daniel Jobim, and Pedro Baby notwithstanding, Gilberto made her mark as songwriter on nine of the album's 12 cuts. Bebel Gilberto was released in 2004.
"I think that I kind of grew up inside of myself, in terms of being a songwriter. On the first album, I was pretty open minded; whatever I did, I didn't know how people were going to react," she said in a press release for Six Degrees Records. "The problem is always the second one: You think, 'Oh, God, if they liked that, I don't know if they're going to like this.' So I really tried to repeat the feeling—the magic—of the first album, but I also thought that I had to move to a more grown-up stage."
Audiences used to relaxing with Gilberto's low-key mix of electronica were confronted with a more classic acoustic sound on the second album. One song familiar to Brazilian music fans was the Caetano Veloso song Baby, with English-language lyrics popularized by the psychedelic band Os Mutantes. It also featured a Japanese guitarist and a string ensemble from the United Kingdom.
"Barely rising above the natural pulse of a nylon guitar hammering gently on the fingerboard, the album forgoes all the superfluous studio trickery and anachronisms that occasionally tarnished Tanto Tempo, replacing the quirky electronica with more traditional and tender Brazilian arrangements," wrote a reviewer for Crud.
A North American tour in late 2004 was scheduled, including concerts in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Gilberto has said that she wants to continue singing for the rest of her life, "like [blues singer] Alberta Hunter ... I want to sing until I'm 90 years old!"
For the Record …
Born on May 12, 1966, in New York, NY; daughter of João Gilberto and Miúcha (Brazilian musicians).
Began singing as a child, appearing in children's choirs and in the professional musicals Pirlimpimpim and Satimbancos; sang at Carnegie Hall at age nine; sang on album Um Certo Geraldo Pereira with Pedrinho Rodrigues, 1983; released Brazilian solo album Bebel Gilberto, 1986; released international debut album, TantoTempo, 2000; followed by Bebel Gilberto, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Six Degrees Records, 540 Hampshire St., San Francisco, CA 94110-1417, website: http://www.sixdegreesrecords.com. Website—Bebel Gilberto Official Website: http://www.bebelgilberto.com/.
Tanto Tempo, Six Degrees, 2000.
Tanto Tempo (remixes), Six Degrees, 2001.
Bebel Gilberto, Six Degrees, 2004.
Entertainment Weekly, March 16, 2001.
Guardian, July 19, 2004.
Independent, June 11, 2004.
Washington Post, June 23, 2004.
"Bebel Gilberto," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (August 12, 2004).
Bebel Official Gilberto Website, http://www.bebelgilberto.com (August 12, 2004).
CliqueMusic, http://www.cliquemusic.com.br (August 12, 2004).
Crud Magazine, http://www.2-4-7-music.com (August 13, 2004).
Público Online, http://jornal.publico.pt (June 4, 2004).
Six Degrees Records Website, http://www.sixdegreesrecords.com (September 1, 2004).
"Tanto Tempo," BBC,http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/world/reviews/gilberto_tanto.shtml (September 2, 2004).
—Brett Allan King
Nationality: Brazilian. Born: Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha in Libson, Portugal, 9 February 1909; grew up in Rio de Janeiro. Career: Radio singer and recording star in Brazil from late 1920s; 1939—debut on Broadway in The Streets of Paris; also appeared at the Waldorf-Astoria; 1940—U.S. film debut in Down Argentine Way as featured act; also appeared on television. Died: Of heart attack, in Beverly Hills, California, 5 August 1955.
Films as Actress:
A voz do carnaval (Gonzaga and Mauro)
Alô, alô, Brasil! (Downey, de Barro, and Ribeiro); Estudantes (Downey)
Alô, alô carnaval! (Gonzaga)
Banana da terra (de Barro)
Down Argentine Way (Cummings) (as herself)
That Night in Rio (Cummings) (as Carmen); Weekend in Havana (Walter Lang) (as Rosita Rivas)
Springtime in the Rockies (Cummings) (as Rosita Murphy)
The Gang's All Here (The Girls He Left Behind) (Berkeley) (as Dorita)
Four Jills in a Jeep (Seiter) (as herself); Greenwich Village (Walter Lang) (as Princess Querida); Something for the Boys (Seiler) (as Chiquita Hart)
Doll Face (Come Back to Me) (Seiler) (as Chita); If I'm Lucky (Seiler) (as Michele O'Toole)
Copacabana (Alfred E. Green) (as Carmen Novarro)
A Date with Judy (Thorpe) (as Rosita Cochellas)
Nancy Goes to Rio (Leonard) (as Marina Rodriguez)
Scared Stiff (George Marshall) (as Carmelita Castinha)
On MIRANDA: books—
Parish, James Robert, The Fox Girls, New York, 1971.
