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Rita Hayworth’s Artful Indecency

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.”

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

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