Rita Hayworth’s Artful Indecency

People talk a lot about the way that Rita Hayworth looked. She was the Hollywood “love goddess,” with a sensational figure, a dazzling smile, and hair that fell in long, auburn waves. The pinup so iconic that her posters were used as avatars of escapist fantasy in Bicycle Thieves, and as a cover-up for a more literal escape in Stephen King’s jailbreak novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The bombshell so voluptuous they pasted her image onto an actual atom bomb. What people don’t talk about enough is what she did on-screen, in front of the camera, to create that effect. That’s partly because we have been told that Rita Hayworth was a fabrication, made by other hands. Those hands belonged to the father who made her his dance partner when she was still a schoolgirl; the Svengali-like first husband, Eddie Judson, who pushed her into the movies; and to Harry Cohn, who ruled over her career, her image, and more at Columbia. Perhaps also to Orson Welles, her second husband and one-time director, or to Fred Astaire, who said she was his best dance partner in the movies.

Margarita Carmen Cansino, born in Brooklyn to a Spanish father and an Irish American mother, first became Latin dancer and supporting player Rita Cansino in B pictures, then redheaded Rita Hayworth the A-list star, all in full view of the public and on the covers of all the fan magazines. There wasn’t a moment of Hayworth’s fame when people didn’t know that she used to look like somebody else, with a different name, a different hair color and ethnicity. Redhead Rita was dubbed “the California Carmen” in the press, and it’s no surprise that many of her films, from You Were Never Lovelier through to Affair in Trinidad and Gilda, had far-flung settings that reminded audiences of her “exotic” former identity.

There was another pretense in her persona. Her screen performances projected a sexual confidence that the shy and sensitive Hayworth didn’t express in private. One of her closest friends in Hollywood, the choreographer Hermes Pan, said: “A whole different personality came out for the camera . . . It was an amazing transformation—or, rather, an amazing combination. You couldn’t believe the two were the same person!” Barbara Leaming’s sensitive biography of Hayworth, If This Was Happiness, lays the blame for this disconnect on the trauma of her childhood, when she was made to dance provocatively in public alongside her father, who sexually abused her in private. In other words, she was used to playing the vamp, under orders, from a young age.

“If you watch Hayworth closely, you can see a woman playing with feminine artifice, constantly at work on the performance—and destruction—of carefully posed allure.”

Gilda

Hayworth’s childhood trauma almost certainly explains her adult sadness and insecurity, but there’s more to discover in her work than a confession of private grief. The complexity of her performances on-screen includes a subtly ironic quality that suggests a knowing self-awareness, a disarming ability to act inside quotation marks. If you watch Hayworth closely, you can see a woman playing with feminine artifice, constantly at work on the performance—and destruction—of carefully posed allure. To take the most extreme examples: in Gilda and Pal Joey, she performs mock stripteases that undercut the form itself. In the former, while she is singing “Put the Blame on Mame” and inching a satin evening glove down her arm, Hayworth’s clear affectation of gaiety reveals Gilda’s desperation. In turn, the risqué lyrics she has been singing quietly throughout the movie are transformed into a cry for help, expressing what film scholar Adrienne L. McLean calls “her pain at being what she is, a woman, one of a sex always blamed when the world goes wrong.”

In Pal Joey’s “Zip” musical number, the tone is more lighthearted as her character, Vera, mimes a strip while singing, “I’m a broad, with a broad, broad mind,” at a private party. In the original stage musical, this song belonged to an entirely different, minor character. Years before, Columbia had wanted Hayworth for the younger woman in Pal Joey, a role ultimately played by Kim Novak, who was roundly boosted by Cohn as her successor at the studio. Giving Hayworth this number gifted her a chance to remind audiences of her younger years, playing the love interest in musical comedies, and naturally of Gilda and her signature number too. As Vera exaggerates her poses and her words delineate the intellectual inner life of a striptease artist, she expresses a clear contempt for the performance of sexual availability and cerebral passivity as required by Hollywood starlets as well as burlesque dancers. 

Even in dramatic scenes, Hayworth’s screen-siren act consists of a series of camera poses as carefully orchestrated as one of her dance numbers. From her love scenes in Raoul Walsh’s romantic comedy The Strawberry Blonde (1941) to her brittle late-career appearance in the adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables (1958), Hayworth maintains a strict control of her posture, powerful and upright, while her seduction mode is a wide-eyed gaze of faux innocence, punctuated by a series of blinks we can read as flirtatious eyelash-fluttering or the tells of a habitual liar. Time and again, Hayworth draws attention to the intentional dishonesty of her character’s pose.

In fact, there’s never been a more artfully indecent actress than Hayworth. Think of her greatest entrance, in her greatest film, Gilda. That extravagant flip of her hair as she bounces into the frame is a camp flourish worthy of the innuendo-laden dialogue—“Gilda, are you decent? “Me?” That move is a shameless come-on, mere sexual bravado, but it’s the tiny shift in her gaze, from right to left, from her husband to her ex-lover, that counts. That’s when her radiant face freezes, and the flirtatiousness stops. Hayworth’s smile fades and her chin juts forward with a smack of belligerence. “Sure, I’m decent.” She even covers up one naked shoulder to prove her words, but the slight flare of her lips reveals the truth: that of course she isn’t decent, not at all.