Saia, Luiz Henrique, Carmen Miranda, Sao Paolo, 1984.
Barsante, Cassio Emmanuel, Carmen Miranda, Rio de Janeiro, 1985.
Gil-Montero, Martha, Brazilian Bombshell: The Biography of Carmen Miranda, New York, 1989.
On MIRANDA: articles—
Current Biography 1941, New York, 1941.
Obituary, in New York Times, 6 August 1955.
Konder, Rodolfo, "The Carmen Miranda Museum: Brazilian Bomb-shell Still Box Office in Rio," in Americas, September 1982.
Roberts, S., "'The Lady in the Tutti-frutti Hat,': Carmen Miranda, a Spectacle of Ethnicity," in Cinema Journal (Austin), Spring 1993.
Terrell, Nena, "Helena Soldberg Unmasks a Brazilian Idol," in Americas, January-February 1996.
Osthoff, S., "Orson Welles in Brazil and Carmen Miranda in Hollywood," in Blimp (Graz), Spring 1996.
On MIRANDA: film—
Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business, documentary, directed by Helena Soldberg, 1994.* * *
Carmen Miranda's phenomenal but limited success in Hollywood seems closely linked to the United States's Good Neighbor Policy during World War II and Twentieth Century-Fox's skill at showcasing musical talent. The Good Neighbor Policy encouraged economic, cultural, and military alliance between the United States and Central and South America. Within this political climate, Miranda would fulfill the role of musical "ambassador" between Latin America and the United States, giving American audiences a taste of Brazilian culture. This "taste" however, as nurtured by Fox, proved narrow, highly stereotyped, and offensive to Brazilian audiences.
The most popular singer in Brazil during the 1930s, Miranda recorded more than 100 records, appeared in five films, and conducted nine sold-out South American tours. These credentials brought her to New York City in 1939 to appear in The Streets of Paris. Her stereotyping as a Brazilian "bimbo" began with her first American interview. Hoping to impress with her sparse English she exclaimed, "I say money, money, money and I say hot dog! I say yes, no, and I say money, money, money. . . ." When asked why she learned to say money, Miranda answered, through an interpreter, that everyone who comes to the United States must learn to say money. Financially insightful, but probably not the best first impression to make. Nevertheless, after her six-minute performance garnered unanimous rave reviews, she became the toast of the town. Her costumes set a fashion trend and the samba dominated New York City dance floors.
Her return to Brazil after the show closed proved significantly less triumphant. Held responsible for "Americanizing" and betraying Brazilian culture, Miranda's popularity plummeted. A cruel response from her own people to her Broadway success, but one that became prophetic. When she signed an exclusive contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, she remained essentially a "novelty act" perpetuating her star image as the "Brazilian Bombshell" in film after film.
From Down Argentine Way to Scared Stiff, Miranda was carefully placed as a well-known and tempestuous Latin performer who spoke broken English (her first three films were set in Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba to legitimize her accent) and sang in Portuguese. Her frenetic and incessant gesturing, whether performing or not, suggested a human whirligig. Her clothing copied her Broadway costumes which she brought from South America: Brazilian native dress modeled on the "bahiana," the African vendors of Bahia, Brazil. Their clothing features many layers of brightly colored and differently textured fabric topped with glittering jewelry and flower/fruit hats. Twentieth Century-Fox modified and exaggerated this folk dress until her exotic millinery became her trademark. Busby Berkeley created the ultimate image of Miranda when he made her "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat," in The Gang's All Here. Standing under a forced-perspective set painting that suggested an impossibly gigantic banana hat, Miranda became the stereotyped embodiment of Brazil her people feared.
Even when top-billed, Miranda was never cast as the romantic lead, her non-American mannerisms and sexuality being "unsuitable" for the hero. Miranda's volatile nature juxtaposed the introverted demeanor (hence cultural "acceptability") of the romantic female leads with whom she was often paired: Alice Faye and Vivian Blaine. The only time she was cast as the romantic lead, in Copacabana, she played a dual role that demonstrated her typical position, fluctuating between her usual "Brazilian" performing style and a refined French chanteuse.
Remarkably, given the near caricature of her persona, Miranda became a major musical star and the highest-paid female performer in the United States during World War II. Even though she made only 14 Hollywood films, Miranda's star image is still readily recognized in the United States today. She has been parodied by everyone including Mickey Rooney in Babes on Broadway, Bugs Bunny, Milton Berle, and a number of Gary Larson cartoons. That she should be best remembered for her hats undercuts her talent. Her Brazilian legacy as one of that country's most popular performers provides a more fitting epithet.
—Greg S. Faller