Hayworth may be lovely to look at, but when she looks back at men, their blood tends to freeze. That’s what happens to Glenn Ford’s Johnny in that scene in Gilda. It happens also to Cary Grant’s Geoff when Hayworth steps down into the barroom in her first serious role, in Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939). By Pal Joey (1957), all it takes is one raised Hayworth eyebrow from the dancefloor to give Frank Sinatra the shivers. In each of these three films there’s a motivation for that chilling effect—she plays a woman from the hero’s past—but there was always something uncanny about Hayworth that suited her to this kind of role.

Pal Joey

“Her dance training gave her an enviable background for screen performance: impeccable deportment and precise control of her body, from head to toe.”

By the time Hayworth first appeared in front of a camera, she had been performing for years but as a dancer, not as an actress. She had her first lessons when she was four years old. She was a graceful and meticulous dancer, confident enough to tackle intricate tap work, elegant in a ballroom hold, and of course completely at ease in the kind of Spanish-influenced steps she first performed in public. Watching her dance reveals her at her very best, and right until the end of her life, when she was in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease, she found solace in music—and movement. That dance training gave her an enviable background for screen performance: impeccable deportment and precise control of her body, from head to toe. She was always wonderful to watch but never what you might call natural. 

Early in Hayworth’s Columbia career, in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), a giddy Astaire musical that otherwise doesn’t make the most of her, she played a chorus girl who purposefully, but undetectably, fluffs her rehearsal so that she can benefit from a one-on-one tutorial from the dance director (Astaire). Later in the film, when she flawlessly performs “So Near and Yet So Far” with him, she looks like elegance itself, gliding in his arms, but the memory of the earlier scene reminds us that her moves are the product of labor, talent, and choice, not divine grace. The song’s lyrics, about a girl who blows hot and cold with her beau, sum up the persona of an actress who could turn seduction on and off with the flip of a switch perfectly. Her craft was a kind of craftiness itself.

She’s better—more complex and more sexual too—in her second pairing with Astaire, You Were Never Lovelier (1942). In this musical remake of an Argentinian rom-com, Hayworth’s character seems to have been inspired by The Taming of the Shrew: a cold-hearted beauty, resistant to romance but not to sex, has to be married off before her sisters can walk down the aisle. She makes another risqué entrance here, dashing into a room brandishing a garter, “something blue” for a bride’s wedding day, and later confesses “Nice girls don’t feel the way I do.” She has a sensual solo number, singing “Dearly Beloved” alone in her bedroom, dressed in a negligee (a languid forerunner of Pal Joey’s “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”), as well as three great routines with Astaire: the title song, “I’m Old-Fashioned,” and the swing number “The Shorty George.” It swiftly became an open secret that Hayworth’s singing voice was dubbed, but the dancing is all hers, and it’s exquisite.

You’ll Never Get Rich

While Hayworth is a rather reserved comedienne in those two films, in 1944’s Cover Girl, Columbia’s first Technicolor musical, she lets rip, in her own way. She plays Rusty, a Brooklynite chorine, aspiring model, and a face from an older man’s past, again, but she’s not solely defined by her romantic connections. She chums around with two male friends, played by Gene Kelly and Phil Silvers, performing incantations over plates of oysters and singing the optimistic anthem “Make Way for Tomorrow” arm-in-arm. In her hilarious model-casting scene with Eve Arden, Rusty acts on malicious advice to “be animated,” allowing Hayworth to lampoon the cutesy schtick she usually avoided. As she enters the room ready to prance and prattle, Hayworth combines a nervous gulp with a sneer of contempt: a visible snort of derision before she launches not so gamely into a spoof of girlish exuberance, flipping her curls and swinging her hips.

The Lady from Shanghai

With the self-consciousness of Hayworth’s persona in mind, The Lady from Shanghai, the 1947 film she made with Welles amid the dying embers of their marriage, becomes a yet more important title in her filmography. Hayworth is stunning in this intoxicating, obliquely photographed tale. She plays a femme fatale, Elsa Bannister, who lures Welles’s Michael into a trap laid by her husband (Everett Sloane). From Hayworth’s chopped and bleached hair to the punishing close-ups and the shattered hall of mirrors in the famous climax, this Brechtian noir is often read as a deliberate destruction of Hayworth’s immaculate Columbia-shaped image. Cohn certainly thought so when he saw the haircut, telling Hayworth, “He’s ruined you.” Whether she is posing like a pageant model on a yacht singing “Please Don’t Kiss Me” or facing the repeated replications of her image in the funhouse finale, the film highlights the inherently inauthentic allure of Hayworth the pinup. That song was added at Cohn’s insistence, as were several of her close-ups, inserted in postproduction—but arguably in vain. Hayworth’s icily ironic performance, just as much as Welles’s tilted camera, ensures that there’s little here that recalls the healthy, straightforward sex appeal of her studio pinups. Hayworth had been chipping away at that picture for years, creating a femme fatale out of her own star image—a beautiful but deadly siren. 

“I’ve never really thought of myself as a sex goddess,” Hayworth once said, “more as a comedienne who could dance.” With the flip of her hair or the blink of an eye, Hayworth had a witty way of reminding you that she was more than a pretty face on a poster, a symbol of someone else’s desire. It’s this duality that makes her musical comedies so rewarding and her noirs so lethally exciting. To echo the tagline on the posters for Gilda, there never was a woman like Rita.


A series of films starring Rita Hayworth are playing now on the Criterion Channel.